I've been thinking a lot lately about my hair and for that matter my daughters. Now stay with me, I can see your eyes rolling up in your head as yet another black woman discusses hair drama. But give me another second or two. As I have watched black women criticize the amazing gold medal winner Gabby Douglas because her hair was a little messy and not flowing during the Olympics, (obvious these critics have never touched a balance beam or for that matter walked around the block on a hot day!) I had to ask myself, "How am I raising my daughter to love her tight fuzzy curls?"
Part of the 'hair raising' process a black mother has to go through requires understanding how she feels about her own hair. For the first time in my life my hair is breaking - badly. Once I moved to Pittsburgh I decided to treat myself and begin going regularly to a salon, not formally a habit of mine. I have always had long thick hair that proved to be resilient to just about anything. When my regular stylist moved away, I went to a high-end shop in my neighborhood. I was a little wary when a middle aged white male approached, I realized that I'd never had my hair done by a non-minority. He was recommended to me by a black woman whose hair I loved so I jettisoned my trepidation and set back to enjoy the experience. The first bad sign I ignored was the consistent over blow-drying and failure to use any protective products that I recognized. My hair always felt dry when he was done and it was losing its vigor. When I clearly related that I have serious allergies and that if we decided to color I would need an organic dye, I saw a tinge of doubt in his eyes. I bought in the name of a product I knew was okay and he assured me he had something similar. Not. Within weeks of the first color treatment a good chunk of the back of my hair began to break. It is now down to a couple of inches and my scalp is still irritated. The problems seem to be abating but it did give me a moment to think. How much of who I am is tied up in all this hair I had taking for granted? What if it all fell out? How would that affect how I saw myself?
I know this sounds deeper then it needs to but I realized as I trimmed my broken edges that I needed to truly consider why this hair crisis was freaking me out. Indeed anyone looking at my hair had probably not even noticed that I had lost any. I was stunned at the extent in which my mane had become a real part of the whole 'Cheryl' persona. Not being able to control its behavior was personal.
At almost 10 my daughter is in a school where she is clearly the minority. She is used to seeing her mom's straight permed shoulder length hair, a look shared (minus the perm) by most of her classmates. Her hair is equally long but natural, hence once water hits it, her springy coils take on an attitude of their own. I love her hair. I love how it frames her deep chocolate skin and how we can play with a multitude of styles. Still I watch her as she wishes it were more like mine. I tell her it is beautiful but she hates the long sessions necessary to keep it healthy. Tender headed, she isn't enamored by the multiple products, combing, and braiding she has to endure. She has stopped asking for a perm but I watch her eyes light up when I choose to flat iron it and she can look a little more like her friends. Her delight occasionally causes me pain. I remember my early perms and tossing my hair to the point of near whiplash. Somehow I felt prettier and more acceptable. This attitude was enforced by all the adults around me who told me how long and pretty it was. I was in the elite club. My great-grandfather would always admonish, "Girl, don't you ever let anyone cut any of that beautiful hair.' His eyes pierced my thoughts the first time a stylist sliced through my tresses.
With all the beautiful natural hairstyles emerging around us we still are clearly conflicted about our hair. It isn't a simple choice of color or style, it is a deep seated angst that sets black women on edge and causes them to be catty enough to attack a 16-year-old champion. I work across the street from a hair supply store where I've picked up a couple of wigs. As old as I am, I'd never done that before and have loved playing with the textures and lengths. For some black women however, this is serious business. Their short hair has become the bane of their existence and these shops provide a nirvana allowing them to own what they could not grow. Despite the acceptance of so many styles that simply weren't available when I was a kid, the issues seem to be persistent. I shudder when I see 5 year-olds barely able to hold up their heads after packages of braids have been attached to their tiny heads replete with hundreds of beads making sleep uncomfortable at best. What are we already telling them about their own hair even at this early age?
I've read tons of literature on black hair written by a variety of researchers on the subject. I have also had interesting conversations with my white friends who are curious about our obsession. Truly I can't fully explain it. I know this culture of hair hate has been handed down for generations. I know that in the advent of weaves, many a black women has been able to hide their shame in not being 'blessed' to have hair that grows down her back. I am glad that there are so many hair options available. I am all about choice and variety. But there is another part of me that wishes more of my sisters purchased hair accessories just because they enjoyed change, not because they are ashamed of what God has given them.
This leads me back to my daughter. As I began to feel the 'freak out' rise in my throat as the back of my head started to get ragged, I had to think about how she needed to see me react and indeed how I should react. I had the right to be annoyed at the inconvenience and discomfort my negligent stylist had caused. I could not however give it power over both of us. My baby has described me as pretty, funny and smart. She is very proud of me. There is no way I'm going to give that up because of hair drama. I get to show my daughter that despite the end result of my current mini-crisis that short or long, with or without perm, flowing or springy or even gulp - bald--it's just hair.
I want her to play with hers and use it as the accessory it is. I don't want it to define her. I don't want her to think even once that she can't work out, get wet, or play hard because of how it might react. I want to see it free and wild, or soft and subdued, according to her mood. Finally I pray I'm not a part of inflicting on her the angst of my generation and those before me. Part of 'hair raising' and creating a strong and confident generation of young black women is to focus on how to help them maximize their authentic selves. To help raise confident and empowered women where hair is simply a postscript on their lives. I'm planning on raising a child who is happy to be nappy and daring you to say one darn thing to her about it!