The Truth About Hair
This piece is a throwback to 2014 when I was struggling to come to terms with my hair and wrote this long mixed-media piece called "The Truth About Hair." For 24 WHOLE years of my life I'd been abusing my hair or letting others abuse it. But no more. I've set my hair free with gentle leave-in conditioners. I've since thrown away my brushes, straighteners, and fine-tooth combs. Let the hair be all natural and FREE!
But anyway, please enjoy these autobiographical and completely true moments of my strange and sometimes tenuous relationship with my hair.
ME AGE 12
The 3 Day Braids
I am the bobble-headed doll,
sitting on a metal folding chair.
I am weightless, and my jointless
neck flops to the left,
to the right,
farther left, farther right,
Maybe that’s why I crack my neck now.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Twisting, tugging, turning.
She’s made a masterpiece of my tresses,
crafting over three hours for thirty dollars.
In three days I’ve unraveled her work,
each stitch undone.
Three hours. Thirty dollars. Three days.
I don’t cry about the feel-good pull.
I won’t itch.
I’ll bang my hands on my knees
and stomp the floor in agony.
The more you itch, the worse it gets.
That feel crawls up under your skin.
Burning. Tearing. Searing.
Tugging my hands up to my sides,
my shoulders and then to my pulsing scalp.
How can no one hear the beacon of my distress?
I’ve posed for one picture with an unsure smile,
corn rows dangling by round cheeks.
ME AGES 7 TO 22
I’m in this oppressive stuffy basement. My hair has gone to jail. You didn’t know there was a hair jail, did you? Maybe hair purgatory.
Mom brought me to the suburbs in a mini-van. This middle-aged Italian woman has a screened-in garage with green carpet inside, a pool out back that I never got to swim in, and a stone pathway up to her white porch. I’d never seen so much white or beige before. Beige carpet that sinks when I stand on it. White walls that stain when I so much as look at them.
And what does hair jail look like? White walls, concrete floor, white door, white chair, white vanity table. Each item laid out in a row: Hair dryer. Brush. Comb. Dusty treadmill? Black. I sit or stand, squeaking uncomfortably as I wait for my turn for this white lady with black hair to “handle” me.
Dunk my head. Cut wet. Snap back into ponytail holder.
Send me home, I hope to myself.
“A round brush will work best,” she says. “Change your part so that the hair won’t thin.”
I must have nodded satisfactorily at that because I get to leave the chair. The same bush of hair lies in wait, but it’s a bit shorter now, still a shapeless, untamed mass, squirming in torment under too many washing and chemicals.
Back then, I tried it all. Gel, mousse, (which I spelled “Moose” on the grocery list until mom corrected me), cheap shampoo, grease, expensive shampoo, conditioner, shampoo every day. How frustrated I was with frizz and gel flakes that looked like dander, how mortified when people actually thought that the white stuff was skin.
“No!” I wanted to say. “I shower every day! Don’t think badly of me. I’m not gross.”
My hair has been in hair jail for some time now, waterboarded within an inch of its life. I tortured it out of hatred, out of frustration. I did everything I now know I’m not supposed to do.
I gelled it to make it behave but it grew dryer and frizzier.
I cut it short to kill the curl, but the curl grew stronger.
I washed it every day, which left it dry and my scalp a desert.
I used Suave shampoo (don’t even get me started).
I parted my hair in the middle, leaving my head too symmetrical.
I made my mom give me bangs (every girl wants bangs, don’t they?).
I straightened it dry, which made it a staticky heap, in every direction like straw.
I searched for a salon that does “mixed hair.”
But what is mixed hair, you might ask? I used to call it that. Now I know it to be a falsity, a myth. There is no such thing as “mixed” hair.
I used to associate my hair with skin color and attributed it to my “blackness.” My hair belonged in hair jail because it is guilty of not lying flat like the white girls I wanted to be. My hair belonged in hotel rooms at horse shows with ignorant white women trying to straighten the life out of my curl. My hair belonged in sterile dressing room chairs getting the life wrung out of it and the curl snipped out of it.
My hair didn’t leave hair jail until I realized its worth. It learned to be free shortly after my grandmother’s death.
My hair looks like my grandmother’s, Grammie’s. I didn’t realize it until her wake when I needed some distraction from grief. Old pictures and my brother kept my mind occupied for thirty minutes or so.
I came across a black and white photograph of my grandmother looking less than pleased. She’s always got this big, toothy smile on her face (sometimes tears when she can’t stop laughing), lipstick and outfit always pristine. I can only imagine that her skirts and blouses match just so, modestly and tastefully. She had a purse for every occasion to match each and every ensemble. In this photograph her hair isn’t as sleek, as smooth. It seems to escape, lifted from hair purgatory into a euphoria only the liveliest of locks can manage.
