Doing What’s Natural

Toya Smith Marshall - Windsor Mill, Maryland
As heard on NPR’s Tell Me More, October 16, 2008
Toya Smith Marshall

After 18 years, Toya Smith Marshall stopped straightening her hair and let it revert to its natural kinkiness. By no longer fighting her hair, Marshall believes she found the freedom to be herself and live by her own definition of beauty.

Age Group: 18 - 30

What I believe is that I am right and beautiful — now, in this moment, in this body, I am right and beautiful. Do you know how hard that is, to believe in my own rightness, in my own beauty? But my greatest desire in life is to be free and freedom means that I have to loosen the shackles of others’ expectations and just “be.”

As an outward symbol of my determination to embrace my own personal beauty, I decided to stop straightening my hair and “go natural.” Going natural often seems more simple than it really is. But in the back of my mind, I’ve always known that it’s not that easy. I’ve always known that the very essence of my being is militant. I am the last to cave to authority. I am the first to question. Admit it or not, choosing to rock a natural is still a political statement. For me, that statement is, “I will not let you dictate. I will not concede to your idea of beauty.”

It didn’t go over well with everyone. The only one who accepted me without any backtalk was my daughter and she was a baby. In her innocence, she saw me, and the texture of my hair made no difference. In her eyes, I was beautiful and loved. And I love me this way. I love not having to wonder, “What am I going to do to my hair?” I do nothing to it. I work with it. My hair and me? We’re a team. A wild, nappy, adventurous, rules-be-damned sort of team.

Growing out 18 years of relaxed hair allowed me to get to know myself through getting to know my hair. I realized that my hair is a reflection of who I am. It is stubborn, unyielding — it takes much heat to beat it into submission. It fires right back, even after it’s been subdued. Those little kinks burst right through within a week or two.

At different times in my life, when I’ve made transitions, my hair has transitioned, too. It has gone from long to short; it’s been black, red, brown, and blonde; it’s been straight and now it’s nappy. When I finally reached a point in my life where I was happy and secure in my own being — as a woman, a wife, a mother — I allowed it to do its natural thing.

And my hair and me? I believe we’re the most beautiful we’ve ever been.

Toya Smith Marshall is a wife, mother, government employee, and makeup artist in Baltimore, Md. She is a member of The Niraja Dance Company and is owner of Makeda Makeup Artistry. Marshall founded and writes the beauty blog The Life of a Ladybug.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.