My hair and I have an on-again, off-again, love-hate relationship. It’s a complicated work in progress. Because I choose to braid my hair (with extensions), and because I often leave the braids in a bit (a lot) longer than I should, it is not uncommon for me to spend hours (and I don’t mean just two or three) unbraiding my hair. Quite often the task will drag into the post-midnight hours of the morning. At that point, I’m in a fragile emotional state. My sanity is tenuous. My arms are tired from being raised for a prolonged length of time. My fingers are sore from trying to separate dozens of plaits. My muscles ache from tugging at tangles. And my natural hair usually emerges with the temperament of a hostile stray cat.
Ever since I hit puberty, and my body started to change in ways I hadn’t sanctioned, I’ve been working on accepting and loving my every nook and cranny — my flat feet, my veiny hands, my robust thighs, et cetera. Loving my hair has always been challenging — especially once I came of age and my mother stopped managing it for me. On my best days, I tolerate it. On my worst days, I resent how much time and work it demands of me. It seems to have a defiant mind of its own, and sometimes, I think my hair hates me.
Our dysfunctional relationship is cyclical. Once it’s time for my braids to come out, my hair and I navigate a regular series of steps not too unlike the five stages of grief.
Denial: At first, I pretend that I don’t have to take out the braids. I willfully ignore how fuzzy my roots are becoming. I suppress all memories of how I promised myself that next time (this time) would be different — that I would unbraid my hair in a timely manner and not wait until the inevitable matting had already begun. And if someone (be it a family member, friend, or stranger) pays my hair a compliment —however dubious — I tell myself it’s okay to wait another week (or two…or three…) to take the braids out.
Anger: Once the unbraiding begins (usually a two-part, two-day process), I start to resent my hair. I fantasize about doing violent things to it — like cutting it off. I imagine, with malicious intent, how I might look bald — or at least closely shaven. But I’m afraid to be bald. What if I hate the way it looks? What if my scalp feels naked? So I persevere with bitter reluctance and dejected determination, my temptation to cut it all off tempered by vanity and by my fear of committing to such a drastic change. Short hair is a long-term commitment when your hair grows at a glacial pace.
Each tangle I encounter, each labored pull of the comb, makes me curse my kinks and sigh with nearly defeated exasperation. I hate, hate, hate how hard my hair can be to manage — especially when it first comes out of its braided hibernation. That’s really what the braids are — a way for me to make my mangy monster sleep. But the price I pay for this respite is that every three months or so the beast must be roused. And it always wakes up cranky.
Bargaining: I start to dream about getting dread locks. That way, I’d never have to put a comb to my head again. And isn’t that what my hair really wants? I mean, the whole reason unbraiding my hair is so difficult is because it has begun to dread on its own, like a rebellious teenager defying parental authority. Pondering this option, I am again restrained by a fear of commitment and drastic change. The only way out of a relationship with dread locks is to cut them off completely.
I consider getting my hair “relaxed” again. So what if the last time I got a perm I also got a chemical burn that left me with a bald spot in the center of my head? So what if that part of my scalp has never been the same? So what if the hair there is still shorter, thinner, and more brittle? So what if that spot still feels different when I touch it, even though The Relaxer Incident happened more than fifteen years ago? Those questions take a fraction of a second. Ultimately, I just say no to the chemicals. Resistance is easy when I still have a reminder of how much damage they once did to me.
Depression: It’s pretty humbling to be in my thirties and still not feel complete mastery over my hair in its natural and unfettered state. The more I fight with it, the more I begin to worry that perhaps my hair is smarter than I am — or doesn’t respect me. Obviously, it has its own plans. It frizzes and puffs up and never seems to respect my intentions.
Acceptance: The key to this stage is a lot of conditioner…a lot. It’s like a drug to my hair. And when my hair is doped up on copious amounts of conditioner, it lets me get a comb through it without much resistance. The beast becomes docile, as though I’ve hit it with a tranquilizer dart. Sadly, the conditioner has to get washed out eventually and, after that, things get harder. But, by then, my hair and I have come to a bit of a compromise — the cornerstone of our relationship. I promise to give my hair what it needs: a nightly bedtime combing and braiding, enough “product” to keep it moist and healthy, and protection from all forms of precipitation. For its part, my hair promises to do its best to act civilized in public.
It starts out well, but goes steadily downhill.
Week one: We’re like reconnected friends laughing at old inside jokes. I enjoy the feeling of having my scalp tickled by the teeth of a comb. (It’s a sensation I’m deprived of when the braids are in.) I get a few compliments from well-meaning people who think the afro is cute or fun. Such flattery is bittersweet. Maintaining my afro takes a lot of work. It’s kind of like losing weight because you were violently ill with the flu, and then someone tells you that you look great. You (and your ego) accept the compliment, but you also remember the suffering, and you know it’s not worth it.
Week two: The magic begins to fade. My arms get tired of being up at my head parting, combing, and braiding every night before I go to bed. I become annoyed by how much longer it takes me to get ready in the morning. Maybe it rains, which is akin to triggering a hair relapse. What rain does to my hair is just short of abuse. My hair shrinks back in fear, cowering against my scalp, getting more and more tangled. Then I have to coax the creature out of the cave all over again.
Week three: I’m frazzled and desperate. I want out of the relationship, but I stay in it because (like an insecure girlfriend) I believe it’s the best I can do. The love is gone. I start withholding some of the things my hair needs, just to feel that I have a modicum of power in the relationship. Everything is strained and tense. I begin counting the days until my next hair-braiding appointment.
But as bad as it gets, I never completely lose hope. The progress has been slow, but each day I learn to appreciate my hair a little bit more. Until I can love my hair unconditionally (not to be confused with un-conditioned) when it’s wild and free, I won’t feel guilty for keeping it in braids and only letting it out for as long as I can maintain my sanity.[Headline image: The photograph features a woman of color with her long, curly, natural hair blowing in the breeze. She is wearing a headband with pearl-like ornaments and has her eyes closed.]