Essay: Hair Trajectory by Sharisse T. Smith
My husband knows the hair rules, the whens and the when-nots. Like the first week of braids, when it hurts to think or even breathe. Definitely a when-not. With braids, I don’t have to worry about the moisture in the air, or the tiniest bit of rain, or the fluffiest drop of snow. When my hair is braided it is the closest thing I will know to being a white woman. And my image of attractiveness was all wrapped up in blonde during my formative years. In terms of hair, being a white woman has always seemed easy, breezy. You know, beautiful.
The only difference between uncomplicated hair and braids is that during this peace-filled state my head throbs for the first few days. My scalp starts to itch shortly after the style is in and continues to itch for the next six to eight weeks. I worry constantly if the braids are too tight. Will I have any edges when I take my hair out? Some people may not realize that edges (hairline) can get pulled too tight. If the area is stressed or damaged too much, hair will not grow there anymore. You will be forever edgeless. The price you pay for beauty. Or in my case, just to be normal, to fit in, to blend.
Like a pregnant woman, I’m on display constantly, or at least my hair is. People love to touch pregnant women’s bellies, and they’d probably like to touch my braids, but most don’t. Not without asking. Instead, they ask me what I consider to be silly questions: “How long did that take and how do you wash it?” Or even worse: “Do you wash it?” This starts a whole different topic.
I sit for eight to twelve hours to get the braids in. Half that time’s required to take them out, if someone’s willing to do it. There’s been such hatred and envy among black women over hair. It makes me wonder if the last person who took my braids out really cut my hair by accident. “Oops,” she said before placing her hand over her mouth. Could it have been her way of getting back at me for having hair slightly longer than hers? All she ever commented on was how long my hair was. Why did she use the scissors? Why not just take a few extra minutes and unbraid them from the bottom? It’s all so crazy the more I think about it. I’m glad we appear to be turning a corner.
Being white for a few weeks at a time is such a relief from the normal hair drama of being this black woman. But on my wedding day I was not worried about being white or black, pressed or curled. I wanted to be beautiful. The most beautiful I could be. There was a man waiting at the end of the aisle, waiting to marry me, braids and all.
Months earlier at our ultrasound appointment, when the doctor had informed us of the gender of our baby, I was overjoyed. I’d always wanted a girl but was afraid to hope. My fiancé was slightly disappointed. He was hoping for a future NFL star. My pink thoughts flashed directly to a bright pastel stroller I’d just eyed in Target.
“It’s a girl!” I said.
Then: “It’s a girl, honey. Oh no, it’s a girl. What will I do with her hair?”
The thought almost paralyzed me. My childhood fantasies of having a female child didn’t come with the real-life complications my hair produced. I was going to have a little girl, a real girl, with real hair. No Barbie. My husband wasn’t white as he had been in my childhood dreams. Well, part of him was, but no one believed that until they met his mother. My daughter was going to have black hair, and the worst part was that it might be difficult to manage like mine.
“Babe, what am I going to do?”
“Her hair, what am I going to do about her hair?”
“No offense, babe, but do you think she might take after my side?”
I wouldn’t answer him. I tried to look insulted but secretly hoped he’d be right. He didn’t grow up around the challenges of female black hair care. The women in his family had hair that I dreamed about—straight, curly, manageable without chemicals or pressing combs. Girls he’d dated wore perms that straightened their locks when blown dry and that made it wavy when wet. My struggle had no precedent for him, and now he would be witnessing the struggle times two.
I was very specific when I told God “Don’t give me a daughter, and if you do, please give me one with better hair than mine.” My guess is that the telling is where I went wrong. After the first three years, my daughter’s hair lost its babyfine manageability. I was afraid she might follow my torturous path. But no. BJ’s hair is already longer and thicker than mine will ever be. Products have come a long way since the ’70s, and stylists are more sensitive to people with tender scalps.
BJ will discover how to manage her locks without truly accepting them. I already see it. She will have a much easier road than I did without realizing it. She’s starting off with an advantage that she’s too young to understand.
