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Unless you’re a black woman you will have great difficulty understanding why hair is such a big deal. You won’t understand the pressure to conform to impossible standard of beauty that Pantene adverts set. You won’t get why certain hair experiences become a rite of passage for us. You won’t know the agony and ecstasy of these glorious locks.
Here’s a story that reflects a deep hair complex that I had. Don’t judge me:
A white friend of mine (let’s call her Sam) invited me to her house for supper and a sleepover. Around midnight we both felt really sleepy and started getting ready for bed. You know the usual – wash your face, brush your teeth, get your pyjamas on… And that’s when it dawned on me…
You’re wearing a wig. She thinks that wig is your hair. How are you going to explain this one to her?
My heart was in my mouth and the pit in my stomach grew bigger and bigger. So what did I do? I kept preparing for bed like everything was all good. Washed my face, brushed my teeth, put my pyjamas on. And hours later when I was sure that she was sleeping soundly I quietly took my wig off, put it away and slipped a beanie on to cover it. I woke u before her, slipped my wig back on and went back to sleep.
Disaster averted. Hey, I said don’t judge me.
A black woman’s relationship with her hair is a love/hate relationship. We’re dramatic about hair because we’ve been through so much with it. We all have different experiences and stories that we could tell. Most of your stories aren’t as crazy (or embarrassing) as mine. But you will identify with at least one of these:
#1 You know what it’s like to not be able to lay your head down for one or two days.
Because some hairdressers don’t just braid your hair, they unleash all their stresses by playing ‘tug-of-war’ on your scalp. So as soon as you get home you pop a pain killer to stop the throbbing, lay a cold towel on your head and resign yourself to sitting up all night.
#2 You’ve had a legitimate fear that your head will be set alight.
Before a really smart person invented fibre that didn’t need to be sealed by heat, there was you sitting very still as someone held a candle to each braid and extinguished the flame with her fingers. Michael Jackson wasn’t the only person who found out what a fire hazard hair can be.
#3 You’ve been caught in a rugby scrum of hairdressers as you walk down the street.
Trying to get from one side of town to another can take you an extra 30 minutes because you’re having to fend off cries of, "Lovie, I can do soft dread quickly for you." or ‘Sweety, siyeluka la (we braid here)!"
#4 You’ve rocked the permanently surprised look.
Also known as a temporary facelift. Admittedly, even though my head is in pain from all the pulling and tugging, I like how my eyes look more slanted afterwards.
#5 You’ve been held between an older woman’s knees in a vice grip.
This older woman is your mom, aunt or sister who were given the task combing your hair when you were little. Some kids had it harder than others. If your hair had a finer texture then maybe you had a more pleasant experience. But if it was thick and very curly then you knew it was on. The tears came down like waterfall, no pain, no gain.
#6 You feel pressured to ‘fix’ your natural hair.
Having natural hair is a struggle. People think you’re doing it because you’re broke, sick or artsy. You can’t be a regular black person who has natural hair and you’ll probably have to endure many a curious stare from strangers.
#7 You wrap your hair in a cloth/doek every night before you sleep.
Because you’re trying to keep your hairstyle neat and intact for as long as possible.
#8 You have to cancel all weekend plans change to your hairstyle.
This is when you’re doing extensions, especially if they’re super thin and/or super long. Depending on how quick the person doing your hair is, you could spend anything between 3 hours and 30 hours sitting in a chair having your hair done. You even have water and stretch breaks in between, it’s that deep.
#9 And then keep your extensions for longer than you should because you don’t want to have to book out another weekend.
While the cloth/doek can extend the life of a hairstyle for several weeks, you know you can’t keep it forever. But that doesn’t keep you from trying. Eventually, having given up, you very strategically invite some of your girls over for the weekend so they can help you undo your hair. It’s going to be a long night!
#10 You know that olive oil isn’t just for cooking.
That’s right. And you have alternative uses for castor oil, shea butter and apple cider vinegar.
#11 You’ve been tortured by the self-imposed itch that can’t be scratched.
This is a symptom of having kept your weave on for too long. So your hair goes on strike and tries to force you to set it free. But instead of rectifying the situation you use a coping mechanism. You use whatever you can find in there- a knitting needle, a poker, anything to relieve the itch. You pat your weave.
#12 You’ve been defeated by the un-combable afro.
There are many women out there who would love to keep their hair natural but really just can’t. You’ve tried and failed to tame it. You’ve even lost a few afro combs in there and have a whole pile of combs with missing teeth. Not even the champion metal afro comb could conquer it, the teeth got pulled out of the base.
#13 You have an album of mom and dad’s photos featuring the greasy, curly perm.
You could fry an egg on that afro. It’s awesome.
#14 Car hair.
The thing about certain textures of black hair is that once it has decided to take a certain shape, it’s impossible to persuade it to change. This kind of resilience is to be admired but not when your head is flat at the back and then rises to an awkward peak at the top of your head. Awkward.
#15 You’ve joined the natural hair revolution.
Shout-out to all the natural hair bloggers out there! It’s rainy season, you’re all good. You can take a shower and stand directly beneath the spray. You can swim whenever you want to. You think you’re more holy than peeps who aren’t rocking a ‘fro but you’re really not.
#16 You don’t tell people that you can braid hair.
Because if you do you will never have weekends free!
#17 You’ve forced back the tears as you burn.
And you’ll do it again 6 weeks later (or 4, depending) because relaxed hair must be processed regularly. The best way to describe the feeling is that it’s like having your scalp sliced with a million razor blades at the same time, sprinkling salt on the wounds and then massaging peri peri sauce into it.
#18 And then taken a million selfies of your beautifully straight hair.
Because people must see!
#19 But then the next day it rains.
Unfortunately you left home unprepared and your worst nightmare is about to come true.
#20 So you discover the other use of plastic bags (amaCheckers).
And when you look around you see hundreds of women like you who hairstyle has lived to die another day.
#21 You’ve done The Big Chop.
Out of sheer frustration and exhaustion you’ve decided to shave it all off. And you’ve been pleasantly surprised at how gorgeous you look. India Arie was right, you’re not your hair!
Did leave anything out? Leave a comment here!
I wrote this with the help of @shonatiger! Do follow her.
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