St. Clair Detrick-Jules: “Low self-esteem can lead to a lack of self-worth”

Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, a clinical psychologist and hairstylist, argues that, for many Black women and girls, there’s a link between hair and mental health because “there’s a mismatch between how they want to look and how they are actually looking at the moment,” which can lead to “hair depression.” Low self-esteem can lead to a […]

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Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, a clinical psychologist and hairstylist, argues that, for many Black women and girls, there’s a link between hair and mental health because “there’s a mismatch between how they want to look and how they are actually looking at the moment,” which can lead to “hair depression.” Low self-esteem can lead to a lack of self-worth — and it’s hard not to feel that low self-esteem when natural Black hair is often seen by society as less beautiful.

As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Understand About Hair Discrimination,” I had the pleasure of interviewing St. Clair Detrick-Jules.

An Afro-Caribbean-American artist who remains rooted in her community, St. Clair Detrick-Jules grounds her work in radical love, joy, and the knowledge that a more just world is possible. An award-winning filmmaker, photographer, author, activist, and recent Brown University graduate, Detrick-Jules captures personal stories and intimate moments centering Black liberation, immigrant justice, and women’s rights. St. Clair Detrick-Jules debut book My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories from the Sisterhood stands as a joyful witness to the current repositioning of our cultural landscape as the natural hair movement comes into full bloom.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit of your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

My mom is American, my dad is Afro-Caribbean, and I was born and raised as an only child (my little siblings weren’t born until I was in high school and college) in Washington, DC, back when it was still called “Chocolate City.” My neighborhood luckily still has a lot of Black and Brown residents, and I’m really grateful for that because aside from my dad, I didn’t have any other Black family members in the US.

My mom has also always made our home a landing pad for anyone who needed a place to stay, whether it be for a few weeks or a few years, so as a kid I got to live with — and hear stories from — immigrants, Latinx folks, Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, and people of all races from other parts of the US. In hindsight, I think this close exposure to so many different cultures and backgrounds from a young age fostered my love of storytelling.

Can you tell us a story about what inspired you to become a natural hair advocate?

Long story short: my little sister Khloe. When I was finishing up my last semester at Brown, I got a call from my dad telling me that my then-four-year-old sister was crying because her white classmates had bullied her into hating her afro. I remembered all the childhood years I’d spent hating my natural hair — looking in the mirror and wishing I was someone else — and I got angry. But while my anger was justified, I knew it wasn’t going to help Khloe in any tangible way. So I figured: Okay, I can either stay angry about the lack of representation of natural Black hair in the media, or I can create my own media for my little sister that highlights the beauty of our crowns. Obviously, I chose the latter!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

While I was in New York City photographing and interviewing women for My Beautiful Black Hair, I met up with a group of three Black girls just finishing their senior year of high school. They’d been good friends throughout high school, but when they started talking about their natural hair journeys, they delved into territory I could tell they hadn’t shared before. They talked about body image, about skin bleaching, about identity. They did something so many high schoolers (and adults) are afraid to do: they were vulnerable with each other. I realized in that moment that there is strength in vulnerability, and that there is healing in storytelling — both for those who share and for those who listen.

As a creative, you have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. In fact, perhaps most people who tried to follow a career path like yours did not succeed. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but know that their dreams might be dashed? You can speak to filmmaking, photography, and/or the book.

I’m a big believer in following your dreams, and my biggest advice is to just start where you are. When I decided I wanted to get into filmmaking, I made my first docu-series on a cell phone camera. When I decided to create a photobook to teach my sister to love her afro, I grabbed my husband’s old Canon Rebel T4i and started taking pictures. When I decided I wanted to publish my book so more people would be able to see it aside from my sister, I bought a book with a list of literary agents and started sending out query pitches.

I also think it’s important to be patient — the narrative of overnight success works well in Hollywood movies, but in real life, things take time. Trust the process. And it’s so important to surround yourself with people who lift you up and support your dreams — for example, I couldn’t have done any of this without my husband, who will drop anything to fix any and all technical issues I come across, and who will also run out and grab me a couple pupusas (a Salvadoran food) when I’m feeling down and need some joy.

Can you share 3 ideas that anyone can use “to feel beautiful”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. In her letter to Khloe in My Beautiful Black Hair, Hassiet offers this advice: “Look in the mirror and say, ‘I love my hair. I’m different, but I love it. I don’t have to be beautiful in the same way as everyone else.’” It often feels like there’s a little voice inside my head that’s constantly judging my physical appearance, and the negative self-talk can be pretty draining. Especially for women, it’s so ingrained in us that we’re not supposed to love ourselves, that we’re supposed to constantly find “flaws.” So now I follow Hassiet’s advice of drowning out that negative self-talk with affirmations spoken aloud.
  2. Remind yourself that your body is your home! Your body is what allows you to experience all the beauty of the world. It carries you through your toughest days, and it celebrates with you during moments of joy. It’s constantly working to love and protect you. The heart beats a hundred thousand times a day to keep us alive. Knowing how much our bodies love us, I think it’s only fair that we love our bodies in return.
  3. This last suggestion is a bit more conceptual, but I like to think of all of us humans as part of the fabric of the universe, which is both infinite and infinitely beautiful. And therefore, we are all beautiful, too. For Black women and girls, I also love Catherine’s advice in My Beautiful Black Hair: “I hope that every Black girl knows that whatever beauty she sees in other people is already in her as well.” After all, our hair is a gift from our ancestors, and by embracing our hair — and all of our physical appearance — we embrace the strength of those who came before us. So I’d say: Remind yourself that you’re a mirror of the infinite, beautiful universe — you always were, and you always will be.

