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OPINION: Straight hair is good hair. The things we teach young children

She stared at herself in the mirror, pulling at her curls and smiling. Precocious and three years old, it was not an image she was familiar with. Then she turned to me, touched my hair and said: "Aunty, I look like you".

Many women in my family have these natural curls, but very few wears these curls. They are manipulated and masked by GHDs, blowdryers, relaxers and stockings cut off at their base and swirled around heads, to become repositories and custodians of silky stands at night.

My mixed-raced family, with a wide-ranging and diverse ancestry, has a range of hair types, textures and colours. Hair colours range from blonde to red, black and brown, and shades in-between, and textures stretch from tightly coiled curls to looser waves, or poker-straight, shiny tresses that lie flat and never betray their form, or 'go home', and is always regarded as 'good hair'.

But the one through-line that connects many of these types is that hair in its natural, curly state is rarely seen, rarely validated and rarely regarded as beautiful.

Some simply don't know what their hair looks like in its natural state, having straightened it since their youth, while others would not dare venture beyond the neat confines of the little box that we have placed beauty in, where straight hair has become everything: defining beauty, sought after and ardently pursued.

From when I was around 10 years old, when I had my first reverse-perm, until my university years, I did not know I had these curls, either. It was only when I curiously undertook an experiment in growing out my relaxed hair, as I wondered what my natural hair look like, that I realised I have a mass of curls that form the colossal afro that I have grown to fervently love.

Some will say 'it's just hair'. But it's not. Hair is a whole world. Hair is politics.

As Stacia L Brown writes on raising free-spirited black girls: Hair becomes a 'Life altering concern', 'where teachers may mock them on Facebook about it or, worse, send them home or threaten them with expulsion for wearing it natural.'

Simply put: Hair matters because everyday practises and things that appear banal or normal, are not uncomplicated.

Remarking on the intersection of hair and beauty, Zimitri Erasmus writes: "Hairstyling and texturising were (and still are) key beautification practices in the making of womanhood among young coloured women. In my community practices such as curling or straightening one's hair carried a stigma of shame." It is a statement that echoes throughout communities of colour on our own soil, across the world.

I felt the sting of this shame, visiting a popular, upmarket salon chain to get my hair done. It reverberated through the whispers of patrons as my hair was being combed out - a process that takes at least thirty minutes - and other hairdressers who walked past, remarking different variations of 'rather you than me' to my hairdresser. It was an awkward and humiliating experience that has been replicated many times, in other salons.

The question Malcolm X asked, "who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?" has many interlinked answers. We are taught through various mediums and messages to dislike our hair in its natural state.

The historical roots of this shame are embedded in various forms of messaging, it is found in population registration and its pencil tests for some communities, it is linked to race, skin colour and the vilification of natural features across history, and found in the deeply political idea of what good and bad hair has become.

These ideas are expressed in the various ways that we have internalised, reproduced and cemented this messaging in our personal relationships, families and communities, and the way different media play-back dominant ideas of beauty on a seemingly endless loop.

The weight of bearing this is expressed in Paulette Caldwell's statement from Hair Piece, where she writes: "I want to know my hair again, the way I knew it before I knew that my hair is me, before I lost the right to me, before I knew that the burden of beauty or lack of it for an entire race of people could be tied up with my hair and me."

Brown's article encompasses many of the lessons that I am trying to teach my niece and goddaughter, particularly where she states: "I am trying to raise a free-spirited black daughter, one who will fully inhabit every room she enters without shrinking, recoiling or trying to will herself invisible at the approach of a bully, a charming boy or an abrasive authority figure. I am trying to raise her to believe she belongs anywhere she dares to venture, can pursue any safe activity she chooses, can twirl or belt out a song in public. I want her to believe she can take risks."

The things we say to young children, and the messages that they receive, verbal or otherwise, have a deep and often lasting impact on how they make and understand themselves.

I want my niece to live in a world that allows her uncompromised choice, a world that we still need to create, where she sees images of what is 'pretty' that both look like her and express a range of different kinds of beauty. A world where she is exposed to books, magazine covers and films that do not limit her understanding of what is possible, and what she is capable of. One aspect of this is being a living testament of this, and conscious of the messages I communicate to her, while another is ensuring that when she looks in the mirror, from the curls on her hair, colour of her skin and beyond, she sees infinite possibilities.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.