Saturday, September 5, 2009

My Love Hate Relationship with My Hair

This is nothing new. I hear tons of black women complain about their hair on a regular basis. This is my own personal story. It only represents me and not the millions of other women who may love/hate their hair more/less than I do for different reasons.

I have very thick hair. I have all of my life. I inherited it from my mother. My mother will tell you that her hair is the only thing that she ever got from her father. Most of the women on my maternal grandmother's side of the family have thin , shiny black hair. I remember my grandmother calling this Indian (Native American) hair when I was little. I was always so jealous of this Indian hair because it seemed so easy to maintain. It wasn't until I was older that I realized that most of my relatives wore wigs because they hated having thin, delicate hair and felt they had few style options. The grass is always greener I guess.

As a child, I would sit on the floor while my mother parted my hair into four sections and put my hair into 4 thick braided ponytails. I remember the rubber band like hair accessories with large globes on each end that my mom used at the base of the ponytail. It looked like I had gumballs in my hair of all different shapes and sizes. And then at the end of each ponytail, there were these little barrettes that were alligators or fruit or some other crazy design. I looked like a Christmas tree. This was the standard little black girl hair style in the 80's (it is still pretty common). Depending on how thick your hair was or how creative your mother was you may have more of less braids but it was still the same basic style. I remember feeling sorry for some of the other girls whose parents split their hair into 8 or more ponytails. I'm sure if the parents knew their children were teased with the nickname of Medusa at school they would have changed the hair style but kids are so evil they probably would have found something else to tease them about.

I attended private school until 7th grade. I can remember being one of only a handful of black children in my school and I was almost always the only one in my class. I remember people would frequently touch my hair or pull my ponytails sometimes out of cruelty but usually out of ignorance. Like most black women I know, my mom greased my hair every day to prevent my scalp from becoming too dry and to keep my hair healthy. So in addition to the unwanted attention that I was already getting for being different there were usually the yells of "Eew what's in your hair" that made me want to disappear. I was paranoid that if I leaned against a chair or laid back completely in the doctor's office I would leave behind a greasy mark (because sometimes I did) . I was always careful not to lean back too far or to wipe any where that I sat after I got up before anyone could see.

On special occasions my mom would straighten my hair. This involved placing a hot comb on the burner for 10 minutes and then slowly combing my hair with it to make my kinky hair straight. I can still remember the sound of the hair grease sizzling as smoke rose from my head. The smell of burning hair is a very common memory from my childhood. This step was followed by using a curling iron to curl the ends under so my hair wouldn't stick straight out from my head. I loved having my hair straight because I looked more like my white friends. My hair appeared to be thinner and longer and it moved when my head moved. I loved whipping my head around fast when people called my name because it felt like my hair moved just like the white women in the TV commercials. Unfortunately a little bit of rain or sweat was all it took to ruin my hair. I used shower caps, swim caps and coats with hoods to try and protect my hair but inevitably it would get wet and return to it's naturally kinky state.

My mom washed my hair once a week so we had to deal with the wet hair party on a regular basis. After washing my hair, it usually takes 20 minutes to comb all the tangles out and then another 60 minutes to blow dry it. Then it's back to hair grease and ponytails or on to the curling iron and straightening comb for another hour of styling. My mom started having my hair put in cornrows in the summer when I was swimming multiple times a week and maintaining my hair was too much to deal with. This drew even more attention because of the Stevie Wonder beads at the end of each braid that clicked every time I moved my head. Inevitably I would lose a line of beads on the school bus or in the middle of class. I would try to sink as low in my seat as possible as the beads clanked loudly on the floor.

I got my first relaxer in 4th grade. A relaxer is chemical hair straightening that you have to do every 6-12 weeks to fight the naturally kinkiness of your hair. It makes the hair much easier to maintain and eliminates the need for a straightening comb. The hair is less kinky when its wet but still a pain to deal with and the blowdry and styling time are virtually the same. The attention that I got when I went from the globed ponytails and the cornrows was nothing compared to the attention that my new hair do received. Imagine a 9 year old girl with Oprah Winfrey's early hair style at a mostly white upper middle class private school in Virginia. I looked like a young professional. Most of the comments were "Is that your real hair", "What happened to your hair" or just plain laughter. For some reason this hair style made my classmates, teachers and complete strangers feel like they had the right to touch my hair even more. Because I was different and they wanted to focus on how different I was I suddenly became an exhibit at the zoo. The "Eew what's in your hair" comments were still there along with the "Oh your hair is so soft/coarse/thick" comments. Did people really think that comparing my hair to steel wool, a horses tail and doll hair wouldn't permanently damage me?

My worst memory is a sleepover at my best friend Lisa's house. I think I was about 8 years old at the time. Me and five other girls went swimming and ate junk food and fell asleep watching stupid movies. I remember Lisa's mom struggling to do my hair in the morning and eventually just giving up and pulling the frizzy air-dried chlorinated mess into a very bushy ball at the top of my head. She didn't have the tools or the knowledge to deal with my kinky hair. My mom was mortified when she picked me up. It took twice as long as normal to tame my hair. It was around that time that I learned how to manage my hair on my own.

