Reclaiming my mane
I’m six years old. As I run to the northeast corner of the field, escaping the unholy touch of the fellow first grader racing behind me, I zigzag through the tall wooden stalks. I’m exasperated, but there’s no time to breathe. I’m sprinting. I’m sweating. I’m… yanked backwards.
It’s a familiar pain. My mother, too, would pull on the crown of my head; the thick hairbrush was my only enemy as a child. My large, curly hair is caught along a clutter of pine needles and thin, rough branches. I’m forced to heel to my untamed mane, it’s unruly curls intently hugging the branch. “Tag. You’re it.” Hair 1 - Sara 0.
I’m eight years old. My mother keeps my hair short. She tells me it’s beautiful every morning, but she can hardly handle it past my shoulders. I wonder why that is. My dad tries to tie my hair into two even clusters on each side of my head, but he can’t manage to split my hair in half without my harrowing slaps to his hands; his hands were twice the size of mine. We resort to two hair clips, again.
In P.E. today, we’re learning how to do somersaults and cartwheels, the mats letting out a breathless squeak with each eager hand and head pressing upon it. I’d never done a somersault before, but the other students face the bright blue surface with confidence. As I kneel to the ground, my hands placed firmly along the edge of the mat, I hurl my arched body forward.
Crack. Crack. Crack. “Hadn’t heard that one before,” my P.E. teacher said, ushering me off the mat. I get up, my large hair clips are now small, tattered, colorful sprinkles scattered along the top of the blue padding. Hair 2 - Sara 0.
I’m 11 years old. Tomorrow is the first day of middle school, and what I’m going to wear is the last of my concerns. I’ve been fumbling with my hair for two hours now, recycling through clips, scrunchies and bobby pins with no luck. I sneak into my mother’s room, stealing the faded black hair straightener from her bathroom cupboard.
This sizzle is not a good sign, even I can tell, yet I keep forcing the wet hair to befriend the hot tool. I just want to look normal. My arms hurt and I’m not even halfway done. Monday morning, I settle for a tight bun, pulling my half straightened, half curly strands taut into a non differentiable poof. No human has felt root pain like this. Hair 3 - Sara 0.
I’m 14 years old. I have a B in chemistry — I don’t understand the chemical names the hairstylist is warning me about. I heard Beyonce perms her hair straight, even Michelle Obama. My mom encourages me to think this through one more time. She straightens her hair every morning. I scroll through Youtube video after Youtube video about chemically straightening hair. A plethora of melanin-deficient girls demonstrate at-home methods to straighten hair or show me what to watch out for when getting it done professionally, all starting with a not-so-convincing disclaimer that my natural hair is beautiful as is. Easy for you to say, Bethany.
I end up forfeiting my efforts to permanently straighten my hair, submitting to my mother’s pleas to try purchasing products designed to manage my curly locks. There’s a separate section for products targeted towards my hair type at Target, one-fifth of an aisle long. I’ve never browsed the other four full-sized aisles of hair products. Did I really empty my allowance money for my entire upper body to reek of coconut oil for the next month? Hair 4 - Sara 0.
I’m 17 years old. I’ve worn my hair all the way down three times during my senior year, the only three times I’ve worn it down within the last 7 years. I imagined it’d be a liberating experience: the final ‘huzzah’ from my years of perfecting the ratios of curling creams, mousses, diffusers, sprays and gels. My friends compliment the curls, bouncing a well-moisturized curl between the thumb and index. “It’s so springy,” they applaud. I woke up an hour early for this — it better be.
Liberating is the last word I’d use to describe how I feel when I open my hair. Does my hair want to part left? Right? Center? There’s not a mirror in front of me in class— what does it look like right now? Does the back have that weird lump that it gets when I touch it too much? Did that curl just unravel? Is it getting frizzy already? I’m tying it up.
I still read articles about the joy in letting your “vivacious, unapologetic and ethnic curls” bounce freely, the way they were naturally designed to. Natural. The word resonates with me after every “Afro Love” or “Keeping it Curly” article I read. I’m told that I need to use an avocado mask every Tuesday, followed by a mayonnaise mask every Thursday and an egg white mask every Sunday, three curling creams (each targeting different hair ‘concerns’), $50 organic shampoo and conditioner, a $30 diffuser attachment to my hair dryer, and four tubs of extra-virgin unrefined coconut oil. What about all this ‘go natural’ propaganda is supposed to come off empowering? I’m broke.
I read a post yesterday about Michelle Obama’s straight hair throughout her husband’s presidency: her natural hair would’ve been too radical a statement for the White House. I wonder what my reaction would’ve been to this news three years ago. I’ve already prepared my resignation letter to the future employer who not-so-respectfully, respectfully asks me to ‘appropriately manage my hair for the workplace.’
I recognize your concerns for maintaining a sophisticated appearance in the office, but I promise you that my hair is much more troublesome for me than it is for you.
This is also my two-week notice, by the way.
To this day, I still can’t say I like the rat’s nest that claims itself as my hair. I’ve been through hundreds of dollars worth of products and countless hairstyles to figure out what the hell God intended when he placed this frizzy crown atop my undeserving head — he hasn’t answered me yet.
I’ve yet to come to terms with the fact that I’ll need to wake up twenty minutes earlier than my colleagues to tame my mane when I slug over to my corporate job, or that my bank account may never see the beauty of a 4+ digit number, or even that I have to explain to every person I pass by (whom I may or may not know) that it is in fact home grown, but I’m going to pretend.
I’m going to pretend because my mother did not slave for hours brushing a single section of my untamable poof for me to relax away the curls that spring with the memory of her own hair, her mother’s, and her grandmother’s. This ball of frizz may be a rat’s nest, but it’s the rat’s nest that’s grounded me to branches all my life, that’s revered through countless broken, plastic bits snuggled deep within its layers, that’s made it through puberty with me, my first kiss with me, that horrible chemistry class with me.
My hair is the annoying sister I never had, tugging me left and right to pay her attention. I’ve never come to like my hair, and I don’t know if I ever really will, but secretly, I’m kind of excited to see what else we’re gonna experience together. Until then, I’m going to reset the match. Hair 0 - Sara 0. Hopefully, we each gain a point with every new broken hair clip, that pile of s--t and I.