Midtown: Community

Midtown Muse: She’s teaching girls to love selves, starting with their hair

When actress Viola Davis ditched the wig to don her cropped natural hair to the 2012 Academy Awards, she netted headlines to nearly eclipse her Best Actress Oscar nomination for “The Help.”

The message, courtesy of words her husband urged: “Step into who you are.” Davis added: “I feel more powerful every day, more secure in who I am, and I’ve waited so long for that. It feels divine.”

Local writer and producer Schelle Holloway-Purcell wants to uncover the message girls here and beyond share about their hair in the “Why I Love or Hate My Hair” essay contest.

The contest is open to girls ages 6-16 who want to express their love or loathe for their hair in a 300-word essay. The deadline is noon Wednesday.

It’s the first initiative of Motivating Youth Through Education, Arts & Mentoring, or M.Y.T.E.A.M.-N.C., a nonprofit organization Purcell launched in January to share her youth ministry rooted in education assistance, restoring arts in the community and long-term mentoring. Ultimately, she envisions a community center.

Purcell will choose 10 essay winners: five who love their hair, five who hate it. Purcell will respond to each contestant with advice and encouragement to “let them know it’s about way more than your hair.”

“I had to do something,” Purcell said, recalling conversations with her daughters, their friends and her friends’ daughters. “Loving or hating your hair has nothing to do with who you are as a person.”

Because education is a cornerstone of Purcell’s M.Y.T.E.A.M.-N.C., she said she’ll also take out her editing pen and correct errors in spelling and grammar unearthed in the essays.

Other perks for essay winners include professional hair salon service, dinner with Purcell and other essay winners, a limousine ride, VIP seating Saturday at the play “I Love My Hair When It’s Good,” written by Durham native Chaunesti Webb at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theatre, a group photo with the cast and a M.Y.T.E.A.M.-N.C. T-shirt.

“I Love My Hair When It’s Good” is a multidisciplinary presentation that explores the complex relationship African-American women have with our hair and how it shapes our self-image.

Broader beauty

Purcell hopes the overall experience will guide girls to a broader sense of beauty and greater self-acceptance.

“It’s a plan, I pray to God, to build their self-esteem,” said Purcell, who has written and produced three stage plays, a novel and an independent film. She is also working on a sitcom to be filmed and aired this year.

“Our girls need this. Not just black girls, but there are white girls, Hispanic girls and Asian girls who hate what they see when they look in the mirror,” she said. “I’m going to start with their head and move my way down to build them up.”

I get it.

In December 2005, I did the Big Chop – had the perm, a chemical straightener for African-American hair, cut right out of my hair – and started anew.

For me, it was a two-fold exploration: 1) To learn to manage and enhance what God and genes put there – sans hot comb and chemicals, and any societal pressure to weave it, wig it or dye it; and 2) To proclaim “I am not my hair” – as singer India Arie did – to our then-8-year-old daughter, already mis-educated by media messages that equate beauty as much with long, straight hair as with thin bodies and sun-tanned skin.

She wasn’t much unlike her mother.

One of my funniest memories is of me and “Dooley,” a lifelong friend, buttoning sweaters on our heads to act as hair. On our sidewalk-sideline, we’d cheer for neighborhood football on our front yard-gridiron.

No matter it was too hot for sweaters; we wanted long, swingy hair like the NFL cheerleaders on TV.

Talking ‘on their level’

But Purcell, 36, who moved to Raleigh in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina ravaged her home in Gulfport, Miss., to continue her youth ministry at White Oak Baptist Church in Apex with displaced youth she worked with back home, simply wants to empower girls as much as Davis’ Red Carpet message could empower us all.

“It’s so different when you get on their level, and really talk to them and not preach to them,” Purcell said.

She’s right: The best way to teach self-love is to mirror self-love with expressions of comfort, just as you are.