Love Your Body

#Loveyourhair: A project to help all women embrace their differences

“I can’t go to school like this!”

I was a dramatic kid growing up, and this particular morning was no different. My mom and I stood in front of the bathroom mirror staring at my tear-streaked face and the disaster above it: my hair.

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How to love your hair! Share how you embrace the color, texture, more

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How to love your hair! Share how you embrace the color, texture, more

Play Video - 4:26

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My now exasperated mother had spent half an hour braiding it into neat cornrows that ended in several tiny, twisted buns at the top of my head.

RELATED: Hoda Kotb shares her lifelong (and daily) battle against 'bad hair'

She thought it looked beautiful. I thought it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen.

For as long as I can remember, hair hasn't been “just hair” for me.

I often had to fend off the curious hands and questions of strangers and pretend not to hear the sing-songy teases on the playground.

Ugonna Okpalaoka

Growing up in a predominately white community, I wanted my hair to look like my classmates, like the women on TV and like the models in Seventeen magazine.

It didn’t matter how many times I tied my dad’s white T-shirt around my head and danced around the living room, shaking it back and forth, pretending long, blond locks were flowing down my back. I knew as soon as I took the shirt off, I would be transformed back into an awkward Nigerian-American kid with unruly curls I wished didn’t exist.

At an early age, the message was clear: my hair, and I, were different.

Childhood memories like those defined my relationship with my hair early on. It was always something to be challenged and manipulated, not embraced.

Ugonna Okpalaoka

It took a lot of trial and error with chemical relaxers, weaves and flat irons before I finally decided to accept what was on my head instead of trying to make it look like somebody else’s.

RELATED: 7 things I wish I knew before permanently straightening my hair

In college, I began to love the braids, twists and curls I had been ashamed of when I was younger. I began to love being different.

Since then, I've come to realize every one of my strands comes from my mother and grandmothers, women I admire and consider to be very beautiful.

My hair is something that makes me proud. My hair is my crown.

Ugonna Okpalaoka

While hair matters to women everywhere, for black women in particular, experiences likes mine are all too common. Even today, our locks are still tangled in the politics of what is and isn’t considered beautiful.

That’s why I started the “For the Love of Hair” project. I wanted to explore the relationships other black women had with their hair and create a space where they could share those stories.

RELATED: Is the beauty aisle ‘segregated’? Company’s new ad exposes inequality

More importantly, I wanted to create a visual representation that celebrates the many beautiful shapes, styles and colors of black women’s hair; images that didn’t exist when I was younger.

Ugonna Okpalaoka

When I stop women on the street and ask to take their photographs, many of them open up about their personal experiences. Every story is different. Some have always loved their hair, others are still learning to embrace it. Some fearlessly rock mohawks and blue hair, others prefer neat buns.

But at the end of each conversation, when they see their photos, they walk away standing a little straighter, and a little prouder of their crowns.

Here are what a few of those women have shared:

I think embracing what we have is also showing that there's beauty in diversity and beauty in every type of hair ... I guess in some ways we have to impose another standard of beauty. We have to redefine what beauty is." - Christelle, 33, Congo and France; Pelar, 4

"Honestly, when I first went natural, I went through that 'ugly phase,' when it was just really short. And I just made a decision that I’m going to love myself no matter what cause my hair doesn’t define how beautiful I am or how smart I am. I embraced it and I started to see things about myself that I really liked with my short hair. I loved the way it looked when it was curly, when it was wet, and I was like, I like this and I’m going to play with it and I'm going to embrace it." - Alima, 23, Brooklyn

"It just makes me feel special." - Tamika, 35, New Jersey

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"It just makes me feel special." - Tamika, 35, New Jersey

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