Imagine my surprise when I entered public school in 7th grade and found that there were hundreds of people who looked just like me and had the same hair issues as I did. That seemed to be the only thing I had in common with most of my black classmates. I don't remember it being a conscious choice but I would assume that my early education or my social class or a combination of the two lead me to go through life with most of my friends being white. So I continued to be one of only a handful of black people in my advanced placement classes, in the marching band, in the honor society, on the lacrosse get the point. Luckily most of my peers had grown up around people of different races in public school so the ignorant comments were less frequent but they were still there and I can still vividly remember ever single incident when someone said something.

I spent most of my life living with relaxed hair with the occasional months of cornrows with hair extensions in the summers because it was easier to maintain. By my sophomore year in college I was starting to gain a better sense of who I was as a person and I realized that I didn't have to wear my hair like everyone else. During my freshman year in college I had let go of my high school boyfriend and many of the labels that people had placed on me over the years. I felt reborn so at 19 I cut off my shoulder blade length hair so pixie length. My high school friends and ex-boyfriend freaked out. "You were so much prettier with long hair" actually became a common phrase among people who had known me for years. But I noticed that my newer friends loved my short hair and I got lots of compliments on how great it looked. For the next 10 years I would alternate between letting my hair grow back for 2 years and then cutting it all off. The shock value of cutting off a foot of hair was fabulous because each time there was a new group of friends who never saw me with short/long hair and each reacted to the changes differently. The main thing for me was that I had control of my hair and did whatever I wanted whether society thought it was appropriate for me or not.

When I was 21 I stopped relaxing my hair. I started braiding it when it was wet so that I would have big wavy hair when it dried, almost like it was crimped all the time. The years of relaxing my hair had destroyed it so, to truly go natural, I had to cut it all off. I loved how curly my hair was naturally. I couldn't believe that I had spent years killing what I was blessed to have naturally. Of course, natural hair is just as different to many people as my ponytails, cornrows and relaxers were in my childhood. People think its okay to touch my hair all the time and I get really pissed off when they do. How would you like it if every day someone pointed out what makes you different by patting you on the head like a dog and making ignorant comments? How would you feel if something that was part of who you are was all some people could focus on whenever they saw you? I wish I could say all this ignorance came at the hands of white people but many black men seem to think this is an acceptable thing to do as well and it pisses me off.

The problem with short hair is that you have to do it every day. If I put on a baseball cap or bandanna I was often mistaken for a boy from behind. I missed being able to put my hair into a ponytail or being able to straighten it for special occasions. So I have let my hair grown since 2005 without a significant hair cut. At this point my hair is near the middle of my back when its straightened but is typically right around my shoulders when wavy. If I'm feeling really motivated and really do my hair the curls can tighten up to make my hair chin length. This of course leaves the none-curly haired folks to think that I have gotten a hair weave or am wearing a wig which leaves people to touch and pull my hair to check if its real.

I have no idea how to style my hair because no one ever taught me. I usually wet it and then put in conditioner or defrizz serum and then let it air dry. Of course this continues my aversion from sitting back all the way in chairs or leaning back at the doctors office for fear of leaving a wet spot. It takes a few hours for my hair to dry if I wear it down. If I wear my hair in a ponytail it will still be wet by the end of the day. If I lean back against my hair before it is dry it will ruin my style and my hair will be flat on that side. The problem with having thick hair is that it quickly takes shape so the 10 minute drive to work is long enough to ruin my hair if I lean all the way back in my seat. I have been keeping chiropractors and massage therapists in business for years because of my chronically sore shoulders and neck from leaning forward for half of my life. I have yet to find a hair stylist who specializes in natural hair and often get the recommendation that I should relax or at least blow dry my hair on a regular basis. I have only recently discovered Curly Nicky's blog and and am starting to experiment with different styling options. I wish that I could get the fabulous waves that I see on celebrities like Mariah Carey or Alica Keys but am reminded by my friends that these women are of direct mixed race (white mother, black father or vice versa) where as my mixing is dispersed through previous generations and the kinky hair gene is apparently too dominant to overcome. So the only way to get nice waves is to get a relaxer and then have rod curlers put in every week (like Oprah wears her hair these days) and go back to the miserable days of blow drying and styling my hair or to change my DNA. Neither are very likely.

I consider myself low maintenance and have no desire to go back to the high maintenance lifestyle of long relaxed hair or the frequent trips to the salon and daily styling that are required for short hair. I am happy to see so many black women around me have embraced wearing their hair naturally so I don't stand out so much. Just like everything else in life I'm sure I'll figure it out eventually but please, don't pet me. I'm not a dog. And I have so many years of baggage built up that I just might punch you.

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