I went to my second elementary school for fifth and sixth grade. The first day, I walked onto the playground with my dad, and he laughed at my reaction. There were black kids everywhere. I’m talking at least 85% black student body. Girls were jumping double dutch and I worried because I didn’t know how. In the classroom, before class started, kids were talking about rappers and actors I’d never heard of; I was raised on Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. I knew who Diana Ross was, but had literally never heard the name Puff Daddy. (I thought the first Puffy Daddy song I ever heard, “All About the Benjamins,” was about his family: I thought his last name was Benjamin. It was years before I figured out he was rapping about money, and I’m still relieved that I never revealed my ignorance.) I was able to hide my pop culture obliviousness, but my hair couldn’t be hidden. My first day I was asked, “Why you wearing them dookie rolls?” My two braids were being compared to literal shit. People insulted my hair using terms I’d never heard: edges, kitchen, beads. After a few weeks of crushing loneliness, one of the most popular black girls decided to befriend me; I still have no clue why. She had very long, straightened hair, and one day she let me re-braid her ponytail at lunch. Did you know that black people and white people braid differently? Apparently one race braids overhand and the other underhand. I switch back and forth so I don’t remember which is which. I braided my friend’s hair, and her popular friend from another class walked by and bugged out her eyes. She went back to her lunch table and yelled across the room, “Hey! What did you let her do to your hair?” My friend asked what I did, and I hung my head and tried not to cry and told her I had just braided it. Being friends with a popular girl saved me from people ridiculing my hair to my face, but no one was going to let me forget how different I was from them, the “real” black girls. Towards the end of fifth grade, my popular friend told me one day that we weren’t friends any more. Instead of being sad, I hardened my heart and decided that I didn’t care what anyone thought of me, especially the popular girls.
In seventh grade, I told my black grandmother that what I wanted for my birthday was to get my hair braided. I told her I didn’t want any weave in my hair, but she said I had to get it for the braids to look right. The woman who braided my hair vastly underestimated how thick my hair is, so she used too much weave. My braids were smooth and tidy, but I looked funny because the volume of my hair was greatly increased. However, I was proud of my new do. My mom would sometimes braid my hair when I was little, but those braids were frizzy from day one, and they stuck out at odd angles. These braids we silky and hung straight down, and made my morning routine about fifteen minutes shorter.
Back at school, I got grief for “trying to look black.” This has been an on going issue in my life: I am too white for some black people, and too black for some white people. Many people fetishize my skin color and hair. Many black people assume I think I’m better than them because of my light skin and “good hair;” many white people assume I think I’m better than black people because I don’t “talk like them.” So when the black people in my school ridiculed me for having braids (and not even having good braids, as they were too thick for a pony tail holder), I shrugged it off. I did stop liking the look of my braids, but I still enjoyed not having to wrestle with my hair every morning; I still hadn’t learned how to care for it. When I took them out, I started wearing my hair in pig tails, and I literally didn’t change my style until mid-way through tenth grade. The front of my hair was still a frizzy mess, but I was just glad to only have to wrestle half of my hair at a time.
My bipolar disorder wasn’t diagnosed until 2013, but I can now recognize one of my first experiences with mania: school had been canceled for two days so I hadn’t left the house. On the second night I stayed up late and watched Nirvana: Unplugged on VH1. I started wanting to rebel in some way, but I’ve always been a goody goody, so I settle on releasing my pent up feelings by chopping off most of my hair. (This would become a pattern of mine.) I cut my hair too short to braid, or even put in a curly ponytail. I now officially had to learn how to deal with my frizzy, coarse curls. My white mother had absolutely no advice, I was too embarrassed to call my black grandmother or aunts, and Google wasn’t a thing yet. Through trial and error, I managed to learn how to wash-and-go after a few days. When my hair grew out, I kept wearing curly, rather than going back to the brushed-out-frizz I’d had my whole life. With my new style and comfort with my hair came my introduction to the idea of “good hair.” My grandmother and aunts were proud that I had good hair; the girls in my school were either envious but in a kind way, or nasty, assuming that I was stuck up because of my hair.
