Interviewed by Kimber Monroe. Photography by Joana Meurkens
In a society that values whiteness and one’s ability to approximate it, hair can be a battleground. In Hair Stories, we wrestle with what it means to love yourself through your relationship with hair and others’ perception of it. Through interviews with our editors, contributors and community members, we journey through what beauty means in different cultures and the narratives woven into our locs. Where do our hair preferences and grievances come from? What does our hair tell us about our family history, our culture, our people? In this series, we interview and photograph people from different diasporas, to get the root of their hair story. We ask them; what does your hair symbolize to you?
I’m so excited to be back for Hair Stories. In this column, we speak with a lot of people about their journeys toward acceptance and love when it comes down to hair. It’s not easy to exist in our society if you don’t fit into the Eurocentric ideals of beauty, but the individuals we’ve featured in this section are changing that by celebrating their individuality and self-expression through their hair and existence.
One individual that truly stands in her power with her hair and her presence is model and actor Joi Broughton. Joi and I met through the social media channels and have become close friends as we navigate the NYC acting scene as two women of color. Joi has not only been a consistently wonderful friend and peer, but she is an actual motherfucking icon. I was so honored to feature Joi for Issue 8 of Mixed Mag, and I hope that you readers will walk away from this conversation with the courage and inspiration to definitely take up space wherever you may find yourselves.
What’s your racial background/cultural heritage?
Joi: My racial background is Black and white. I’m from the Bahamas, all my family members are from the Bahamas, as far as I know and my history.
How is hair texture perceived in your culture? Is there such a thing as good/ bad hair in your culture?
Joi: Absolutely. I was literally just in a meeting for another project on hair that I’ll be working on, and I was talking to the producers about the experience of when I first went natural at home. It was very frowned upon. It was a lot of, “Why didn’t you fix your hair today? You think you’re gonna go to school like that? You think you’re gonna go to church like that?” “You’re bugging.” People were always suggesting I perm my hair, put it in a bun, straighten it, always insinuating it would look much better. And there’s definitely such a thing as good hair vs bad hair, I mean – back home, people used to say, “Oo her hair picky, hair peasy”. These are things that we say at home. Similar to how in America, people will say “nappy”. Natural hair was a thing that was not okay to have. Your hair has to be straight, it has to be kept in our “acceptable” boundaries. Basically some Euro-centric bullshit. So when I came through with the hair, it’s safe to say it shocked a lot of people.
Have you always felt comfortable & confident with your hair? Do you remember a time when you became aware of your hair as being different or other?
I think I was comfortable with my hair until about the age of ten. My two cousins were both mixed with white, and my other cousin was mixed with Indian. Their hair was a completely different texture than mine, and nobody else in my family had my hair texture. So my two cousins would relentlessly tease me. It was definitely a colorism thing. I was the Black cousin and that was bad. And that started fostering insecurities in me. I started begging my mom to get perms, “I want straight hair, I want straight hair.”
I specifically remember this one moment. We went to MGM studios in Orlando, and we were going on this ride and they had these hats, with a ponytail attached to them. (laughs) I don’t know, it was a thing, it was supposed to be cute. And it’s like a blonde, straight ponytail. And I was like, “Oh I want that.” I wanted my hair to look like that..
So I ended up getting my first perm. Come to find out, I have dermatitis on my scalp which is why I was scratching my head all the time. And so I had the WORST perm experience of my life, it burned through my hair and all my cuts and sores on my head. And I was like, “This is bullshit” and washed it out early because of how painful it was. And then after that, I texturized my hair twice and then finally at 14, I decided to go natural. I was over it. People were asking me, “Why did you do that? Your hair was so long!” So stupid honestly. I realized I didn’t care and I was going to do what I want. And that’s the first moment I really started to embrace my hair. From the ages of 10 to 14, I was very unsure, very shaky. You know I was going through a lot of transitions at that time, going from child to adolescent. A lot of things had changed in my life during that time, so I think it all came to a head with my hair. You know, with my expression of self and those such things.
