“Your hair is going to break. When are you going to braid it, anyway?”
My mother is fed up with me — and by that, I mean worried that her previously ambitious and fiercely independent daughter now spends her days in the fetal position on her iPad, one finger tapping French verbs on Duolingo, the other twirling the kinky coils that are slowly growing out from her third buzzcut in as many years.
For my mother, hair has always been something to battle — to smooth into submission with endless brushing and regular trips to the hairdresser. She doesn’t understand why I prefer to take care of it myself, but a difficult transition out of a job has meant that, recently, I’ve had little energy for much else: The effort I’m struggling to put towards other aspects of my life has found an outlet in weekly deep conditioning sessions and styling experiments. When so much feels out of my control, my hair — its health, color (currently a candle-lit red), and style — feels like a reminder of who I am at my best. It reflects an identity that I don’t currently have the courage to fully inhabit, but which I am trying to nourish back to life.
This wasn’t always the case. As a tender-headed child who screamed her lungs out when getting cornrows (but loved the finished look), I spent most of my youth with chemically straightened hair. The relaxer was as much a bow to convention as it was a child-rearing technique: with my hair straight, the screaming reduced to a sniffle and my mother’s sources of stress reduced by one. Throughout my early teenage years, I largely ignored my hair, which was always in braids to accommodate the unaccommodating British weather and the months I spent in boarding school away from my childhood hairdresser. Hair was just what came out of the top of my head while the rest of me focused on crushing it academically. It never occured to me that there was any other option.
And then, when I was 17, something changed. My older sister, who was in college in the U.S., shared with me a world of black womanhood that I, still living in the English countryside, hadn’t ever imagined: bell hooks, neo-soul, literature written by those outside of the white male canon. Most importantly, she introduced me to Jill Scott. I remember flipping through the cover art of one of her albums, noting her stunning curls and confident stance. It was then that I realized that I, too, could choose to be so self-assured and deliberate with my hair.
My first real haircut — done shortly after while home on Christmas break, in my childhood bathroom, with a pair of craft scissors — revealed the unique texture of my curls. They looked nothing like Jill’s, but they reflected a conscious choice to embody the type of person I wanted to be. Feeling my hair stretch and snap back beneath the pads of my fingers brought me a joy and release that over a decade later, I’ve yet to tire of. (My mother’s reaction to my haircut was less fed up, more horrified: I was sent post-haste to the hairdresser’s for box braids.)
The years since have brought other changes on this journey of self-discovery: three life-shifting moves across oceans, mental health struggles, career questioning, a swell in the circumference of my hips kindly pointed out by relatives on every visit home. My hair has evolved just as much, from a big fluffy afro to kinky twists, a boy-short cut, red flat twists, a shaved parting, a platinum blonde high-top. Each external change marked a transition (the beginning of post-college life, the end of a relationship, a promotion) that came with an internal shift and need to steady myself.
Today, stripped down to a couple of inches of hair and unknown choices ahead, I often feel a little exposed and out of control. But then I reach up for the curls, the curls that fit perfectly around my finger as they slowly push out from my scalp, ever constant, ever true, and I’m reminded that even if it doesn’t feel that way right now, I will find my way back to me. I no longer cry at the salon, but instead choose to be tender with my healing soul, with my tired body, with each patch of frizz I coax into a spiral.
Photo by Ken Hively via Getty Images.