BJ is a year younger than I was when I first started getting my hair professionally done. By age eight, neither my mother nor I could stand the process any longer. It was a relief to have someone else wash, blow dry, and press my hair every other week, although that relief caused me extreme pain and an incredible dependence on the process.
The truth of the matter is I would have hated someone like my daughter whenI was growing up, based on nothing more than appearance. Her skin is a shade lighter than mine, her tresses do naturally all the things that mine won’t. Yet none of that matters to her. She is already not satisfied with the mane on her head. She wants the interchangeable hair that she watches me buy and wear, take off, and hang up. Her eyes light up as if I have so much freedom, so many choices.
What she fails to realize is true freedom comes from utilizing what you are born with. Not what you can buy in a beauty supply store owned by someone who doesn’t trust you in their store. I am not free at all and I want her to be.
If I give in to what she wants, she will start getting her hair done every two weeks, just as I did. “When’s my next appointment with Ms. Stephany?” She’s already asking about the stylist who does her hair on special occasions, on average about four times a year. I remind her that not everyone will be as patient as Ms. Stephany. Not everyone will put up with the yelling and screaming, the cries of “I can’t take it anymore,” all while working conditioner through the child’s wet, thick, curly hair with a wide-tooth comb only to repeat this combing-out process after rinsing her hair and putting it in four sections before starting to blow it dry.
My daughter hasn’t learned, as I had to, that you must brace yourself for your hair appointments, and during the appointments themselves. When you are a little black girl, this is a complicated emotion that gets more complex as you get older. You start to view the beauty salon in a negative way, much like a trip to the dentist when you have eight cavities and the thought of drilling gives you nightmares.
But when you leave the shop, you feel like the most beautiful little girl in the world. You look older. You feel better and the pain gets tucked away in the place that little girls tuck physical pain. You still feel the throbbing in your head, but your reflection in the mirror soothes the hurt. After a while, you learn that if you sit still and use the force in your body to grip each side of the chair, you will be stronger than the comb raking through your tangles. You make yourself an anchor and no longer allow your head to be thrown around like a rag doll in a dog’s mouth. By your teenage years, you’re not scared anymore, so you ask hairdressers to hold your hair at the root when they comb it or brush it out.
A trip to the beauty salon is not a pleasurable experience when you are tenderheaded, and regardless of how much you explain your pain to your stylist, unless they have a sensitive scalp, they just don’t get it. Another customer or a schoolmate will ask my child, “Why don’t you just get a perm?” My child will ask me the same question despite the many reasons I’ve already given her: how damaging the chemicals are for her natural hair. How she is too young to change the texture of her hair with manmade products. That I want her to be an adult and make those lasting decisions about her hair. BJ will insist I’m being unfair and old-fashioned and that I don’t understand. Oh but I do.
I begged my mother for my first perm in junior high school. My male hairdresser assured the both of us that this “virgin” perm would be safe and help to eliminate the tight curls in my hair that made combing it out so painful. My hair wasn’t coarse or nappy, it was quite the opposite, but that didn’t stop it from shriveling up when water hit it and resisting any comb that tried to get through it.
The no-lye chemical seemed my perfect fix. But whatever substituted for the lye did just as much damage and left me bald in the back of my head. I wore cornrows to disguise the area. Hair grew back within a few years, but it took the braider several months to be able to “catch” an inch of hair to braid.
With hair as thick as my daughter’s and the advancements in hair care products I don’t imagine she’ll have this same experience. But why risk it? And for what, straighter hair? Possibly. More manageable? In the interim. BJ is a little girl. The reality is I won’t have that long to make these decisions for her. It took me forty years to find my hair solution, a sewn-in weave completely different in color but not longer than my natural hair. It’s definitely thicker, and much more versatile, with no stubborn grays to contend with.
It’s ironic that my daughter now wants hair like mine. Nevertheless, I’m excited that she’ll develop in this time of our hair revolution. She can be curly, straight, bald, faded, or with hair down her back, braided, weaved, loc’d, twisted, fro’d out, wearing a wig one day and not the next. Just like me, finally, she will wear the hair.
The hair will not wear her.