Hi! Welcome to Hair Diaries, Man Repeller’s newest beauty series. We’ve always believed the weird stuff growing out of our skulls is an extension (pun intended!!!) of our identities, so we’re asking women we love to tell us everything about theirs. First up is Megan O’Neill, ELLE Beauty and Fitness Editor.
“Thing 1 and Thing 2” was my mom’s nickname for me when I was little, because on weekends I roamed around with a woolly, uncombed thicket of knots atop my head. My two biggest passions at the time were changing my name to Jessica and wearing my hair free of braids, but neither was happening when Monday came around. I’d squirm and scream and she’d try to be gentle, but maybe there’s no gentle way to wrestle a comb through a little black girl’s un-chemically treated hair. We were late almost every single day because of the struggle.
On Sundays, we’d condition it. She’d break two raw eggs over my head, or pour an entire bottle of beer on my hair (hops are said to be salubrious), or work mashed avocado into my scalp or, the smelliest option, glop on handfuls of Hellmann’s mayo, leaving it “to soak in” while I ate dinner and watched The Simpsons.
I’d brag to my friends at my predominantly white private school on the Upper East Side that I washed my hair with crazy things like mayo and beer, and they’d be incredulous and impressed. But all I secretly wanted was to use Herbal Essences and have that beguiling scent — the one that still makes me tingly — linger in my hair so that people got a whiff when I walked by.
Years later, during my junior year of college, I finally got a weave. A lustrous mix of African and Hispanic hair. At the time, I loved it. But getting it was such a production! I had a pounding headache for a week, but when things loosened up, it was great. I grew up wishing my hair would hang more — the way my white friends’ hair at school did — instead of standing on end. I didn’t want to be white, I just wanted the kind of hair I saw in magazines and in school and in music videos. Now I had bombshell hair that I could flick over my shoulder. It was exactly what I’d always dreamed of.
I remember the big reveal to my mom. She studied me for a second and then said I looked like a drag queen. I mean, it was a spectacular, top-notch weave (Noel Reid-Killings of Noël New York has got major skills, if you’re in the market for a weave), but I suppose it was jarring for her to see me with piles of hair. I know she also found my relentless hair-flitting annoying.
There’s a very old-school notion that a black woman isn’t presentable, desirable even, if her hair — which is unruly and flyaway and has a glorious life of its own naturally — isn’t kempt. Brushed back and orderly. My mom grew up in the ’60s and that mentality rubbed off on her a bit, which explains our before-school braiding episodes when I was a kid.
But that’s not just a thing of the past. In college I found out that a group of girls — they were black — had been saying that I didn’t know who I was because of the way I wore my hair: coiled up every day in a messy ball with fuzzy tendrils popping up all over the place. The nerve. Their hair was blown-out straight. Now I can roll my eyes and think, “How tiresome,” but back then I was upset. I was mad at those girls for turning against me when they didn’t even know me. For buying into stereotypes when we were all supposed to be young, smart and liberal.
Luckily there are more black people on TV and in the movies now. Not a realistically representative number yet, unfortunately, but better. It makes me realize how nice it would have been to see more people like me in high places. I see now how crucially absent they were.
It wasn’t until my early 20s that I began to relax my hair less frequently and to appreciate its natural puffy texture. I particularly loved the way it looked two months after I’d had it chemically straightened, when it had almost reverted completely. I also started to sleep with braids in, so that in the morning I’d have awesome crinkly strands jutting every which way, which I’d pin back with a thousand bobby pins into a Gibson Girl-esque bouffant. When I first started dating my husband, Jesse, he once texted me that he’d found a little collection of bobby pins floating around in his bed after I’d slept over for the weekend. Like my own Cinderella slippers.
Today I wish that my hair was more abundant, and I desperately need to get my roots done (I love that extreme, white-out Khaleesi look), but I’m crazy happy with it. I look like someone who doesn’t exist in nature. (Well, that’s not totally true: Google “Melanesian people.” They have dark skin and super-blond hair and they are stunning!)
My hair is actually doing pretty well despite going through such a gamut of chemical processes. I don’t even need to chemically relax it anymore because the bleach has changed the texture; it elongates the curl a bit and makes it more manageable. (Also, adding chemical straightener atop bleach is hair suicide, plain and simple.) The blond is like an auto-check in the “cool” box for me. The color is so effusive that I’m not so concerned about my hair texture or whether it’s damaged. Bleach is insanely damaging, by the way, especially for black hair, which has a coarser texture and a very delicate makeup. I admit that sometimes I’m distressed when I find a little broken patch or look at photos of me pre-bleach with tons more hair. But a little damage can look great. I just heap on the moisture and the oils.
I feel more ebullient when my curls are looking great and fluffy and are arrayed in a perfectly haphazard corona around my head and my blond is an awesome, icy shade. Vernon Francois Pure Fro Conditioner has literally changed my hair. It’s such a chic brand. Few things are emollient enough for my hair. Bleach turns your hair into an unquenchable spoiled brat, but this stuff makes it crazily soft and smooth. Also, Dp Hue Cool Blonde Shampoo and Original Mineral Conquer Blonde Silver Shampoo are unreal for keeping the color icy and preventing it from getting gross and orange-y. Using it is like going to a salon. The blond is that amped up afterward! I use those once a week. That’s a lie. I wash my hair every, like, three weeks.
Platinum hair is dizzyingly fun, and I feel a little more inspired each morning, putting on my work clothes. It’s playful and cool and loud — and why not? It’s hair and, yes, it’s momentous and tied to my personal identity and maybe my relationship to my mother and even to my racial identity, but it’s also just hair. It’ll grow back.
Megan O’Neill is the Senior Beauty and Fitness Editor at ELLE. She currently lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn. You can follow her on Instagram at @megagirl.