My Life in Hair

She looked at me with big, brown eyes and a lopsided ponytail, eyes squinting with curiousity. "Why do you put your hair in knots? They look bad. They feel bad."

She was approximately six years old - and my niece - so it wouldn't be socially acceptable to dropkick her. As young women, most of us learn that the great unifier, the ultimate divider, and the ever-changing esteem booster is HAIR. Nowhere is this more prevelant than in black culture. As women, we teach young girls by example, however inadvertantly. So what would my lesson be today?

Growing up a black girl in a white town, I can think of several days that I was made to feel like an outsider based on my hairstyle alone. Instead of the naturally silky shine of my playmates, I had a container of Ultra Sheen pomade. Water would bead on my hair at the pool, so the wet look was lost on me. You may have had ponytails - I had cornrow braids pulled so tightly on my skull I looked Asian for at least three days after my hair was done. When I complained to my mother that I wanted to wear my hair "down", or "loose" like everyone else, she would tell me that I was different and my hair wouldn't do that without a straightener or hot comb.

Hot combs are a legal form of child abuse. If you've never been privy to a hot comb, count your lucky stars. It is exactly what you think - a cast-iron comb with a wooden handle, HEATED TO A RED-HOT INTENSITY ON THE FLAMES OF A STOVE AND SCRAPED THROUGH YOUR FRAGILE, SOFT HAIR FROM ROOT TO TIP. My hair is naturally dry, so my mother used - you guessed it - Ultra Sheen to moisturize my scalp before the burning. Everytime I had my hair "pressed" with a hot comb, I would get a bubbly, pus-filled burn on my earlobe where the comb gently grazed my skin. My hair was straight as an arrow, but the hours of heat and pain left me unable to appreciate the style.

I begged my family for a chemical straightener, foolishly thinking it would solve my problems and make my hair "look normal". I had my hair straightened for the first time at age thirteen. The beautician was busy talking to a customer on the phone and didn't notice me flailing my arms, desperate to alert her to the burning tingle on my scalp. By the time she came over to wash the lye out of my hair, I had a chemical burn over 10% of my head, large clumps of hair replaced by raw, tender burns.

She said I was "tender-headed". It was my fault the straightener burned through my hair to my flesh.

For the next few years I experimented with popular hairstyles from the Flock of Seagulls shaggy bangs to the Aquanet-ed, three feet high and rising wings before settling on a french braid, petrified of chemical conditioning and unable to wear my hair in any other style and keep it healthy.

Then I had my older brother shave my head. The width of his smile when I handed him the electric shaver is yet unsurpassed, including the joyful look on his face with the birth of his children.

Shaving my head was a way of starting over and simultaneously throwing in the towel. I didn't fit in with the black girl aesthetic of the time - long extensions, tight braids, short updo's - and it was FAR TOO PAINFUL to look like a white girl. I kept my hair short and tried to figure out exactly what I want my hair to say about me, or if I wanted it to say anything at all.

I came to dreadlocks unintentionally. I don't recall making a decision to dread my hair; it happened organically. The less I fussed with it, the more I liked it.

As with skin color (light skinned vs. dark skinned, something I'll touch on later), there are definitely some politics of hair among black culture. Good hair, bad hair, nappy hair, soft hair, straight hair, kinky hair. As my locks grew there was dissension in the ranks. More and more black women had an opinion about my hair, about my look. Many think dreadlocks to be dirty, others compliment my hair on being "the cleanest locks they've ever seen". A lot of women think dreadlocks indicate that I don't care about how I look, others see it as a sign of natural beauty.

In the seven years since I started growing dreadlocks, I've never felt more comfortable with my hair, with myself. My hair has never been longer or healthier. No Ultra Sheen, no CareFree Curl, no pomade, no lye, no straightening, no hot combs, no curlers, no hairnets, no shower caps, no bobby pins, no conditioning masks, no product.

Just me.

What are the politics of hair amongst your culture? How have you been made to feel based on your hairstyle or type?

My lesson today is tolerance. I turned to my niece and said, "My hair feels great - it's just different from yours. And it looks great, too - just different. Want to see how I do it?" I let her help me tighten one of my dreads, let her feel the roots, feel that my hair was just like hers, that there wasn't such a great divide in our style. Just different.


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