What are ways you take care of your hair or style it to make you feel your most confident?
Joi: My hair is always often in an afro. Like almost every single day of my life. Sometimes I get braids. I got box braids for the first time two years ago. I just always have my hair in an Afro, because I feel like it’s the most in-line with who I am as a person, it’s my self-expression and it’s my signature. My hair’s always been like this for so long, and I love how it looks in a big Fro and I feel good and confident. When my hair is not in an Afro, I get worried. I’m like, “What if I meet someone and my hair is like this?” I feel like I’m mis-representing myself when I have a different hairstyle.(laughs) I’ve definitely pushed past that, but I feel most confident when my hair is in a Fro.
Have you ever felt judged or discriminated against because of your hair type? Have you ever felt privileged because of your hair type?
Joi: Absolutely. Again, when I was young my own family members would be like, “Ooof the hair!” And it was hard for me to understand why they were saying those things and realizing how their comments were deeply rooted in racism and colorism and anti-Blackness. Because it wasn’t like they were just making fun of my hair, they were making fun of my skin being dry and how I had to run up and down stairs to lose weight because I was “thick”. And when I did my big chop, people were asking when I was going to fix my hair. When I was at school once, the Dean came up to me and tried to tell me that I was going to have to cut my hair because it was distracting the other students. I looked at her like she had three heads and refused. I was like, “You’re insane, I’m not doing that.” So I definitely gung-ho when I started wearing my hair curly. I was like, “This is it and nobody’s gonna tell me shit.” It became such a huge act of high defiance.
I remember another moment at school when my homeroom teacher came up to me once. I was in the tenth or eleventh grade and she suggested I wear my hair similar to someone else in my class. This classmate’s hair texture was completely different from mine, and her hair kind of laid flat and the length was long. I was like, “We have different hair textures mama! It’s not gonna work like that honey, it’s gonna stay like this. I like my hair the way it is.”
The first time I ever professionally modeled was for a huge hair campaign for Dark and Lovely. The campaign was in 2012-2013 and it was a huge National commercial and it was one of the first times anyone had ever seen natural hair products and natural hair in a big campaign. And I think that, in that moment, I felt privileged to have curly hair like mine. People were just starting to embrace it – It was such a hot commodity because nobody really had it yet, so people were like “Wow, we want this!”
And when I moved to NY, people would come up to me and compliment my hair. And I was so taken aback, like “Wow you really think so?” I wasn’t used to that, so it was definitely different and honestly, really cool to hear that. It made me feel confident in my choice to embrace myself and embrace my hair. And I think it’s a motherfucking privilege to be able to say that. And to be able to feel comfortable and confident with myself, and my hair and my hair texture. And it took a long time for sure, but I’m just like, “Wow what a fucking blessing it is”. Because I really could’ve just never embraced it simply by doing multiple things to manipulate and change it and damage it to the point where I just didn’t have any flipping hair.
Anything else you want to share about your hair journey!
Joi: I feel like I’m pretty lazy. I wanna say that, I wanna put a button on it because (laughs) I really don’t do a whole lot to my hair. I keep my hair routine very simple. I try to keep all my products as natural as possible, expect for one that I was like, “Ooo yeah that one? That one’s not natural, but it works for meeeee!” But I keep it very simple, and I don’t try to do too much. I really would love to learn how to do my braids, do some Corned Rows (giggles) Cornrows – I’m joking, that’s a joke. And I’m just grateful. Just grateful for my existence, every moment that I’m here and being my truest self. Embracing my hair was one of the first steps I took towards embracing myself, my being, as a Black woman – it was just something that I didn’t even know was a part of the journey. It just IS and it just happens. Looking back, I’m like “Wow that really shaped me”. It just shaped the trajectory of my life. I just feel so good and so grateful to reflect on my hair journey.