It was ‘70s day at my high school more than 20 years ago, and in tribute to those glory days of bellbottoms and leisure suits, I wanted my hair to match my oh-so-hip disco queen getup. I had no idea how to shape my flat-ironed black hair into an Afro back then, but I remembered how curly my hair would get after going swimming, so I decided to wash it, let it air dry and see what happened.
I was impressed at the results – so much so, I considered wearing my hair in that style more frequently. Throughout the day, classmates kept calling me Freddie, the eclectic hippie college student actress Cree Summer played on the popular late ‘80s-early ‘90s sitcom A Different World.
Since I was too young to actually remember the ‘70s, Freddie was the first person I remember sporting natural hair on television. Seeing how few regular folks were going natural at that time, she was arguably the most visible natural those of us coming of age in the early 1990s had to emulate. Since my hair and skin tone slightly resembled hers, Freddie it was.
Summer might have been my first hair idol, even if I wasn’t deliberately trying to get her ‘do when I first wore my hair in its natural state. But the sense of freedom, style and “cool” she radiated stayed with me as I made a more permanent journey into natural hair a few years later.
Fast forward a decade, and natural hair became a more common sight, although it was still in the early days of what many now call the natural hair “movement.” In the mid-2000s, I was now “Joan,” the quirky character actress Tracee Ellis Ross played on the TV sitcom Girlfriends. Even though Ross has looser curls and a few extra inches of height on me, the comparison stuck – her look was close enough to mine for people to make the comparison.
Today, there are plenty of women on stage and screen to idolize when it comes to looking for natural hair inspiration. From Scarlett Johansson’s loose waves to the close-cropped coils of Viola Davis’ natural fro, television and film stars are leading the way in setting hair trends for curly girls across North America.
Commercials and print advertisements might be even better. Beautifully Afro’d lovelies grace my screens as they buy cell phones, use credit cards or pose as moms-next-door with their on-screen families. Their presence is so normal, as if to subtly make the point that big, curly hair isn’t a big deal. It’s just the natural way to look.
Which might be why the celebrity comparisons are few and far between these days. My style is growing more common, and onlookers have a frame of reference when discussing it. We speak the language of twist-outs, freeforms and co-washing, and trade tips about our favorite curly hair products, websites and Vloggers.
Still, there’s reason for me to continue idolizing women like Summer and Ross. Just when I thought I couldn’t love Ross more, she gained a fan for life when she wrote about the importance of showing black women with natural hair on primetime television in an essay for Entertainment Weekly. Now starring in the sitcom black-ish, Ross continues to wear her hair unashamedly big and proud.
“You hire me, you hire my hair…” she said.
It’s a message I can live by. I am my hair.
Written By: Shannon Shelton Miller
Since going natural in college more than 10 years ago (wow, time flies), Shannons hair journey has taken her through life in humid and dry climates, product junkie-ism, hair show modeling, wedding-hair styling and now, the world of “mom” hair. Shannon lives in Ohio with her husband and 1-year-old son, and continues to enjoy exploring the world of curly hair.