My mom always did my hair. Mostly because she knows how and it’s free- $50-200 dollars is a lot to drop on braids or a press for a 12 year old. I like to think she also did my hair, and sometimes still does, for the quality time, the shared mother-daughter experience. There were the epic ten hour braiding sessions, her rushing to beat the sun, both of us struggling to stay awake, fussing about how far my neck is capable of twisting, laughing about about the latest crazy thing my aunt said. And there was the stove top rendezvous, smells of Blue Magic and singed hair wafting through the air, my mom trying to convince me that the big cast iron comb hadn’t burnt me, repeating “Baby girl… it was the STEAM,’ over and over, a smile spreading across my face as she brushed it up and put a plastic ponytail on top so I could bounce off to picture day or baccalaureate or whatever. It was old-school styling based on the premise that to be acceptable kinky black hair must be processed chemically or physically, manipulated, or constrained in some way, but I loved it.
She doesn’t do my hair much any more. In fact, I more frequently do hers, installing big, puffy Marley braids for her to pile on top of her head or wear swinging down her back. I had to leave for college, and although I could always get a set of my mom’s twists done when I was home for Thanksgiving, that wasn’t enough. I had to learn how to do my hair myself. I watched Youtube voraciously. Everything I now know about taking care of my hair I learned from the women in the videos. I listened as they explained pre-pooing, demonstrated bantu-knot-outs, twist-outs, and everything-else-outs, and preached the miraculous gospel of the wash-n-go (it had never occurred to me that it could be ok to simply wash and condition my hair and then walk out the house). I invested in a silk pillowcase and a Denman Brush, and filled my dorm room with coiling custards, Eco-Styler gel, and shea butters. Armed with my new skills and my new products, I felt amazing- until I had to go to the salon.
I’m not as talented as the natural hair celebrity vloggers, and sometimes my hair just needs to be done- ends trimmed, kinks pulled straight to match my line sisters’ for a step show or curled around flexi rods for graduation. I used to loathe the experience. In Boston there was, it seemed, no salon that knew how to both style my hair and make me feel good about it. Most of the time I went to a little place in Mattapan that was the go-to joint for almost every black girl at Wellesley College. The stylists there were nice, and I always walked out looking fabulous, but they had no idea what to do with my hair when it wasn’t straight. At this salon every service- even a simple trimming of dead ends- required my hair to be pressed bone straight, a process that is unavoidably damaging to one’s hair, because that’s all they knew. And, during each visit somebody or their momma would try to convince me that what I really needed was a perm.
Eventually I was able to find another salon, this time one that specialized in natural hair. Oddly though, everyone who worked there seemed to hold a grudge against naps. When I walked in with my super tight kinks and curls, the owner of the salon would audibly sigh. Then the wash girl would aggressively brush my hair like she was trying to pull out a demon, causing chunks of my hair to snap off and fly about the room. When it was time to actually style my locks, I would be subject to a barrage of microaggressions- my hair was very coarse, incredibly dry, so stubborn, and so on and so forth. At this establishment, I walked out looking good, but feeling awful.
These were fellow black women, trained technicians, and they either had no idea what they could do with my hair’s natural curl pattern, or felt comfortable openly expressing their disdain for it. When I moved back to D.C. after school and needed my first trim, I was filled with apprehension but determined to find a stylist. I decided to try out a U St. salon. I walked in with low expectations and my guard up, expecting the stylists to stare at me with panicked eyes or suck their teeth in annoyance at the sight of my hair. Instead, I was greeted with a smile. A white woman with a thick Russian accent and the name Galya carefully combed out my shrunken twist-out, washed it, and then exclaimed “Oh my, what lovely curls you have!” while picking at my soaked tendrils. I was stunned. No one had ever looked at my hair in its most tightly wound, organic state and said it was beautiful. Galya proceeded to give me the best press of my life, raving about how fabulous my hair is the whole time. When she finished she asked, “Why did you get a press today?” I told her that I needed a trim, so I figured she would need to straighten my hair first. A pained look crossed her face. “Oh no. No,” she insisted. “You don’t worry about that. I trim your hair curly. I know how.”
Tears welled up behind my eyes as she put on finishing touches and sent me out the door. How could this be? How could this white woman know more about my hair and find it more beautiful, than my mother and every stylist I’d ever had combined? I already knew the answer. My mother and I, my Boston hair stylists, their teachers, the other women in the salons- we’ve all internalized the same disdain for our hair; we’ve all been taught that straight hair is better, more professional, more elegant, more beautiful, that naps are a problem to be solved, and that before all else natural black hair must first and foremost be tamed.
I refuse to follow those societal teachings any more. A week ago I went to the salon and got my hair cut into a style for the first time in my life- while it was in its most kinky, cottony state. I intend to wear it this way for a good long while. And this time, I don’t need Galya or anyone else to tell me that it is beautiful. Finally, I can see that for myself.