I cut my hair off…again. After leaving the hair salon, I cried. I was right back in front of that mirror as a young girl, feeling so ashamed, so ugly. Even when people compliment my hair, I look at them with confusion. They must be lying, I think to myself. They’re just trying to be nice because they feel bad. That has to be it.
I have hated my hair since I was in preschool. It is not the same kind of hate you feel after a bad haircut or ugly hair dye job. I mean the kind of hate that makes you angry at your genetic makeup. When my hair grows, it grows straight up and out. It takes a crate of products to tame my small mane, and that’s just so my hair won’t dry out the second I walk out the door. My hair didn’t move around like the other kids’ hair. My hair didn’t bounce freely as I ran around the yard with my friends playing hide-and-seek.
I remember riding in the daycare van long ago. It was a sunny day, which is always a pleasant surprise in any season other than summer in Washington. The windows in the van were down, and fresh, crisp air rushed all around. I will never forget how all the kids’ hair – short and long cuts – blew around in the wind, almost like a dance. Mine stood still. Not even a two-step graced my temple. All I wanted was for my hair to dance, to blow around in the wind like the other kids’ hair. I have held a special kind of anger and pain towards my hair ever since.
My hair was always short, sitting just below my ears yet above my shoulders, but fourth grade was a year that changed my life. I got the hair I fantasized about. My mom installed individual braids into my hair. For those who aren’t familiar with Black hair, individual braids are installed by attaching loose Kanekalon or human hair to your own hair and braiding them together to your desired length. If you don’t know what Kanekalon hair is, that’s okay. It wasn’t until recently that I could pronounce the word correctly. Kanekalon hair is basically like Barbie doll hair – a synthetic fiber, but of a higher grade. In other words, plastic pushed out through tiny tubes and made into little strands.
There are different styles and types of individual braids. I had long braids that grazed my lower back, but you could have long, chunky braids; short and small, any color you can imagine and almost any length, too. My mom left a couple inches of curled hair out at the ends to add some bounce and style. It took her two days to finish the braids due to the back pain she felt after standing at least eight hours to complete my new look.
When she finished braiding, I jumped up in excitement. I whipped my neck in every direction, allowing my hair to fly through the air and dance around like I was auditioning for the cast of Hairspray. When I ran around with my friends in the neighborhood, my hair bounced behind me. I rode my bike as fast as I could go so I could feel the wind on my scalp as it traveled through my braids. I felt pretty. I had long hair that moved. I could do so much with it. My hair officially had grace, and I fit in with the other kids (as much as a black girl with fake hair could fit in). I wanted those braids to last forever, hoped they could magically transform to be part of me. Unfortunately, braids don’t last forever.
I had a best friend at the time. I’ll call her Lexica. We were the only two black girls in our class (from my recollections), and we wanted to wear our hair in its natural state together. Talking in class about hair, we realized we had hair that looked similar. We could be twins.
“Is that your real hair?” I asked Lexica.
“No, these are extensions; my hair is only this long,” said Lexica, as she pointed to the place on her neck right below her earlobes.
“Mine too!” I said. I was so happy we were the same. We could be brave together. We could be different. There is power in numbers. Part of me was excited to have someone to feel similar to. The other part of me loved having long hair that danced in the wind. Wearing hair in its natural Afro state was a big deal because it was so different from everyone else’s hair. The Afro doesn’t blow and flow in the wind and doesn’t sit flat under a hat of any kind. The Afro is not graceful in the same way that straight hair is.
When I got off the school bus that day and walked home, I ran straight to my room and picked out my best pair of scissors. In the bathroom, I stared at my reflection, examining the braids from different angles. I had never done this before. My mother had never given me instructions about this part of the process. She passed away shortly after installing my beautiful braids and never had the chance to tell me how to take them out. At the time, there was no reason to tell me how to complete such a task because she would have been the one to take them out herself.
It was unexpected. Unplanned. How many people get to plan their death anyway? I had gone to see her, with my aunt and grandmother, after not seeing her in about a month. On the way, we stopped and I called to tell her we were close to the church, but the response I got from my mother’s friend disturbed me. I heard a scream and then the phone hung up. Shortly after, sitting in a quiet office in the church I grew up in but no longer attended, I was told my mother had died. I did not cry. Not then at least.
Maybe I should have waited for my aunt to get home and help me, but I was too excited, for once, to get back to my natural hair. I could not wait. I started cutting the braids a little bit above the knot near my scalp. I noticed my hair was much shorter than when my mom braided it, which I blamed on a chemical reaction from the super glue my mother used to keep the braids from unraveling. I continued the process. When I finished cutting out the braids, all my hair was gone. I cut the braids too short. I did not consider the fact that my own hair was braided in with the synthetic hair. My new hair length had nothing to do with super glue. My hair was no longer than my brother’s hair.
