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For Filmmaker Makeba Ross, Her Hair Was Never "Just" Hair

For the first 11 years of her life, all Makeba Ross wanted was straight hair. "I just didn't really see [my hair type] on TV," she tells me in an interview for Elite Daily. "I always saw long hair. I always saw straight hair." It wasn't just the media influencing her. Already fielding countless opinions from her family and friends about what she "should" do with her hair, Ross got her first perm at 12 years old, telling herself to "suck it up" as she sat in pain while her naturally thick, coarse hair texture was straightened. After that experience, "I felt whole. I felt complete," she says. "I looked like all the girls on TV that I wanted to look like." But it was fleeting.

That feeling stayed with Ross for about 10 years before it faded. "The last year that I had a perm, I just was kind of tired of it," she says. Ross remembers this was also around the time she saw fewer perms and more Black women wearing their hair naturally IRL and on big and small screens. The representation stuck. "I started seeing natural hair look beautiful," she says. "I was seeing women ... just having all of their kinks and curls fully out. They were playing characters that had actual depth and personality. They weren't stereotypes."

These images served as a sign for Ross, who then began her own journey of transitioning back to her natural texture. Following a year without perms, she did the big chop, lopping off all her dead ends and leaving just her natural texture behind. Three years later, now in her mid-20s, she shows no signs of ever going back. "I thought I would have a moment of regret, but I never did regret it," she says.

Ross' hair journey — the ups, the downs, and every part in between — is the inspiration for her new short film, Just Hair, made in collaboration with Elite Daily's New Storytellers initiative, aimed at helping filmmakers and creators bring their stories to life through video. In Just Hair, Ross explores the ways hair can be, for Black women especially, representative of myriad experiences, traditions, journeys, and identities — much, much more than "just" hair.

Following the debut of Just Hair, Ross and I spoke for a deep dive into the ins and outs of her natural hair journey.

How did the idea of Just Hair come to be?

I actually came to the story of Just Hair through a lot of guidance. I know I entered New Storytellers with a completely different idea in mind, but we decided to condense it more. The only thing that I knew for certain was that I wanted to tell a hair story. I wanted to tell a story. Because, just going through the experience of trying to love your hair, it really does feel like this long novella at the end of the day.

I want to touch on something that you said, which was that it's all about the story. I think that definitely relates to your main message in this film, which is that, for many Black women, hair is not "just" hair. What does your hair represent for you?

When you enter the prepubescent ages, you really start trying to figure out your own identity. A huge part of the Black female identity is your hair, because it's the first thing people comment on when they see you. It's like, "Look at your hair! What's going on with your hair? Your hair looks great. Oh, your hair looks terrible. What's going on?" Hair is one of the first things people comment on when you enter a room, so it's something that's on your mind at all times.

Your natural hair transition journey is one with many ups and downs, I'm sure. What's one part you really, really loved about it?

I would say the best moment for me was — I don't remember when it was — but the very first time that I left the house in my natural hair was huge for me. I wish it was a more important day or something like that. But at some point, I left the house one day and just said, "Screw it. I don't feel like doing anything with my hair; it needs to dry anyway, so I'm just going to go outside." And I did it! Nothing happened to me. Nobody said anything mean to me. I didn't feel insecure at all. I felt comfortable, actually, and that was a first. In 20-something years, I'd never left the house in my natural hair and felt good about it in any way, shape, or form.

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What an incredible feeling. What were some of the more difficult parts of that process that you didn't really expect?

I remember when I first went natural, I spent a lot of time watching tutorials on YouTube and things like that. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that everybody's hair is completely different. Even if you have the same hair texture, everyone's specific strands are going to be completely different from yours and respond differently to certain products. ... Just learning to accept that these products are not necessarily going to work on you or these hairstyles are not necessarily going to work on you — that was extremely hard. I still struggle with it a little bit here and there.

What's something that really helped you during this transition?

Keeping in mind the end goal. Think about where you want to be; think about how you want your hair to look. You can't get there unless you go through this part. Another thing that really helped me get through it was learning to enjoy the process of taking care of it. Washing my hair is extremely time-consuming, and it's even more time-consuming to braid it, so it's very easy for me to resent the process. But once I started to find joy in it, I realized, "Hey, yes, this is kind of a chore, but it's also a great opportunity to give myself some love." You're very hands on with yourself and your hair when you take care of it, so you have to touch it. You have to run your hands through it. You have to identify and learn it. Just finding joy in those little bits of the process was very helpful.

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In the video, you mentioned it was around the time when you started college that you began rejecting the antiquated, narrow, Eurocentric view of what hair type is deemed "acceptable" by society. What was the turning point? How did you come to embrace your hair and its many forms, particularly in a society that consistently tells you you shouldn't?

I feel like, in high school, you are starting to identify with you are, but college is when you actually can act on it and be who you want to be. You actually have some sort of autonomy and freedom to make these decisions and make these changes for yourself out of nowhere. So [starting college] was a moment when I was like, "You know what? I really want to change this about myself. I don't want to feel insecure about my hair ever again in life. It sucks. I've been doing it for years. I'm tired of this." I was really ready to just not be insecure about my hair anymore. And I knew the first step of that was just to embrace what it is naturally.

When you were beginning your transition back to your natural hair texture and learning to embrace it, what's something that you wish someone would have told you about the process?

I wish somebody would've told me to just completely ignore and not even have a "hair goal." Whatever goal you have in your mind is probably just mimicking what you saw somebody else have. The thing to always keep in mind is, you should strive for your best self and never somebody else, because you're never going to be able to look like somebody else. Even with surgery and makeup and hair transformations, you're never going to look like somebody else. You're always going to look like you, so you should only be striving to look like the best you that you can.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to embrace their natural hair texture but isn't sure where or how to start?

I would definitely suggest changing what you're exposed to. We really can pick and choose what we want to see, honestly. We can make our own algorithms with our social media and whatever content is thrown our way. Rid yourself of beauty standards that are not aligned with who you are naturally. I think that's going to be a huge step.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.