"There,” I pointed. “Doesn’t her hair look just like mine?”
“Yes,” Mom agreed heartily. “It does!”
And so, for the family photograph, we wore her favorite color in her honor and I, in my red blouse, black skirt, and red shoes, freed my hair. For the first time since before I hit puberty, I unconsciously tugged out my ponytail holder and gave a smile for the camera. In that moment, my hair flowed over my shoulders and reached my mid-back. It breathed.
About a year later, a grad school friend said to me: “You look so much like her.”
I don’t have her ‘50s Grammie swag. Badass all the way. Hair and makeup done every (every) day. I never thought I could resemble a white person other than in what others see as a flaw in me. No, not the wild child. The wild child, a bit out of step, resembles her? I wonder if I can exude her hair confidence someday.
My hair remembers hair jail. My nimble fingers remain ready to tug the locks back into a bun, over and over again. The strands break before they have time to become split ends. I straighten the front pieces, just to give the illusion of a flat, lifeless monster. The bun ends curl up and over, leaving my head with just enough texture to say “We’re here! We aren’t going anywhere.”
ME AGE 24
The “Trim and Style”
I do not recall my first haircut. I only have pictures and memories left: those brown curls framing a lighter brown face and twinkling darker brown eyes. This is me. Brown, brown, smooth chocolate brown. I am the girl with the untamable hair, the girl who tried her entire life to fit someone else’s idea of what hair should be. Straight. Braided. Curled. Flat. Permed. Shiny. Short. Long. Twisted. Pulled back. Framing my face.
I’ve chopped my hair off time and time again only to let it grow back. The snip of scissors. I’ve given permission to you, hairdresser. I put my life in your hands. This woman (always a woman) snips, clips, and sculpts my mane like a gardener with pruning shears. I watch from the front, under my plastic sheet, unable to twist and view the back of my head. I’ve relinquished the care of my precious head to her.
My glasses have to come off. The ponytail holder, the final step. She tries to remove it and I wince because she does not know the ways of my curls, the way they hold on endlessly to anything they touch.
There’s a feeling when you “let your hair down,” that moment when layers upon layers of fluff fall around your face. This feeling supposedly brings wildness and creativity to your mood, some abandonment of rule and regulation. In the moment, imagine dancing off on a string like a kite and finding your way back to a grounded space.
The plastic sheet is black like a body bag. The bib catches curls in its folds, waiting for me to gently brush them away. Squirts from a bottle of water make me jump and wiggle in surprise. The curling iron or flattening iron near my ears hisses with a heated anger. There’s nothing I can do to stop her from burning the skin she can’t see, hidden under waves of curls. I want to scream “NO” as I feel the snips remove curl after curl. I want to yell out the pain of losing even an inch of this brown mass attached to my skull.
She lifts her wine glass (we’re all friends here) and speaks in laughing tones to the girl behind me. Her lips leave bright smears in a half-heart shape against the glass. Her gulps take in the sweet liquid, making her fuzzier and happier. I squeeze the arms of the chair, resisting the urge to bow my head.
“Let’s straighten it and see how the cut lays that way,” she says.
I agree with her without so many words and grin, more like gritted teeth than anything. There’s something violent about these snips and clips for me and something cathartic for her.
“Look at how much we took off,” she exclaims with glee.
I stare at the tumbleweed mass that used to be on my head. The shapeless mass hovers just above her palms, shining in the soft dressing room light. I stare and stare, eyes open to their normal shape so as not to give away any hint of emotion. No surprise. No shock. No overjoyed gushing.
“I like it,” I say in a noncommittal tone.
Keep me, the curls say, never let me go.
And look at me now! All natural and embracing my hair in all its glory. If you have hair like mine and would like some tips on products, please see the links below and feel free to leave product suggestions in the comments.
My favorite products:
Elasta QP leave-in conditioner (People always tells me I smell AMAZING when I use this stuff.)
Cantu leave-in conditioner
Cream of Nature twist and curl pudding
Carol's Daughter shampoo and conditioner
Shea Moisture shampoo and conditioner
Pantene conditioner and shampoo
Suave Naturals (only almond & shea butter or rosemary & mint) shampoo
(I make sure to rotate my products and never use the same leave-in conditioner, shampoo, or conditioner brand 2 days in a row. And now I've come full circle, back to my short baby 'fro, so I'm sure I'll be testing out new products soon!)