I’ve been on a turbulent journey with my hair. A journey that I truly believe is not exclusive to me, but nonetheless has been difficult for me. You see, the experience of black girlhood into black womanhood in relation to hair is one that’s a journey full of twists and turns, high nuance and emotional triggers.
Not too long ago, Netflix released the trailer for a new film that was originally based on the book by Trisha Thomas, called Nappily Ever After. It chronicles the experiences of Venus Johnston, a black woman who has it all, including the long, thick, jet black 4c hair that every young black girl has dreamed of her whole life. When life doesn't go exactly according to plan, she finds herself chopping it all off and going on a journey of self discovery.
After watching the trailer, I found myself wondering why, when I went to see my hairdresser a few weeks before, I’d not just taken the leap and buzzed everything off my head. The last couple of weeks I’ve mentioned to friends and family how my greatest desire was to chop off all my hair. But the truth behind wasn’t because I thought I would be like a badass Wakanda Warrior Woman — but because then I wouldn’t have to acknowledge the things that I knew to be true about me and my hair.
For the last few months I’ve had a love — but more hate than love — relationship with my hair. It’s in the most transitional state it has ever been in, in my life. I find myself feeling completely disconnected from my hair, and sometimes that even prompts me to feel disconnected from my entire body. There have been more moments of feeling completely unaligned, spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally, all because of my hair. Now I know this probably sounds quite dramatic. After all, is it not just hair?
Well this is true, it is just hair. It’s not something that defines me as a person, it isn’t the be all and end all, it doesn't make me money or maintain my relationships or further my career or bring me closer to God. But I think it would be fair to say that men and women can have, and historically have had, volatile personal relationships when it comes to hair, on any part of the body. I don’t think there’s a human being alive that doesn’t hold experiences or memories that are exclusively about hair. Whether it grows too much (or not enough), or in places that society’s beauty standards say it shouldn’t grow, we all have connections to feelings of unworthiness or shame or rejection or pain because of hair.
Through the ages what is fashionable in the black community regards to hair has been eclectic to say the least. If you’re visualizing wet perms and big puffy afro’s and corn rows and grills, you’re probably on a track — not the only track, but then again are we talking about weave tracks? I digress. Each era proceeding our original freedom and source has offered a degree of different perspectives on hair, culture and representation, but I want to discuss my personal experience with hair and most importantly, my own.
When I was a little girl and first became aware that my hair was different to all the other little girls, I instantly wanted to change it. I didn't think my hair was beautiful; already at a young age I was conditioned to accept European standards of beauty. I wanted to be able to swish my shiny hair like all the other little girls in the playground.
I'm not ashamed to say that I wanted to be an English Rose. I wanted porcelain skin, but not too light — like olive, because otherwise I'd be made fun for being a ghost. I wanted to be slim, because already I was a chubbier child, and bigger than the other girls around me. I wanted a slim nose and pink lips and blue eyes and I wanted the holy grail of thick, luscious, cascading locks. The truth is, I wanted to fit in. I wanted to look like what TV and magazines and books and poetry and film and music told me was the epitome of beauty and the way to be loved and adored.
I wouldn't get those things with my kinky, coily, weird-shaped, differently-smelling, because of the numerous products it takes to care for black hair, and the constantly shrinking afro atop my head.
There are memories logged in my mind of coming home and crying on my mother’s lap because I didn’t want to look like me. My mother at the time was incredibly sick, and I felt guilt, crying onto her lap as she sat in a wheelchair, for bringing such trivial things to her… but who else can you talk to about these things as a young girl, but your mama?
She told me I was beautiful too. She told me that the reason I was different is because I was so special, and that whilst the things that made me different didn’t define me, they were also worth celebrating for their individuality.
This message took about 25 years for me to realise on my own, but I can’t ever say I wasn’t told, but that didn’t stop me feeling what I felt.
Because my mother was sick, it meant that I didn’t always get to have those all important moments where you learn these, what I call ‘black hair tricks’. Now don't get me wrong, I still had my hot comb moments, my sitting under the hair dryer for two hours in your auntie's salon moments. The screaming from the burning because of the kiddie hair relaxer moments, my sitting for six hours at a time while my hair was braided moments, and then having the screaming in pain as I tried to sleep on those tight braids moments. But I didn’t actually get the blow by blow of how to care for my hair.
I assumed that every other black girl and woman had had this talk, and as I got older, I became more and more ashamed to ask anyone — even my own sisters — exactly what I was meant to do to care for my hair. As I got older and entered my teenhood and straighteners became a thing, I discovered that I could in fact wear my hair ‘straighter’ in order to fit in, and wasn’t always condemned to carrying around heavy braids. So, I proceeded to create a heat damaged emo look that made me fit in with my peers, side-sweeping fringe and all.
All I knew was, I would wash my hair, but only when it got too greasy to work with because I had been piling on grease and pink hair cream. I was then straightening constantly in order for it to retain its European look, sticking to braids in the winter and then using that creamy crack in the summer. (If you don’t know what creamy crack is, I would suggest watching Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair. Creamy crack is a phrase used for relaxer, which is what some women choose to use to chemically straighten their hair so it retains a straightened look for a longer amount of time. You better believe that I was one of those girls and woman... until the last time I relaxed my hair, and it basically all fell out.)
Yes, my hair became brittle and thin and I had to give up relaxers. I swore that I would never let another relaxer touch my head, even though it had been my lifeline for so many years to look like the other girls around me, but I couldn’t continue to abuse myself in that way any longer. It's been 11 years and I am proud to say that creamy crack has not touched my hair since then — but this created another problem.
