The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her daughter was taught to think her Afro wasn’t ‘normal.’ So she created a billboard to change that.

Lekia Lée is pictured with her daughter, Siira, wearing the same shirt worn by the women in the billboard. (Courtesy of Lekia Lée)

When Lekia Lée’s daughter was 3, she would compliment various women in public about their hair. But Lée soon noticed the only hair she would compliment was straight, smooth hair, which looked nothing like what the toddler saw in the mirror: naturally textured Afro hair.

“I said, “ ‘Wow, she is already recognizing that is the only way to have great hair,’ ” Lée, a London resident of Nigerian heritage, told The Washington Post. She realized that many of her daughter’s friends with similar naturally curly or coiled hair felt the same way. When they saw images of beauty in advertisements, on television or elsewhere, the hair rarely reflected their own.

“Black women are generally not born with straight hair,” Lée said. “That’s basically saying black women are not beautiful.”

But for the past two weeks, her daughter Siira, now 11, has been able to see herself on a billboard among the images of girls and women featured wearing their hair naturally. None are professional models. Lée created the billboard, which went up for International Women’s Day on March 8, to show young black girls like Siira that their hair is beautiful and that they should wear it as naturally and as boldly as they please.

Lée has been working toward raising the money to rent the billboard since 2011. When crowdfunding didn’t work, the mother decided to go straight to the billboard companies, asking them to donate a space to the cause. Finally, a company — UK Billboards — agreed, placing two billboards with the hashtag #afrovisibility. The signs will be taken down Wednesday.

The advertisement, Lée said, is meant to send the message: “This is how I am, this is how I look. Why should I be pressured to look differently from who I am?”

The billboard’s launch comes amid what Lée and others consider a modern revival in the natural hair movement. It’s visible among women in fashion, among Hollywood actresses such Halle Berry and Solange Knowles, and in salons now embracing naturally coily, curly and Afro hair. In recent years, a growing number of brands in the United States have launched products catering to curly and textured hair. Department stores and pharmacies have begun carrying more brands specifically for such hair, stocking their shelves with brands such as Shea Moisture, DevaCurl and Miss Jessie’s.

This move toward natural hair also takes place in the wake of health concerns about relaxers, which in recent years have been linked to fibroids.

“A lot of women are actually realizing the way in which we treated our hair was actually not ‘hair care,’ ” Lée said. “It was really more focused on how to keep our hair straight for as long as possible. Actually it’s quite damaging for our hair and our health.”

Of course, this is not the first time in history that such a wave of natural hairstyles has emerged. The Afro hairstyle grew in popularity in the 1960s during the civil rights movement as a symbol of rebellion and an assertion of black identity in contrast to previous trends inspired by mainstream white fashions, the BBC reported.

Today’s trend is somewhat different, Lée said. “Now it’s about that still, but it’s also about beauty, and health,” she said. It’s less about rebellion and more about women embracing the hair they were born with.

“The problem remains, however, that while we may style our hair to reflect our own individual choices, our hair is still being interpreted by a white mainstream gaze and that interpretation is often wrong as well as racist,” Lori Tharps, co-author of “Hair Story,” a book about the history of black hair, told the BBC. “Too many people still make assumptions that an Afro implies some sort of militancy or that wearing dreadlocks means a predilection for smoking pot.”

Despite this revival and enhanced access to natural hair products, Lée said, the marketing and images of beauty in society still do not reflect the diversity in women’s hair. Neither do expectations in schools or in the workforce.

In January, a black woman applying for work at Harrods in London was told she would not get the role unless she chemically straightened her hair, because her natural hair was deemed “unprofessional.”

Last year, an employee at a Zara store in Toronto wearing her hair in braids was told by a manager that it was “not the look for Zara.”

In 2015, a local television anchor in North Carolina spurred a national conversation with a video she posted online about the station’s new intern, who was told her naturally curly hair was “too big” and “distracting” so she would have to straighten it.

A recent study by the Perception Institute confirmed that many people — including black people — have a bias against the types and styles of natural hair worn by black people, NPR reported.

Comedian Phoebe Robinson recently wrote about the issue in her book about being black and female in America, titled, “You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain.”

“Black hair seems to raise a lot of nonblack people’s blood pressure,” she writes. “I’ve seen the gamut of emotion on people’s faces — awe, confusion, stress, anger, joy, amazement, suspicion, envy, attraction, you name it — because we, and I’m using the royal we, as in society, have never figured out how to have a healthy, functional relationship with black hair.”

Even Lée’s daughter, Siira, came home one recent afternoon frustrated with her hair, which her mother calls her “halo.” That day, a girl at school had said her hair was not “normal,” asking her, “Why is your hair like that?”

“There’s nothing more normal in my daughter than her hair,” Lée said. “I think it’s a shame that we have to normalize something that is just so natural to so many women.”

Through the organization Lée created, called Project Embrace, Lée hopes to launch more billboard campaigns to continue encouraging what she calls “visibility” of Afros and natural hair.

When the billboard went up two weeks ago, Lée and her daughter took the train to the area to try to spot it.

Walking near the sign, Lée said to her daughter, “I see it! Look!” They were both shrieking.

“Oh, my God, look at it!” her daughter said. “I want my friends to see it in school!”

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