To My Hair with Love
We’ve always had a complicated relationship — haven’t we?
“I look like a boy!”
I was 15 years old, and the cry left me without meaning to right after I looked in the mirror. My hairstylist, mother, and best friend all rushed to console me — reminding me how beautiful I was, hugging me, but nothing they said could stop the tears. I’d just done the “big chop” and it felt like I’d lost a limb.
If you ask most Black women about what their hair means to them you might find a mixed bag of responses. For some of us, our hair is beautiful and exciting, for others it’s…complicated. My relationship always fell in the latter. You were beautiful to me sometimes, and other times you felt like a burden. Even as my family would tell me how thick and pretty my hair was, it always felt like we were at war. The only way to beat you — was to damage you.
But, some of my earliest memories revolve around you, Hair. Oftentimes, I’d sit between my mother’s knees while she ran a wide-toothed comb through the knots and tangles of my curls, some TV show or movie blasting to distract me. At the time, our relationship was strong. I can remember loving how long you were Hair, the length being the most important part. There was something so satisfying about seeing my mother pull you into a long ponytail, and I grew used to the straightened version of my roots. And like many young black girls, I was getting relaxers at an early age. I can always recall the sting and cut of the chemicals on my head as the relaxer was smeared over my scalp. Designed to straighten out the kinks that made up my head, the process was painful but I welcomed it. I didn’t care that it was breaking apart the strands of you, Hair. It didn’t matter that I was sacrificing the length — the one thing I’d always cared about — for you to be as straight as possible. It was my first experience of beauty is pain, and even more so it taught me that beauty wasn’t necessarily my natural curls. Beauty was being able to run your fingers through without snags. Beauty was not an afro in the rain, it was avoiding the rain altogether. It wasn’t until later, well after the damage had already been done by the relaxer that I decided to go natural. It came after years of chemicals and heat, and you, my hair, were screaming for a change. Going natural is a process in and of itself, I spent a lot of time wearing braids and other protective styles to stimulate hair growth — but it wasn’t enough. You were damaged and there was really only one option left.
A lot of us know about the big chop. We cut out the damaged hair to facilitate hair growth with healthy hair. Many of us go into the process knowing it’s something that must be done to get the results we want later. It’s a long game kind of thing. However, for me the big chop was traumatizing. It was strange and when I lost these big chunks of you I can recall an instant feeling that I’d also lost my femininity. And while my friends and hairstylist tried to convince me that I looked beautiful, all I saw was a missing piece of my womanhood. The next day I remember trying so hard to convince my mom to let me stay home. I didn’t want to have to go to school. I didn’t want to have to see my teachers, my classmates, or boys. I wanted to stay inside of my room until my hair grew back. It’s strange now when I think about how humiliated I was. How sure I was that I was ugly. It’s when my love for you turned to hatred.
Now I look back on that experience with so much sadness for myself and for you Hair. To have my self-esteem so closely tied up in the hair on my head. To have my entire perception of beauty exist in a single facet about myself. There’s something so vulnerable about hair. Something so personal and intimate. And it stretches far beyond the inner workings of my teenage self. It affects a lot of us. As Black women, we are far more protective of our hair than the average person. Our hair is closely linked to our own experience as we navigate white society. It’s not just that the style of our hair represents our own personal fashion choices, it’s that the style of our hair can lead to a job interview or the cancellation of a job interview. The style of our hair seems to be linked to how white people see us and how we see each other. It’s that, for many of us, society has taught us that our hair feels incredibly close to our perception of beauty. And sure, I had beautiful Black women with short hair whose womanhood I never called into question. Superstars like Halle Berry and Eve, whose short hair was a staple. But they seemed like outliers to me. Especially when so many Black men would tell jokes about Black hair. From major celebrities and comedians to the Black boys in my class — there was an understanding there. Beauty wasn’t subjective, it was simply defined by them. It didn’t matter that my mom thought I was beautiful. It didn’t matter if I thought I was beautiful. It mattered more that a boy in my math class would compliment me while insulting the darker-skinned girl beside me. It mattered more he would ask me if my hair was a weave and be impressed if I answered in the negative. It mattered more when I felt his attention slip away after the big chop. It seemed to me, that if you wanted to be beautiful you needed to be light-skinned, skinny, and have long hair. Anything other than that, and you put yourself at risk of being a joke. And for a long time, I believed that to be true.
I suppose this is an apology letter to you Hair. Or a love letter. This is me, standing in the rain, or chasing you through an airport before you leave. This is me standing up at your wedding. This is me holding cards at your doorstep with the tinny sounds of Christmas carolers coming from a speaker. Because you were my first love hair. And my hatred of you was a hatred of myself. Now, I love you in whatever form you take. From kinks and curls to braids, to weave, to twists. I love seeing how multifaceted you are, Hair. I love the work I put into it. I love the stories you tell. I love listening to my parents trace the thickness of my strands through our familial roots (“her hair is just like my aunt’s”). There’s a beauty to Black hair, to my hair, however complicated, intimate, and vulnerable it may be. But that doesn’t mean the journey of my hair doesn’t still impact me. I wrote a blog some time back about my grandmother and mother. When the topic turned to hair I recalled my childhood fear. Writing, “In elementary, whenever it rained the attention quickly turned to my hair if it got wet. Laughs about it turning into an afro, made me hate the rain. I’d watch my white friends dance in the sprinkle of rain while our teachers ushered us inside, while I anxiously attempted to cover my own straightened hair with my hands. The embarrassment I’d felt trying desperately to laugh along with the joke, pretending like the appearance of the tight coils of my curls wouldn’t send me into a tailspin, is still felt to this day. Do I love my natural hair? Yes. But there are still times when I hear the boom of thunder, or some classmate mention rain, and my stomach drops a little.” I would love to get to a place where the internalized racism of my childhood, the antiblackness I’d consumed in the media, and the self-hatred that followed, no longer affect me. I’d love to get to a point where I hear thunder and think to dance in the rain. I think I’m on my way.
To a lifetime of celebrating you, Hair. To a lifetime of teaching my future kids to do the same.