I entered into the sacred world of the natural hair community. Here were all of these natural beauties, with minimal makeup, crazy long hair regimes, and textured hair that looked like it had been touched by the holy spirit to retain shape, sheen and colour. I had to be one of them; but the question was how?
So fast forward to reading blogs, watching YouTube tutorial after YouTube tutorial, visiting too many hairdressers that didn’t know what they were talking about, and hiding behind braids because protective styles are really convenient ways of not dealing with your hair — not to mention your feelings about your hair — and that brings us to the present.
You see, the first time that I have truly had to engage with my hair, was when I realised that I would be having to wear wigs for my job. It meant I couldn’t just be in braids or stick a hat on. It meant that I would have to personally ensure that I was taking care of my hair, and that it was in the right hairstyle to be prepped to wear a wig. This fact was daunting and initially, I wobbled, thinking, let me go back to straightening my hair with relaxer so its easier to deal with, but I’m glad I didn’t fold, or there’d be even more complicated feelings.
The compromise was to wear wigs in the show at work, and a wig in real life. Once again, I was safe. In fact I reasoned with myself that I had graduated to a new phase of adult black womanhood: I saved up and bought myself my first wig. I felt bougie, I felt unstoppable, and I also felt relieved that I, once again, wouldn’t have deal directly with my hair, safe for making sure that I washed it occasionally and put some kind of moisturiser on it.
I’d been wearing wigs for the last two and a half years and suddenly it all came to a head; for some reason I just couldn’t do it anymore. For no reason that I could think of the time, I couldn’t imagine having to wear a wig. I wanted to be free of them. I didn’t want to be wearing one everyday, and chained to the process of having and wearing one.
I couldn’t keep putting on a wig, taking off a wig, putting it on, taking it off. I couldn’t keep brushing them and washing them the same amount of time and care it took to care for the same hair on my head (that I didn’t want to deal with in the first place), and I certainly couldn’t keep dropping coin on getting whatever the most recent trend was to seem fashionable, or at least acceptable. And I also didn’t know how to order bundles from a Chinese website, get a wig cap and sew a wig myself; at 28 years of age, I had had enough. I couldn’t keep running from my hair and I couldn’t keep running from myself.
I've noticed a pattern in my life. When I’m stressed and anxious and down and doubt myself the first thing that I neglect is my hair, which means for years I have neglected a major part of myself and how I feel about myself. I find that, even writing this down in this very moment, I’m facing a revelation. I’m looking a dragon in the eye and I’m having to stare it down, even though I feel like I have no chance of winning.
There’s actually nothing wrong with wearing your hair in braids or waves or wigs or knowing how to take care of your hair or not knowing how to take care of your hair, but I’ve reached an impasse where I know I must address what the root of the issue is, because its not just about ‘hair’.
When India Arie, released the song, I Am Not My Hair, I remember singing along and feeling as if I couldn’t have identified with anything more, but now, as an adult woman, for the first time, I think of the song and its lyrics and I truly do understand them.
For so long my hair has been the physical representation of all the ways that I feel a fall short as a person. It was the representation of my feelings of unworthiness, of fear, of lack of understanding, impostor syndrome, the girl that would never fit in and the one that didn’t think she was worthy of love.
How many times had I secretly thought, don’t bother with your hair Michelle, no one’s looking and even if they are, it won’t make you good enough and it won’t make them love you. If I were to expose myself, my hair, then I would be the most vulnerable I had ever been. I couldn’t hide behind sass and makeup and a wig, I would have to deal with myself. I would have to accept my true self.
Recently, I had a consultation with Amber Curry, hair dresser and stylist extraordinaire. I can’t remember how I first stumbled upon her on social media, but when I did I was obsessed. Her courage and strength as a human being always leaves me inspired let alone the fact that she knew what to do with natural hair — she was a unicorn to me. I booked in for an internet consultation, because she lives in the States and I’m here across the pond. We talked about actual accessible things that I could do to take care of my hair. We talked about the kind of hair I have, the lifestyle I lead, and the effects that it has on my hair directly. We talked about how to take steps to stop being afraid of my hair. We talked about the whitewashing of hair and the nuanced culture and traditions that come with having black hair. We talked about seeming and looking presentable enough to be part of society, and adhering to its beauty standards that are exclusively targeted, and made for, white women.
For the first time, I found myself being able to articulate my feelings of displacement when it comes to hair. I said that I had always felt like I’d never gotten the ‘black girls hair card’, where all the other black women knew how to lay their edges, lay their wigs or what products to use to activate those curls. Amber gave me a gift. She told me that no one, not a single black woman, hadn’t felt these same things at some point in their life, and I was shaken to my core.
It seems pretty simple. It seems like common sense right? Wrong.
In that moment, a light bulb literally switched on and I thought, of course, hair like every other thing in life is trial and error. It’s a process of getting to know yourself, what your hair likes and dislikes, what you like and dislike, what it responds to, what it doesn’t, what’s happening in your life and your environment, and how that directly impacts you and your hair. It’s a lesson, a constantly evolving concept, that just happens to take physical form, but has no bearing on who I am as a woman and the things that I will do as a human being to accomplish the purpose I have on this planet.
So I'm learning, I'm on a new journey with my hair. It’s not perfect; I have days where I stand in front of the mirror and I cry. The little girl in me still cries because she doesn’t look like the other girls, because she cant figure out why her textured hair won’t curl like the YouTube tutorial — but I am trying to be brave. I’m trying to unashamedly embark on a journey to loving and accepting and caring for the parts of myself that I neglected when I rejected the idea of accepting and caring for my hair.
I may never be a demure and beloved English Rose, but I sure as heck know that I can be a strong and sturdy — and most importantly brave — Willow Tree. Standing, tall, and being me.