Nikki Walton is a best-selling and NAACP Image Award-nominated author, TV personality and licensed psychotherapist. Her unique sensibility of inner and outer beauty is the force behind her industry-disrupting blog, curlynikki.com, and the reason why over 118,000 loyal fans flock to her Instagram page for a daily dose of inspiring words and wellness wisdom. Here, the mother of two talks to PEOPLE about the evolution of the natural hair movement and self-love.
Growing up, I’d see brown women who looked like me on TV sitcoms, on the red carpet and in magazines, but their hair was always straight. I started having my hair pressed when I was 7 years old to look like them.
At the beauty salon, I wouldn’t even look in the mirror before my hair was finished because I felt ugly. I couldn’t make eye contact with my own reflection. I didn’t feel beautiful. I didn’t want other people in the salon to see me — we were all getting our hair straightened in some form, whether it was with heat or chemicals, to look more appropriate, to look more professional, to look more desirable to society. That had a huge impact on my life and the way I perceived myself.
In 2004, I was attending college three hours away from St. Louis, Missouri, where I grew up, and where my hair stylist was, so I could only get my hair styled once every couple of months. But as soon as it got wet from the shower, humidity or rain, it would revert back to its natural texture. Soon, I realized that this was not sustainable. My self-esteem would fluctuate based on how my hair looked. I decided to learn how to straighten my hair, how to beat it into submission myself. Then it started burning and breaking off, so I thought, “This also is not the answer.” I needed to do the real work, and ask myself the hard questions: “What is your hair? Why do you not like it? What can it do if you work with it?”
I started wearing Afro puffs in college, and I did not get a good reception. Women who looked like me would say, “Ew, what is this?” But I kept going, because I knew I would have a better quality of life by wearing my hair the way it naturally grows, instead of needing it to look like something it’s not.
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When I first came home from college rocking my natural hair, my family was not for it either. They were like, “When you interview for your graduate school program, they’re not going to let you in with that hair. You’re throwing everything away.” It stung, but they wanted to protect me. That policing comes from a place of love, like, “let me keep you from missing out on opportunities that you would get if you looked more ‘the part'” — which means straight hair.
While I was at the University of North Carolina for graduate school, I began to research the science of Black hair: “What is the moisture barrier? What does healthy, textured hair look like?” In 2008, I started sharing what I learned on my website, Curly Nikki. Once I stayed up for almost 48 hours straight writing 30 articles. People loved it.
I did not feel comfortable in my own skin and hair, but I found self-love and freedom through learning to love my natural hair. My story is common, and a lot of folks were eager to share their experiences on Curly Nikki. Curly Nikki may have started with my story, but it’s a community of people where we help each other regain our quality of life and learn to love ourselves.
The accessibility and acceptance of natural hair is like night and day now, compared to 10 years ago. If I need a curl cream, I can order it online for same-day delivery, versus driving an hour to a boutique hair care store. Commercials now say curly hair is beautiful — not just silky, shiny hair.
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My daughter Gia Nicole is 10, and she doesn’t even know what a relaxer is. She loves her hair — the bigger, the better. She wears it in natural curls, and straight sometimes. My goal is for women to feel just as beautiful with their hair in its natural state as they do when it’s straight. You should feel just as confident walking out of your house, walking onto that red carpet, going to that audition, going to that interview, or going on vacation with your hair in its natural state, as you do with it under a wig or straightened.
Now, I can’t get through an entire movie or TV show without seeing natural hair. It’s portrayed on the lead, on the sexy character. However, that character is often light-skinned or has looser curls. We need to shift to a more equal playing field, where all shades are considered beautiful. My mother has very dark skin and she was shamed by her classmates, teachers and her family. She’s well into her natural hair journey, and to see her love her skin and hair has been beautiful to watch. To see her watch women who have her skin color on TV or in magazines being celebrated, she tells me, “I never thought I’d see the day.”
Since the natural hair movement is more mainstream, it gives us the bandwidth to focus on issues that matter, like equality. We can immediately focus on healing our society because we’re not worried about how we look.
We don’t need to inspire people to wear their natural hair anymore, but there’s still room for education. I want to see a world where it’s not just certain hair textures or certain skin tones that are considered acceptable. Let’s shift our society so everyone can see beauty in the mirror first, because that’s what’s important. When most people look in the mirror, they don’t see beauty there. But when you can see and feel it in yourself, no matter who you are or what you look like, it’s easy to see it elsewhere. When we can all do that, I’ve achieved my goal.
— As told to Morgan Smith
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