Wikipedia defines “Good Hair” as “[A] colloquial phrase used within the African American community to generally describe African American hair (or the hair texture belonging to those of other ethnicities who fit the same description) that most closely resembles the hair of non-blacks (straight or curly), especially those images of hair popularly presented in hegemonic society.” This is why I can’t fucking stand the term. After a childhood of trying to present as white as possible, I was finally comfortable with being biracial, and I loved and respected both sides of my family. I understood that blacks were not “less than,” and I was more aware everyday of racism and racial micro-agressions. Now, because of the way my hair grew, I was set apart; I was considered lucky and pretty because my hair was more like a white person’s than a black person’s. This angered and disgusted me, but I didn’t want to change my hair.
Every now and then I used a straightening iron, because I liked when my boyfriend was able to run his hands through my hair, and because I could wear pig tails that weren’t stiff and fuzzy. But my hair was still fluffy and puffy when “straight”, and I was curious what it would look like if relaxed. I had zero intent of getting a relaxer, but the curiosity was still there. The day of high school graduation, by friend Eve straightened my hair with a hot comb. My hair was silky, bone straight, and completely lacking volume. Eve cornrowed the front of my hair and sent me home, joking in a serious way that I’d better not show up at graduation with pigtails. I got home and looked at myself: I looked like a white girl with a tan. There was no way I was going out in public like this, let alone have my picture taken. I kept the cornrows in and put my hair in puffed pigtails. When Eve saw me at graduation, she shook her head but gave me a huge smile. My hair was very much my style, and I felt like myself.
Throughout college, I wore my hair either out and curly, in a slicked back curly ponytail, or on occasion in straightened pigtails. During finals I kept my hair in a ponytail and wore a baseball cap everyday, because I was still gelling the front of my hair, and I didn’t want to bother when I had so much studying. I was almost completely comfortable with my natural hair. Sometimes people on the subway would ask to touch it, which was weird; sometimes they would touch it without asking, which was incredibly disrespectful. Sometimes people would speak Spanish to me, mistaking me for Puerto Rican. Any negativity people felt about my hair I didn’t hear about. Every day that I wore a ponytail I would gel the front of my hair and wear a bandana until I left the house, but other than that I had zero problems with the appearance of my natural hair.
During the first semester of my second year of college, I had my first break down. I had to quit all of my jobs and drop out of school. My mother took me to the ER one night, where I was prescribed antidepressants. A few months later I was in the ER again, and told I had to do inpatient treatment. Shortly before my time doing inpatient care, I cut my hair to about four inches short. It was a hack job, so I used my dad’s clippers to even it out, which took off at least another inch. I didn’t hate how it looked, and I loved how it felt. I thought about getting a relaxer so I’d have a pixie cut, but my newly cropped locks were so healthy that I didn’t want to slather them in chemicals. I kept my hair cut short for a few months before growing it out again.
One year after my breakdown I moved across the country to live with my boyfriend. My hair had grown to almost shoulder length, and I had decided to grow it out for Locks of Love. But then my man and I got in a huge fight, and in a fit of anger and spitefulness I cut my hair short again. When he came into the room to apologize, he wasn’t looking at me. When he finished talking, he was still looking down, and I handed him a bunch of my hair. The look on his face cracked me up.
After leaving my boyfriend and moving back to Philadelphia, I cut my hair short one more time, but am currently sticking doggedly to my attempt to grow it out for Locks of Love. I’ve managed not to cut it off while going through some really nasty shit, so I think I’ll make it this time. In the past two years I’ve learned even more about how to care for my hair; learning how and how often to comb it, which conditioners to use and how often, etc. I’ve started telling people how rude they are when the ask to touch my hair. When a black woman compliments my hair, I get into a conversation with her about what we like about natural hair and what we like about relaxers. I don’t feel defensive about my hair any more. I actually think that in the last few years, natural hair has become a welcome part of the black community. I’ve so embraced the texture of my hair, that I don’t use any hair gel to smooth my fronts. Maybe twenty times a year, when my hair is short, I will use a styling cream for more definition. But I let my frizz be free, and I refuse to be embarrassed by it.
This doesn’t mean I judge women who use product, or get relaxers, or wear weaves or wigs. I absolutely used to. “Ugh, way to bow down to racist standards! They should be proud of their natural hair!” Yeah, I was a self-righteous asshole. I’m pissed that out culture tells black women that their natural hair is ugly, and that many also judge women for obvious weaves and wigs. Black women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. I think I’m in a good place now: 100% happy with my hair texture and appearance, and 100% supportive of how any black woman chooses to wear her hair. I certainly still think that the standards to which we hold black women when it comes to their hair are incredibly racist and classist, but I can’t and won’t blame women for following cultural norms.