Don't Touch My Hair
A Black Woman's Journey from Long to Short Hair
I’ve been relaxing my hair and wearing some form of hair extensions, weaves, and wigs since I was seventeen years old. Like many young black girls, my hair became a source of contention for me as early as four years old. I recall sitting at the kitchen stove of my great-grandmother’s neighbor who pressed hair. I dreaded that walk across the street to get my hair fried. As smoke rose from the black pressing comb and thick globs of hair grease coated my scalp and hair, an ominous, “don’t you move child,” warning began with her pressing “the kitchen” (fine hairs at the nape of the neck) and working her way around my ears and forehead, the sizzling hot grease spitting on my ears.
After enduring that torture, I was prevented from playing too hard outside, and heaven forbid, running through the sprinklers (in July, in Texas). All that sweat and water would ruin the texture of poise I’d just been given, making my hair nappy again before church Sunday. I resented all this fuss, but loved the look and feel of my smooth, shiny, reasonable and therefore acceptable-to-the-world-my family-and-myself hair.
Was it my imagination, or was Mr. Wilkerson nicer to me at the five and dime when my hair was straightened? Didn’t more strangers seem to smile at me approvingly, even lovingly, with my straight edges and extended pigtails — newly pressed out?
Until I was in middle school, before relaxers were available and made popular for kids, I’d had every hair technique put on my head. First, the hot comb. Next, the Jheri curl. Finally, back to natural. I wore shrunken, kinky pigtails, with nappy edges.
My grandmother couldn’t take it.
She’d heard about home relaxers and decided to “surprise” my mom and apply one to my head in 5th grade. When the burning started, I was confused. I cried out, but my grandmother wasn’t alarmed. When it felt like my scalp was melting, I begged her — “water” — until she finally rinsed the thick white, smelly paste down her kitchen sink. The water was of little relief since every time it touched my scalp, it both cooled and stabbed what was now open skin.
Needless to say, my mom was devastated. I was confused but also invested in trying to get this hair thing right before junior high school. I was in for whatever it took to have that look: reasonable, enlightened, trustworthy. The look that made strangers (black and white) smile and accept me.
It took six years to recover from my hair fire.
Plucky, the expert beautician mom found, tenderly rehabilitated my hair to a bouncy shoulder length bob that I wore until 11th grade. In 11th grade I wanted thicker hair for my drill team pictures. So we added a small track of extensions at the back of my hair for fullness.
I was in love.
By 12th grade, one track became two and then three, until… by the time it was all said and done, most of my real hair never saw the light of day.
I was uber attractive.
The thick long hair was a good match for my tall, leggy frame. My hair and I became a team. We could turn some heads. Once in the mall, someone stopped me mid-stride to ask, “Who does your hair?”
And, yes, I was a liar. Because my natural hair was so thick, I could carry off hair extensions with others thinking it was my real hair. The goal. Not until I was in my 30s would I even admit that I wore hair extensions, “for television,” “just for thickness.”
For the record, there are three main myths about black women and our hair that have contributed to my hair neurosis:
Our hair does not grow.
How humiliating it is to have someone say to you upon seeing you with long hair, “I didn’t know y'alls hair would grow.” The ignorance of someone not to recognize the connection between hair growth and being human. Do these same people not think our fingernails will grow? Many black women, and not only light skinned or biracial women, grow long, healthy locks. And yes, many black women choose, just like other women, to wear their hair short, even though we know some people will assume we don’t have hair because we can’t have it.
Natural and/or short hair = activist or poet.
For black women, certain styles of hair come with an unintentional identity that doesn’t automatically follow other women. Admit it. When you see a black woman in braids or with an afro, do you think corporate, mainstream America? Or, do you think, down for the struggle? We’ve been mired in images and stereotypes that tell us straightened, relaxed hair says “professional, middle class, The Cosby Show” whereas short and/or kinky says, “Good Times.”
Wearing hair extensions and weaves is a form of trickery.
I’ll never forget showing up to play tennis once when a friend observed how long my ponytail was, asking, “Is that an extension?” Seeing my uneasiness, she outed me, “Well it’s so long for a ponytail. Of course I knew it wasn’t real.” I can’t tell you how often I’ve been “complimented” on my hair by other women saying, “Your hair is so pretty. Is it all yours?”
I finally got up the nerve to address a close friend when she confronted me with the “is it real?" question. I asked her how she would feel if someone walked up to her or any other woman with veneers and asked, “Your teeth are so pretty, are they yours?” It is the same with a black woman and her hair or hair extensions. Whether it is real or fake isn’t at issue. The issue is the insult behind the question and the insinuation of trickery. Why is it that if a black woman relaxes and/or adds hair to her own, she's involved in some sort of scheme? The white girlfriend I explained this to just happened to be sporting eyelash extensions, fake breasts, shellac nails, and veneers on eight teeth.
People, adding hair is like your eyelashes, breasts implants, hair color, veneers, nose job. Women have done these things forever to embellish their beauty, not to cover up that they have none in the first place. Black women’s hair extensions are the same. We no more deserve to be shamed for them than any other woman walking around with anything fake.
As I got older, something in me started to change.
I no longer wanted to accept that my hair played such a big role in people accepting and liking me. In me liking myself. I’d made excuses before for why I needed my hair: my face was too round, my eyes were too small.
Then, I met Jackie. She was beautiful, engaging and had a smart sense of style. Her hair was sleek and pulled back. No, not pulled back. Cut very short, coiffed at the top.
That did it. I woke up the next morning, took out all the extensions and shaped my hair.
This was an amazing first step for someone who had a strategy for what to do about my hair before the ambulance and neighbors came, if I died in my sleep.
I was about to take my kids to school and re-introduce myself to the world in my own hair. I could hardly believe it. I tested it with my daughter. When I woke her up for school, she beamed with awe, “Mom. Your hair. It’s short.”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I love it. You look amazing, beautiful.”
I cried for the tender and sincere encouragement of my wise nine-year-old daughter. But, I was still nervous. I’d never checked my email without a hair piece on.
Walking the halls, there was silence. Except for a few very observant friends, no one even noticed I was missing fourteen inches of hair. Heading home I could hardly believe it. All this time, I was so obsessed and paranoid about something that only held the amount of power over me I allowed it to.
There are days I miss having long hair to toss over my shoulder and throw in a ponytail behind my hat. Do I sometimes feel I looked prettier with my longer hair? More youthful? Yes, and yes.
But pretty is not a purpose.
And, while I don’t seem to turn as many heads as I did with my dramatic long locks, I appreciate most of all the love and acceptance I still feel and receive from friends, the smiles of strangers, and the expansion of my own self-acceptance. It’s just like my daughter said, “Beauty is inside you.”
Or, as I like to think now, beauty is what’s inside your head, not what’s on top of it.