Can you share with our readers some of your techniques to style natural hair?

To what extent does our exterior — including our hair — define us? Is it possible for us to create an identity that is disconnected from our exterior? Describe the different ways in which the women in My Beautiful Black Hair see their hair in relation to their identity.

It sounds like a paradox, but I think it’s true: for so many of us Black women, our hair is both a question of genetics and simultaneously a marker of our Black identity in a world in which race is a social, not a biological, construct. On the one hand, it’s just hair: it grows out of our heads. On the other hand, it’s how we present ourselves to the world. As Brigid Carmichael explains in My Beautiful Black Hair, Black women “go through this world making people react or making them think or provoking them. Even if we’re not doing anything.”

Because of how Black women’s hair is perceived in the US and across the globe, our hair — and how we decide to wear it — almost always carries a deeper meaning. Every woman in the book has a different hair story, and several of them mention having to rediscover themselves — their identities — after going natural. For some, going natural went hand-in-hand with them embracing their Blackness for the first time and establishing their pride. “When you wear an afro,” Brigid explains, “you don’t have to say much else about your identity.”

While I think it’s difficult to create an identity that’s disconnected from our exterior, there are a couple women in the book who’ve established clear boundaries between their physical appearance and their internal selves. Candy Schibli, for example, says that she was able to easily shave her locs when they were bothering her because, as she explains, “I don’t necessarily feel like my hair is a huge part of my identity.”

I like that these multiple truths can exist simultaneously, and I’m still trying to figure out my personal truth when it comes to the connection between my curly hair and my identity as a Black woman.

Can you share some of your techniques about how to best maintain natural hair?

According to a recent study by Dove, Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional. How do the women of My Beautiful Black Hair shatter these stereotypes? Why is this critically important?

Ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s dangerous. The stereotype that natural Black hair isn’t “professional” has cost Black women financially. We’ve had to actually file lawsuits in order to get our jobs back when fired for not having “professional” hair, we’ve lost jobs and income and have struggled to support our families, and we’ve lost just the freedom of living our lives in the workplace free of misperceptions held by those around us who constantly feel empowered to tell us what’s wrong with our hair. For our financial and our mental health, we have to show these stereotypes for what they are: vestiges of a country which criminalized Blackness. To that end, while My Beautiful Black Hair is first and foremost an affirmation for Black women and girls that their natural hair is beautiful, I have a clear eye on the fact that non-Black folks can learn from the narratives in the book and question their own internal stereotypes and beliefs about natural Black hair. That’s important to me, and I hope that non-Black communities will be up for listening to the stories in the book and reflecting on ways they, too, can be allies in our liberation movement — especially since the liberation of all marginalized groups is intertwined.

I hope my book shows that Black hair is not only beautiful, but also professional. The women featured in My Beautiful Black Hair work in the arts, in medicine, in engineering, in business, in technology, in education, in communications, in entertainment… The list goes on. And all of these women, including those who work in an office setting, are proof that natural hair is professional — in every field.

Zahra Ahmed spoke in the book about cultural relativism — the ways that we tend to analyze someone else based on our own parameters. She notes that that’s commonplace but not inevitable. “There’s a whole spectrum [of hair textures] that we can embrace,” she says. “We just need to expand our idea of what we can live around.”

Ok super. Articulate to our readers your “Five Things You Need To Understand About Hair Discrimination.” If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Black women’s hair is 3.4 times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional, and Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from work due to their hair.
  2. When compared to White women, Black women are 80% more likely to feel the need to straighten their hair to fit in at the office.
  3. Black students — both girls and boys — are disproportionately penalized at school for wearing their natural hair. As Kamarah Noel recalls in My Beautiful Black Hair, the first time she went to school with her natural curls without using a flat iron, her headmaster told her, “Your hair is actually against dress code” and sent her home.
  4. Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, a clinical psychologist and hairstylist, argues that, for many Black women and girls, there’s a link between hair and mental health because “there’s a mismatch between how they want to look and how they are actually looking at the moment,” which can lead to “hair depression.” Low self-esteem can lead to a lack of self-worth — and it’s hard not to feel that low self-esteem when natural Black hair is often seen by society as less beautiful.
  5. In 2019, the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, which aims to end discrimination against race-based hairstyles (such as afros and other Afrocentric hairstyles) in the workplace and in public schools, was passed in California. Since then, several other states have followed California’s lead and have either already passed or are working to pass the CROWN Act as well.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Sometimes the fear does not subside and you must do it afraid.” — Elisabeth Elliot

Being an artist — and especially creating art that’s so personal — can be scary because once your art is out in the world, the world gets to judge it. And if people criticize your art, it can feel like an attack on a piece of you. But learning to be vulnerable and putting yourself out there despite the fear is also incredibly liberating; by sharing my photos and my films and my journalism work with the world, I get to share my authentic self with the world. And in the case of My Beautiful Black Hair, it’s not just me, but 101 other Black women who have embraced their natural hair — oftentimes in spite of their fears of judgement — who are sharing their truths with the world.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂

So many people! As a Black woman whose work often stands at the intersection of documentary filmmaking and social justice, I would love to meet Ava DuVernay.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can learn more about me and my book My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories from the Sisterhood at Folks can also find me and say hi on Instagram at @stclairdetrickjules, and if they want specific hair-related content, they can go to @mybeautifulblackhair. Oh, and I’m also on Twitter at @stclair_dj.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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