“Why do you hate your hair, Jazzy?”
A friend told me recently that she would trade hair with me in a heartbeat. Cringing, I asked her why. She gave me a long list of reasons. I laughed in her face. Something she viewed as beautiful was, to me, a pile of failure perched at the top of my head, a mass of curly neglect.
A few things I’ve learned about maintaining my hair throughout the years:
Self-taught: hair picks are used for creating volume in the hair, not detangling.
Self-taught: when detangling or combing through your hair, having moisture (a spray bottle of water or some sort of detangler) is advised.
Self-taught: never, never comb from the root. Work out the knots starting from the ends of the hair. (This should apply to all hair types.)
Self-taught: natural, tight curls love to stick together. Hours of detangling rarely make a big difference. Your hair will re-tangle itself. It's natural.
Self-taught: when you have no guidance, of course you are going to be confused on what to do.
I had limited guidance. The way I care for my hair now is a shoddy patchwork of things I was told or taught to believe and things I have learned on my own. For the most part, I just try to figure it out. “Figuring it out” has been tangled with failure.
As a white woman, my mother didn’t understand how to work with her adopted African-American daughters’ hair. She told my sisters and me that our incessant screaming and crying was annoying. “If it hurts, just say ouch.” We filled the rest of that evening and every other “hair” night with stifled tears and apologies, trying to fulfill our mother’s request. External screams pushed down into “I’m sorry’s” that would feed my lifelong frustration with my hair.
I don’t remember when my mom decided to cut off all our hair. We have pictures of me as a child with long braids, and then all of a sudden, I had a short Afro.
“We can’t maintain your hair. I don’t know how to anymore. This will be easier.” The ease my mother found in cutting off our hair resulted in teasing from the white kids for the remainder of my childhood.
“Are you a boy?”
“No. I’m a girl.”
“Why is your hair so short? It’s ugly.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Every morning was a hassle. My sisters and I were given picks and told to pick the tangles out of our hair. My mother would follow our work to “check” to see if we had done as she requested. She dug the pick deep into our roots and pulled until it came out the other end. There were always tangles, no matter how thoroughly we picked through.
“You didn’t pick your hair.”
“Yes, I did! I did pick my hair! Ouch, Mom.”
My mother would burrow in deep again. “If you had, this wouldn’t hurt.”
We started chemically straightening, or “relaxing,” our hair when I was in fourth or fifth grade. Sitting in the salon chair, Miriam the stylist told us, “If it starts burning, it’s working. When it gets really bad, we’ll wash it out.”
“Uhm. Miriam? It’s burning.”
“No, it’s not. Hasn’t been long enough. Quit whining.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.”
We sat with our scalps burning until Miriam decided it had been long enough. She washed out the chemicals with hot water, which did nothing to soothe the burning sensation. Relief came when a mix of conditioner and water was applied. My mother didn’t believe us when we said it burned. She never saw the scabs peeling off our scalps as we brushed through our beautifully straightened hair. We picked out the blackened skin with horrified looks, pretending it didn’t exist.
“Your hair looks gorgeous! You should straighten it all of the time.”
After a month or two— “Hey, your hair is getting curly again.”
“I liked it better the other way.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.”
The next visit to the salon would be just like the last. Straight hair is beautiful, and beauty is pain.
In middle school, I got my hair braided for the first time. I spent ten hours sitting in a chair, a tiny comb picking through my tight curls, pulling at my scalp. I would dig my fingernails into my thighs to distract from the pain. By the end, my head was numb and throbbing.
“If you combed your hair better this wouldn’t be a problem.” Pierette twisted and pulled my hair, braiding it in with the extensions.
“Okay, I’m sorry.” My fingernails dug deeper into my thighs, leaving marks.
The ends of the extensions were dipped in boiling hot water to make the synthetic hair seal. Pierette dropped them on my back, unaware she was burning me.
“Wow! Your hair looks good! It’s so long.”
“It looks so much better than you usually have it!”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
The times my hair was not braided, we did at-home relaxers. With no guidance, we damaged our hair. My sisters and I burned our scalps ourselves, taking inspiration from Miriam’s technique. We washed and blow-dried, combed and straightened.
This made us beautiful. This was what we should strive to look like, always.
I eventually changed my mind. The approval of others was no longer something I valued enough to continue chemically burning my scalp and heat-damaging my hair. My first year of college, I worked hard on styling my hair without heat or relaxers. I wore clip-in extensions, wanting the length but not the hassle of sewing synthetic hair into my head.
But why does length equal beauty? I ditched the extensions. My hair became a pile of curls, balanced at the top of my head in a permanent messy bun.
Hair and shame have always existed in the same sentence. I have grown to believe my hair is too difficult to maintain but too ugly to leave untouched. To be beautiful, it needs to be straight, long, void of its natural shape and texture, but the freedom I've found from letting my hair exist naturally is worth more than “you are beautiful” will ever be. I live with a neglected pile of messy curls. My friend offers her admiration, and I wonder how it can possibly be true.
Jadzia Miller is a lover of words and art; whether consumed or created, she is excited to explore. This is her debut nonfiction publication.