I stared at the scissors, and my hair piled up on the counter, in complete silence. My hair was worse than it had ever been. Before, I could at least put braids in my hair. Now, no one would be able to grip my hair well enough to braid anything. I touched my very short hair, pulling at it, trying to stretch any remaining length, but no length remained. How was I supposed to show up to school looking like this? I felt ugly and ashamed.
My aunt returned home. When she saw me, she was in complete shock, more so than I was after discovering my mistake. “What did you do?” she asked, her eyes wide as she stared at my hair in complete disbelief. She pulled at my hair in confusion.
“I wanted to take out my hair for school. Lexica and I are doing it together. I don’t know what happened!” I yanked my hood over my head. I could tell she was angry. I walked around with my head covered to hide my hair, embarrassed about what the other kids in the neighborhood might say.
My aunt and I drove around for hours looking for any open beauty shops that could do something, anything, to my hair. Finally, we got to the B&I, a popular hair store in Tacoma. The salon behind the beauty supply store was open, but sadly, my hair was too short to grab and put into braids. None of the stylists were able to do anything to my hair. Our last and only option was to find a wig. After searching for a little bit, we found one that was going to have to do. The wig was so ugly I’m not even sure my grandmother would wear it, but it was better than the alternative. The wig was curly but short, with strands of blonde, honey blonde or caramel and the color “2,” a shade of black, running through it. It didn’t look quite right. The hair was very shiny like a Barbie, which is something you don’t want. You want the wig to look as natural in texture as possible depending upon the style you chose.
Wig in hand, we headed home. After some playing around with the hair, we figured out how I could make it work for school the next morning. I could only imagine what the other kids were going to think when they saw me.
I was teased for wearing the wig, but I would have been teased for not wearing the wig. There was really no way to avoid the torment from other kids. I felt worse when I arrived at school and my best friend had taken out her extensions to wear her hair natural, as we had planned. She was confused as to why I had a wig on but understood when I told her what happened.
Kids whispered in the hall as I walked by, trying to guess if what I had on my head was a wig or not. I moved my head quickly and dodged when they reached out to try to touch the hair. The last thing I needed was for my wig to be yanked off in front of all my classmates.
Over the years, I have tried everything. I have tried to straighten my hair. I have tried dying my hair numerous colors, and adding extensions. I have tried every style you could possibly think of, including chemically changing the bonds of my hair to be straight rather than kinky. I am currently paying the price for over-treating my hair, which is why I had to cut my hair off all over again. I feel the same now looking in the mirror as I did in the fourth grade. All the messages I get from the media tell me my hair should look like something my hair will never be naturally. My hair should be either straight or wild, or long and curly, not like the tight curls my hair sometimes provides. For a while, the media focused on bone straight hair, sending a message to all women that straight and long was beautiful. Now, the media wants me to wear my hair in a natural style. But the kind of natural the media portrays is not my kind of natural. It’s not the bouncy, springy curls on models in L’Oréal commercials.
See, that is not my hair texture. I am more of a 4c hair texture kind of gal. If you are a black woman, you can go online and take a hair quiz to find out what hair type you are. A 4c hair type is when you have 75 percent or more hair shrinkage. Shrinkage is when most of your hair length does not show due to how tightly coiled your hair is. Your hair is also constantly begging for more moisture, and you have to manipulate the mess out of your hair with tools and products to get any kind of curl pattern. Yeah, the media does not really glamorize my hair. In some R&B/hip-hop songs, you now hear men boasting about how their new girl doesn’t have to have weave, wigs or extensions, like wearing wigs and extensions is suddenly something to be ashamed of, but if I wear my hair natural it still isn’t right, right?
The other day I went out and bought my first wig on my own accord. Wigs are a popular trend, at least in the black community. A couple of my friends wear wigs all the time, and they look really nice. I have avoided buying one, because every time I sit down at the wig counter and put one on, all I can see is me at nine years old in the bathroom mirror, my aunt completely horrified. Even now, as I wear my wig (which is really cute, I might add), I feel ugly when I take it off, as if there is something wrong with me, as if my natural hair doesn’t represent me. But it does. All I want to do is put it right back on and never take it off again.
My dad says I struggle with the fact that I’m black. I don’t think that is the case. Black is beautiful. Black is magic. It is my own beauty I struggle to accept. When I look in the mirror I see a nappy-headed black queen who does not see herself or her worth.
My mother died, and she never told me how to take out my braids. She never shared with me her own struggles to accept the skin she was in or the hair she was given. There’s so much she didn’t tell me, but why would she have then? I was in the fourth grade; we had a lifetime to talk about things like hair. I thought acceptance and grief would get easier with time. If anything, these things are much harder now. I have so many questions about things my mother never taught me, things she won’t ever teach me because she’s gone, and I reflect on my hair as a reminder of what I have lost.
Photo provided by Reneeka Massey-Jones.