Let’s Talk About Hair

This is a topic I’ve seen popping up a lot lately, and it’s something that I have wanted to talk about for a while. I just never really knew how to.

I still don’t, but now I can hop on the bandwagon.

My relationship with my hair has been a complicated one from the moment I realized I could not use the same kind of brush as my friends at sleepovers. I spent a majority of my adolescence trying to change it and tame it into submission to my will. But it was a futile fight, as I’m sure those of you with curly/kinky hair know.

I’ve got it relatively easy, because my natural curls happen to respond to mousses and curl creams (on most days), but that very careful balance of cleansing conditioners and co-washes and treatments was all something I had to figure out on my own. I did not grow up with hair tips in magazines tailored to me. All the “Monday through Sunday” hairstyles were meant for untroubled tresses that could easy find their way out of bobby pins and hair ties without taking little bunches of hair with them. I spent most of my time thinking how I could get my own hair to be as manageable as possible so that I could maybe have a chance of what I thought was normalcy aka straight hair. Everywhere I looked there was a complete lack of public knowledge on how to “beautify” my hair. So, rather than letting my curls fly free and frizzy, I pomaded everything into a low pony tail and clipped the absolute shit out of the flyaways. And there are very few pictures from this era of my life *for a reason*.

Regardless of how neat I could make it or how put together I thought it was, my hair became the focus of my insecurities–well, that and my weird, tubby pre-teen body. If I was having an off day, it was probably because my hair was too. Which was most days. So most days were off days.

My hair became an interpretation of who I was and which parts of my heritage I wanted to accentuate. The looser my curls, the whiter I was. That’s not to say I was trying to erase my black side, but I grew up in a primarily white community where there was no special attention paid to nurture my pride in my blackness. And while my hometown was reasonably diverse, I am now aware that the existence of a small number of minorities in one geographic location does not a proud, self-confident black woman make.

As a result of all this insecurity and lack of reassurance that the chaos of my curls was normal, I started chemically relaxing my hair in 6th grade–a thing that women of color have done since it was possible to do, so they could make their hair more manageable and fit more seamlessly into a world determined to tailor to the white majority’s needs.

Relaxing my hair meant shorter showers in the morning. It meant using less product and saving money on buying more. It meant not needing expensive-ass haircuts as frequently. It meant being able to shower at night without waking up as the mirror image of Beetlejuice in the morning (sometimes). It meant looking more like my friends. It meant having a better chance getting cast in roles in shows that I auditioned for. It meant not coming off as “threatening”, in a too-big- hair kind of way. It mean less people touching my hair (except for the one time someone told me they didn’t believe my hair was real unless they could feel it themselves). It meant being a step closer to thinking that I could be pretty.

But relaxing my hair also meant denying the young, impressionable me of any hope of loving myself as is, er was. I grew into adulthood constantly trying to changed my appearance to suit everyone else needs and wants rather than just embracing what I had naturally. And honestly, I still haven’t mastered that. Old habits die hard I guess.

I stopped relaxing my hair when I came to college. Partly out of convenience and partly because I was tired of hiding. So I let my roots grow and eventually I chopped off all the old bits and WHABOOM out popped the exact same person but with better hair that was entirely her own. Now I grapple with different issues (i.e. the excessively expensive cost of curly hair products and haircuts, and where to even fin them in the first place) and, of course, there has been intermittent frustration with my hair when it decides to be completely uncooperative. It has good days and bad days and really really awful days, but I love knowing that whatever a mess it may be, it’s wholly mine.

Though, what terrifies me most about this whole hair thing is not the steep prices of curl care products nor the micro aggressions that seem to be implicit fact of having a head of natural or braids or a weave.

It’s that my little sisters can and have already suffered the same esteem-crippling journey into adolescence.

My sister Kaiyah is now ten and has the most beautiful head of curls. The cut is a little wonky right now because when I got my hair cut very short, she decided that she also wanted shorter hair — so she cut it herself.

That was probably the point at which I realized the extent of my role model-dom and exactly how far beyond logic self-esteem can venture. And despite the fact that I had spent most of her young life helping her take care of her hair and begging her not to manipulate it needlessly, regardless of what I said, she did whatever made her feel her best at that moment in time.

I know that feeling all too well and I know that it is astonishingly susceptible to even the smallest of positive or negative deeds.

And now, not physically being there for her everyday to remind her to comb her hair in the shower and rake in the leave-in condition in layers is quite difficult for her and, I imagine, for her as well. I have no idea idea if she is getting the affirmation and reinforcement she need to be able to embrace her natural hair. I know that there are so few places for her to look for the specific kind of guidance that all young girls of color need. I am so scared that she is going to resort to the same thing I did and have to deal with all of the confusing and angering and depressing crap that comes with it.

Every picture I see of her with her hair straight is like a punch to the heart because I know that the thought process behind it was something like, Hmm, I want to feel pretty. People always seems so intrigued when I straighten my hair. I like that positive attention. So I’ll do that then, even if it takes two hours to do, even if it hurts my head, even if it makes my back ache for the rest of the day. I just want to feel pretty.

Why are we so keen to praise little girls of color when they do things that make them more white? Or when they insist on playing into the game of appealing to the too-exclusive standard of beauty? Why are we so eager to vocalize our compliments when these girls are so obviously trying to smother their innate beauty?

The few friends I had who dared to tell me straight-out that they preferred my hair curly were, I guarantee you, the main reasons I did not straighten my hair every day. Those remarks were like little life rafts in an ocean of self-doubt and self-loathing.

Sorry for the cheap metaphor, but I cannot emphasize enough that just those few words let me know that what I was naturally was still something that could be liked — even preferred.

This isn’t to say that we should never straighten out hair, but it shouldn’t be the thing that little girls resort to to feel good.

For those of us that are gifted with curls or kinks, we have to realize that there is an entire generation of young girls looking to us for guidance, for their own trendy idols to imitate. We must be proud of our wild hair and pigmented skin so that they, in turn, can have a chance at being proud of themselves from the get-go.

And for those that have less difficult hair — know that you are also being watched by impressionable little girls. Encourage their naturally occurring beauty and much and often as you can. You could be the difference for them between a childhood of self-loathing and one of self-loving.

And to my sister Kaiyah: If I am ever too harsh on you about straightening your hair, please know that it is not from a place of anger. I just want you to know that you don’t need straight hair to be beautiful, and I’d prefer your hair being a chaotic poof of frizz over stick straight any day. You are beautiful with all your original bits and pieces and I don’t want you to ever think otherwise.

For another amazing post on black girl hair, click here. (spoiler alert: it’s a lot shorter and more eloquent than the novel above)