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JENEE OSTERHELDT | COMMENTARY

Miss Teen USA is more than her hair, but those natural curls help teach girls to love themselves

Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris on embracing her natural hair
Boston Globe columnist Jeneé Osterheldt talks "the big chop" and normalizing black beauty with Miss Teen USA 2019 Kaliegh Garris. (Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Shelby Lum/Globe Staff)

You don’t usually see the president of the United States bow down to a child.

But a 5-year-old black boy had just one question when he met Barack Obama in 2012.

“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” Jacob Philadelphia said. So Obama invited Jacob to touch, bending over to his level.

It’s one of the most famous photos of the Obama presidency — and in White House history. The little black boy wanted proof that the president was like him.

When it comes to black hair, the politics are endless. The president having the same hair texture as him was an affirmation.

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In April, when Miss Teen USA was crowned, her head full of coiled, carefree curls, it made headlines. Just as it did when Miss USA 2016 Deshauna Barber, in all of her chocolate brown beauty, crowned Miss USA 2017 Kara McCullough — and both black women wore their natural hair.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Kaliegh Garris, Miss Teen USA 2019. The Connecticut teen grew up in New Haven and Milford believing straight hair was pretty hair.

She was just 6 years old when she started getting her hair straightened.

Kaliegh Garris.
Kaliegh Garris.(The Miss Universe Organization)

Her father is black. Her mother is white. Most of her classmates in Milford were white. Straight hair was the norm.

“Growing up, I was such a mommy’s girl,” said Kaliegh, 18. “I idolized her so much. I realized I was just trying to embody the characteristics she had. But she was beautiful and she has straight, blonde hair. Even though it was straight, she straightened it. If that’s what she did, that’s what I wanted.”

A young Kaliegh Garris.
A young Kaliegh Garris. (The Miss Universe Organization)

Her grandmother, her father’s mother, was another inspiration. She straightened her hair, too. She would bring home chemical relaxers to straighten her granddaughter’s hair. Pictures of little black girls who looked like Kaliegh were on the box.

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Now both she and her grandma wear their hair naturally. According to research firm Mintel, 71 percent of black adults in America wore their hair naturally at least once in 2016.

But in the pageant world, it’s still uncommon to see black women and women of color with natural hair.

There hasn’t been another black Miss Teen USA to win the title with a natural hairstyle since Ashley Coleman won in 1999.

Before that, Janel Bishop, Miss New Hampshire 1991, the first black contestant to win Miss Teen USA, rocked curls.

Kaliegh Garris of Connecticut was crowned the new Miss Teen USA in April.
Kaliegh Garris of Connecticut was crowned the new Miss Teen USA in April.(The Miss Universe Organization)

The rarity of natural black hair in pageants is not just reflective of a problem with how we define beauty. It’s indicative of how we punish blackness.

TSA’s full body scanners often give false alarms when someone with braids, twists, or an Afro passes through. The result is a dehumanizing hair pat-down.

A recent report by ProPublica found the number of complaints filed by passengers alleging racial discrimination in hair pat-downs rose from 73 in 2017 to 105 in 2018.

It was just this year that states like New York and California banned hair discrimination. Black hairstyles like braids, locs, and Afros are often targeted in schools and corporate spaces as unprofessional or distracting.

Last December, a New Jersey teen wrestler was forced to choose between competing or having his locs butchered. In 2017, a Malden charter school punished black girls for wearing braids because extensions violated school policy. Only over the past five years has the US military relaxed its racist rules and finally allowed styles like cornrows, twists, Afros, and dreadlocks.

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Black models and actresses still face hair hurdles. In March, Gabrielle Union, Yvette Nicole Brown, and others called out the industry for the lack of stylists able to do their hair on set.

If we as a country are still working hard to accept black hair, it’s no wonder that for some black women, the road to self-acceptance is a journey.

“We do still have these beauty standards that say straight hair and fair skin is what’s beautiful,” says Kaliegh, who began wearing her hair curly four years ago thanks to a friend.

“One of my friends, her name is Remsen, she’s always in plays and she always wears her hair naturally. She said my natural hair is beautiful.”

Kaliegh Garris.
Kaliegh Garris. (The Miss Universe Organization)

Remsen had only seen some baby curls. The fresh hair growing in where the relaxer was growing out. Kaliegh started looking up YouTube natural hair tutorials. She worked up the nerve to get what black women call “The Big Chop.” It’s when all of the chemically processed hair is cut so the natural hair can grow out. She finally understood she could embody the strength, power, and goodness of her mom without trying to look like her.

Kaliegh wasn’t prepared when her hair didn’t immediately turn into a perfectly formed fro. But Remsen was there, cheering her on.

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“She said, ‘Way to go. You still look beautiful,’ ” Kaliegh says. “Her acceptance of black women and black culture and always going to marches and doing influential stuff helped me.”

Kaliegh Garris worked up the nerve to get what black women call “The Big Chop.”
Kaliegh Garris worked up the nerve to get what black women call “The Big Chop.” (The Miss Universe Organization)

But there were still some kinks in the transition. Some people thought she shouldn’t compete in pageants with curls. A few classmates asked for the first time if she was black.

Straight hair had given her racial ambiguity. For some, her curly hair was confusing.

Her white friends didn’t notice her, though they’d known her well before she ever wore curls.

“I was picking up friends, and they knew what my car looked like, but it was me and my straight hair,” she said. “They wouldn’t approach the car. They didn’t recognize me for some reason. When you have curly hair and a deep complexion, that’s their understanding of you as a person. They don’t see you for you.”

But she is not her hair. Her curls empower her and little black girls and girls of color, too.

In the pageant world — for the first time in history — Miss Teen USA, Miss America, and Miss USA are all black women this year.

Kaliegh Garris was crowned by Miss Teen USA 2018, Hailey Colborn.
Kaliegh Garris was crowned by Miss Teen USA 2018, Hailey Colborn.(The Miss Universe Organization)

“We are changing beauty standards,” she said. “We didn’t win because we are women of color, just so someone can check something off their sheet. To be crowned, you just have to be who you are.”

It’s historic. She gets messages from kids and moms thanking her for inspiring them to rock natural hair. But she has her critics, too.

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Some white people think her win is a conspiracy and she looks better with straight hair.

“People said I curled my hair and tanned my skin to pull my black card out. I transitioned into curly hair because I grew up and gained confidence. Why is race being used as a negative? We won because we were the best representatives in our class.”

There are black people who say she’s not black. Her Instagram comments can get nasty.

“Growing up and going to predominantly white schools, I was never white enough to be white or black enough to be black. But after I won, people were saying, ‘Oh, she’s not black.’ I didn’t understand that I wouldn’t be counted as black if I didn’t have two black parents.”

What she’s learned in pageants is the importance of confidence and sisterhood.

“We are always challenging what society believes is normal,” Kaliegh says. “Women are so smart and empower each other so much. It gives me so much hope.”

She’s headed to Southern Connecticut State University in the fall to major in nursing.

But she’s already started healing people — starting with herself. There was a time she didn’t have the confidence to wear her curls. She thought she had to look like someone else.

These days, like that little boy looked at Obama, she can look herself in the mirror and know she is just enough.

Kaliegh Garris.
Kaliegh Garris.(The Miss Universe Organization)

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.