Yea, I know that we’re not supposed say that we hate anyone. Maybe what I should say is that I hate the experience of getting my hair done in a salon.
I came to this realization about 15 years ago. A white friend of mine got the idea to have her hair braided. She has gorgeous long blond hair. It was summertime, and she wanted a style that would be easy to care for in the heat. A number of her co-workers are black women with braided hairstyles, and gave her the name of a hairbraiding salon in downtown Brooklyn. She asked me if this was the type of place where she could get her hair done.
I told her the truth: “So far as I know.”
Then she asked if I would come along with her. You know for moral support. I shook my head. “Sorry, I can’t come with you.”
I’m not sure what she thought about my answer. She never asked why. And I never told her why. I didn’t tell her that the last time I set foot in a hair salon was in the late 80s. I can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve set foot in a hairdresser as an adult.
Now I’ve read stories ad nauseum about how hairdressers are a woman’s best friend, confidant, and psychologist. There’s even advice on how to break up with your hair stylist. That’s how close the bond is. And that women think of the hair salon as a type of sanctuary, one of the few safe places where we can be themselves and talk about whatever is on their mind. Well, I know nothing about that.
As an adult, the few times when I went to the salon to get my hair braided, it was done so tightly that I went home with a powerful headache, and wound up taking it out before it drove me crazy.
As a child, my mother sent me to the hairdresser to get a perm when I was eleven years old, after I spent the summer with a short afro. This was back in 1969, when sporting an afro was a radical political statement. But my mom didn’t cut my hair into an afro to be political. I liked to sleep with gum in my mouth, and this one time when it fell out and got stuck in my hair, my mom had no choice but to cut it. One of the things that happened to me in a most eventful year.
Before I got the afro, my mom, like all black mothers back then, put my hair under the hot comb in the kitchen. Now I’ve read sentimental essays that where women recalled the love and bonding with their mothers and grandmothers through this weekly ritual. Not me. Every Sunday, I lived in mortal fear of getting burned behind the ears with that hot comb. The worst burn that I ever got was the Sunday when Martin Luther King gave his last public speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” We listened to the TV broadcast while Mom straightened my hair. When he spoke those words, I think my mom had a premonition that he was going to be killed. And sure enough, she was right there at the back of my head—and burned the top of my ear.
Getting my hair straightened with the hot comb was worse than a whipping. If I could’ve gotten out of the hot comb by getting a whipping, I probably would’ve done it—gladly.
That brief summer season when I had my hair in its natural state was the first time that I experienced a relatively painless hairstyle—unless, of course, I didn’t braid my hair up at night. But I’d take that any day over the burns on my ears from the hot comb. Or, when I went to the hairdresser. At first, my mom had the hairdresser use the hot comb to straighten my hair. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t get my ears burned. I couldn’t believe this was ever possible. But the damage was already done. I was traumatized by my experience at home, so I was a nervous wreck when I sat down at the hairdresser. So my mom agreed to give me a perm.
I thought that I that the hot comb was bad, but I didn’t know about bad until I got that perm. Back then, we didn’t have the variety of products available today. We had few options, and all of them were lye-based. The hairdresser treated my thick, kinky hair like it was an enemy combatant. She permed my hair to within an inch of its life so it was bone straight. I was under the dryer for so long that all the other customers had left, and the hairdressers were sweeping up the place. The next day, there would be scabs in my hair from the burns. And sleeping in rollers, to me, is a contradiction in terms.
When I got to my senior year of high school, and mom said she couldn’t afford to send me to the hairdresser anymore, I didn’t say a word. In my mind, I thought, “Thank you, Jesus!” I grew out my curly perm, then went back to the short afro. In the 80s, I wore cornrows, then went to box braids. In the 90s, I just couldn’t take the tight braids anymore, and went to twists. Except for the few times when I went to the hair dresser, I’ve always done my own hair.
My best experience at a hairdresser was actually in a barbershop. For the New Year in 1980, I wanted to get a nice cut for my afro. On the last Saturday before the New Year, I went to the local beauty school, hoping to get a cheap cut from one of the students. But the school was closed for the Christmas holiday, so I ended up going to a nearby barbershop. I was the first customer, and the barber gladly cut my hair. Best haircut I ever had. If I ever get to the point where I can no longer do my own hair, I’ll go right back down to the barber, tell him to chop off these twists, and give me a brush-and-go. No qualms about it.
I mention my hair experience because it seems that a confluence of events has caused the question of black hair to be a topic of discussion this past week. The first was a so-called ‘study’ which reported that “Women with Natural Hair Have Low Self-Esteem.” Frankly, I think this was either a satire, or a bait, because there’s no online reference to the actual study. And if it was commissioned, it was probably done by a company with a vested interested in getting black women to chemically straighten their hair. I won’t dignify this article by providing a link, but Google it, and you’ll see how this has flown around social media.
What I will say it that the trauma of straightening my hair as a child was more of a cause for low self-esteem. What did I hear during all those years of hot comb and perms? “Her head is too hard.” “We can’t do anything with that!” “It’s too nappy!” Even if I wasn’t told those things, just the pain to took for to “look nice” spoke volumes. I swore that if I gave birth to daughters, I would never subject them to that kind of pain in the name of beauty.
Right after I picked up the so-called study about women with natural hair, I saw up an article from Atlanta BlackStar, which said that relaxer sales are slumping, and natural hair is here to stay. Now that I can attest to. Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen more women sporting afros, twists, braids, and locks. I’ve also seen women of other ethnicities embrace their curls and ditch the heat and the chemicals. And the beauty industry has taken notice; there’s a lot more products out there for women with natural hair.
Then, there was the whole flap around Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who identifies herself as black. That’s when we get into the whole discussion about race; representations, and societal reactions to those representations. We may not want to admit it, but hair for black women is still ‘political.’ If you don’t think so, well, tell me the last time you saw an African-American female reporter in a natural hairstyle. I’m not talking about commentators like Melissa Harris-Perry. Or the black female reporters on CNN International, or the BBC. I’m talking network television. There was one black woman reporter with a short afro back in the 90s. As soon as her hair got long enough, she straightened it. Blink, and you would’ve missed it.
Now I won’t give the side eye to women who use perms, hot combs, weaves, or dyes. In fact, I’ve complimented many of them, as people have complimented me on my hair. I just can’t do all that for the sake of beauty. But I can’t help but wonder how Rachel Dolezal got her hair to look like that. Did her hairdresser know her secret? (Probably did. “Only your hairdresser knows.”) Maybe that’s one of those things that we need to #AskRachel, if it hasn’t been done already.