Thick legs, dappled with deep pockets of cellulite, were my human pillows as my mom sat me on the floor and fixed my hair every morning of my childhood. “Two, three or four,” she’d always question before she began plowing the edge of the comb through my thick, natural, reddish hair to give me the requested number of ponytails. Already there were rules: more than four ponytails wasn’t classy, nor were mismatched barrettes. A side pony-tail or a bang were a mark of growing up and if done too soon—of a girl being fast.
Many of the same mothers who had marched in the street and twisted their hips to “So Black and So Proud” stopped braiding their little girls hair and instead opted for more universally accepted hairstyles (which is a nice way of saying “White hairstyles” — because braids are exponentially more prevalent globally than ponytails—but I digress).
The length of one’s hair and the ability to grow it was also a status symbol. “Lauren got hair all the way down her back! Wonder if she got Indian in her blood?” And one could come home from college with bad grades; but don’t you dare come home from school with shorter – let alone truly short – hair, “Gal, why you done cut all dat pretty hair off. I’ll never understand you young folks. Now you walkin’ round here lookin like a boy.”
Even the products one used bonded some and elevated some. There were those who just used water and baby oil or “Just For Me” to maintain their locks. Most of us had jars of thick green or blue grease painted down our scalps by an elder’s fingertips to try to control and moisturize our coils. Your arsenal of products spoke to your grade of hair; and truth be told—to some—the quality of your hair.
There were also milestones associated with hairstyles. In elementary school, a sign of maturity was when a little girl was allowed to cut a bang to rest on her forehead and be rolled up in a pink, sponge roller at night. Or I remember when I moved from multiple ponytails to one. The most significant sign of growth was when a little girl was granted permission to straighten her coils, either by straightening comb or relaxer.
Though half the time I had my jaw clenched in utter fear of my mother burning the top of my ears, forehead or neck – and the other half of the time I got “hit upside my head” for not being still, some of my fondest memories are of my mother standing behind me in her housecoat and slippers pressing my hair, while Al Green, Gladys Knight or Earth Wind & Fire played on the record player.
At the time that I got my first relaxer, there wasn’t an issue about straightening your hair. Actually, there was more of an issue of when you didn’t (“why don’t that gal do somethin’ with her hair”). When I got older the Jheri Curl came to be the trend. People crack on folks now for having them; folks have burned prom and graduation pictures trying to erase any evidence of the nights of plastic caps, perm rods and activator; but back then the Michael Jackson / Ola Ray style was all that (and then some).
During the Jheri Curl era, I rocked the Lisa Lisa look: shaved sides, eye-blocking swooped bang, long shag. You could do whatever you wanted during that time, without judgment: pieces, jheri curls, perms, wave nouveau, finger waves, dyed blond, red or purple. As long as you looked like you got up in the morning and gave a damn what you looked like, no one gave a damn what your look was.
But, it’s different now. We’ve cycled back to the 60s and 70s again and now a person’s hairstyle oftentimes speaks to one’s politics (even unintendedly). A woman who relaxes her hair straight, dyes her hair blond, or wears a weave is often accused of not loving herself, her race or culture and trying to assimilate with the majority culture. T-shirts, websites and books are dedicated to the celebration (and liberation) of wearing one’s natural hair. There is a bonding, it seems, between women who have made the “big chop” and wear their hair free of chemicals—a community, an elevated sisterhood. With many, there is an arrogance, a knowing that religious people often have: “the others don’t know, po’ thangs. They ain’t ready. They ain’t conscious. They ain’t free.”
I get it. I, who am dependent on my hairdresser more than I am my man, can relate to the feeling of superiority when you feel as if you have arrived at a real truth, a higher level of self-acceptance and love than some around you. I have that thang, if I’m honest; but not when it comes to hair. I don’t feel the need to refrain from putting chemicals in my hair. Does that mean I’m not Black enough? Does it mean that I don’t accept my roots (figuratively and literally)?
I started thinking about the whole Black woman hair thing after the hullaballo over Halle Berry’s hair at the Oscars. Many people had something to say about her natural, curly, hair with blond highlights; and then many people had something to say about what people had to say. I saw some verbal sparring and overheard some conversations at the beauty shop. I didn’t like Halle’s hair. I think her hair is beautiful in its natural state. I just thought that it was too casual of a style for such a formal occasion. Does this mean that I’m not “down”, “woke”, don’t appreciate natural hair? It doesn’t. There are styles that have been achieved by chemicals, heat and or weaves that I also don’t care for. Is that okay? Can one have a style preference or opinion without it speaking to her overall hair dogma? Can’t a Sista with a relaxer or a long weave love herself and her people as much as a Sista with dreads? If we are working towards acceptance of all that we are individually and collectively as Black women, can we start with respecting each other’s choices?