“My hair’s so tight I can’t smile!” I exclaimed, as a I stopped laughing and reached for the water.
“I see.” He responded.
“You have no idea!” I replied, tugging at the roots to relieve the pain.
My friend was telling a joke, and as he finished the delivery I was reminded of the pain of having just gotten my hair braided.
My earliest memory of getting my hair done ironically has to do with my Dad. It’s ironic because those who know my father would never think of him going anywhere near my hair especially during my elementary school years, but since my Mom worked third shift he used to make sure we were up and out in time for the school bus. Growing up he used to pick my ‘fro as I would sit or stand in the bathroom with tears running down my face. It was a constant battle that I dreaded every morning. I often hated my hair, not because of it’s texture but because of the pain of getting it done.
As I grew up I began to love the art of braiding. For one it was a moment where I or my hair got my Mom’s full attention, which was not always easy in a family with five kids. I also thought there was something magical about it – the idea of having my hair looped between my Mom’s fingers throughout the night only to wake up to an intricate and often elaborate design in the morning. I spent years wondering when I fell asleep, what secrets I might have told her, and how she managed to get me to turn so she could do the back in my sleep.
In high school I discovered the perm, relaxer, crack, white cream, or the tightness glob as I often called it. Again came many tears rolling down my face, but this time I wasn’t the only one crying. I saw black girls talking about their time at the hair salon, and the “Get it off !” moment that had them jumping off the chair at the salon so fast you thought a fire had started, or LL Cool J just walked in. Fortunately, my hair was like a weapon and the super relaxer was the only thing that could defeat it. I had thick hair, the kind you could color and cream up until the sun came out. I always thought this came from my Dad, but later on saw pictures of both my parents rocking afros back in the day and realized when Americans say “Black don’t crack!” they were talking more then just the skin. I couldn’t get enough crack to hold these locks down.
When the college years hit, I did everything and anything to my hair. I also rediscovered my roots (literally). I began to wear my hair in its natural state, I wanted to rock a ‘fro so bad that when you saw me coming you thought the entire Black Panther movement was behind me. I would raise my head and hold my fist up in conversations just to remind people I was back, Black, and off the crack. I also took a year off of college and went back to Kenya (hence the literal rediscovery), but by then I was rocking rastas, dreadlocks, or lovelocks (depending on your politically correct view) and Kenyans were not fans. I also realized that holding my head up and raising a fist as a woman in Kenya was going to cause me more then just the pain on my head.
Those two years were really great, and I find it helped my dating life to know that some men found natural appealing. Admittedly so some of them also thought we were about to start a war somewhere. It was as though I went from the good girl to the girl that had to have been fighting with Angela Davis. Too bad I was born in the eighties! I noticed certain men were attracted to natural women, and they seemed to have a different opinion of me based on my hair… So I cut off the dead cells and started over.
When I entered the corporate world I went back to the tightness glob, and I was able to afford the luxury of going to the salon every two weeks. I also started to have a love hate relationship with my hair dresser. She was a wonderful listener and I joked with my friends that I was going in for a therapy session verses a hair appointment. She even added a head massage to the regimen. The best part was that she was an African woman running her own business, which reminded me of my Mom. When I talked to both of them they would ask about each other, and I would give updates to them as though I had connected two women who needed to find each other through the locks on my head.
I found that the corporate world loved the slicked back, tight and straight look, and to fit in I did it. I also often pulled back my hair in a ponytail after a few days, and would hit the gym three times a week. I realized then that I was willing to take any amount of pain to have my hair tight. I opted for braids, which was something my hair dresser hated. I actually noticed later that she hated natural hair and often thought I was just experimenting with the idea by braiding my hair. This is when I began to think of natural as a fad to the rest of the world.
Luckily I had learned to micro braid my hair over the years, and it was my favorite style. I found myself spending a weekend to braid it and leaving it in for two – three months at a time. Little did I know this would lead to a different view of hair.
When I started graduate school I wanted to find a cheaper hair dresser and change my hair every few weeks, and I would go to any lengths to get one at a good price. I coined it my student budget hair care experiment. I once went to a woman’s house to get my hair braided and on the way left a message on my Mom’s voice-mail stating “If I die here just know my hair will be tight. Love you.”. The neighborhood was rundown, men whistled as I passed, and drugs were sold on the street like chocolate at a candy store. When I arrived at the door and told the woman a friend had referred her, she told me I should have dressed down.
One thing I noticed is the pain did not end. Whenever and wherever I got my braids done I was always in pain that night, the next day, or two days later. This got me thinking about those days in elementary school with my Dad rushing to finish my hair as my sisters stood at the door dreading their turn. I noticed at the salon that they would pull the hair, jell it, and even blow dry it as they were braiding. I found myself holding my edges down, fighting back tears, and tapping my foot as my hair was pulled, tugged, and burned. I thought back to the nights my Mom’s hands looped through my hair and realized those were painless nights. I wondered if there was something about a mother’s touch that ended the pain or if she realized there wasn’t a need to pull, jell, or burn dead cells.
I asked men what they thought of black hair, many of them said they had never seen their girlfriends real hair or face without makeup. I didn’t know what was more painful, to never know someone completely by not seeing them as their true selves or to sit countless hours trying to hide the real you. I remember going home that evening and telling my now ex-boyfriend if he wanted to help me braid my hair, and he said he didn’t know how but could grab a movie and we could watch it as I did my hair. That night it was my own hands looping around my hair, and the pain seemed to stop suddenly. We spent the night joking about hair care, afros, and even touching each others hair. I tried to talk him into allowing me to shave his hair, but realized we all have to take small steps. Having worn makeup only once in my life I wondered how we are introduced to self image and beauty.
As I was dealing with my recent hair pain I thought of the hands that have touched my hair, and those that were most painful. I also thought of what I would want for my kids one day and held my head up, lifted my fist and walked out of the restaurant, my friend walking behind me as though the Black Panthers were behind us both.