Our Hair, Don’t Care: Tamu McPherson
Tamu McPherson | Sunday April 29th 2018
Sense of Beauty
It all started in Jamaica with a pearl-clustered beret clipped smack and center at the top of my head, evidencing the only hair I had as an infant. It then proceeded into braids tied with ribbons on the end when I could walk. To cute side ponytails and multiple daily hairstyles between 4 and 6 with pictures that documented each new style. By the time I moved to the US, my aunt was weaving plastic pearlized hearts through my hair or applying handmade rosettes. Whatever fit her fancy. Then there were the presses on special occasions, that hurt spectacularly but which were “beautiful” for the four hours they lasted.
The love and care that my mother and aunt put into my hair was was a healthy ritual. They were always so happy when they came up with a new style, or even simply just with combing my hair. Their joy brings me only positive memories when it comes to the beauty of my hair. I remember, and I have shared this before, one of my favorite memories of my mother was when I would sit between her legs and she would comb my hair. This quiet time and mother daughter intimacy is incomparable and irreplaceable. I remember how warm she felt, how safe I felt, how beautiful she smelled, the calming vibrations of her voice, and especially her sweet laughter. Additionally, even though both my mother and aunt relaxed their hair, my mother did not allow me to get a relaxer until I was a teenager. She believed that relaxers were for adults and young girls should wear their hair natural. So, most of the time we spent styling my hair was less about transforming the the true nature of my hair and more about making my hair the prettiest and most healthy in its true form. As a child and teenager, this was a huge – no, massive – sore spot for me, but in hindsight, my mother’s reluctance to permanently straighten my hair was an indirect lesson in individuality (all of my family and friends had a relaxer at a certain point – even an uncle), and self love.
Loss of Innocence
Around 14 years old, when I entered adolescence, my relationship with my mother and hair fell apart, and it was of course all my fault. My mother, who has always been selfless, tried her best to manage the nightmare that I had become. She worked around the clock to pay for the new house she had purchased us, to save for my college tuition and to provide all other reasonable comforts. I showed my appreciation with unrivalled and pathetic bitchiness. It was like when the puberty hormones hit, I became that moody, manic teenager that many of us can remember being with stinging and shameful embarrassment.
The healthy relationship that I shared my mother unravelled at that point, and as a consequence, so did our routine surrounding my hair. Sleepovers, parties or constant hanging out at friends homes, anger at something that my mom would not let me do, irrational blow-ups and ridiculous tantrums, plain old meanness on my part, made something as simple as a weekly appointment to wash my hair impossible. And the right of passage when she would have taught me how to manage on my own never happened because of my obstinance. I don’t know if she wanted to avoid me entirely, but if she did, I wouldn’t blame her. I wanted my own space; to talk on the phone, to blast music in my room, to obsess about celebrities and fashion. I had a part time job, a boyfriend, and other activities that reduced our already limited time together. There was no more time to wash my hair, no more time for the all around grooming that went beyond my hair and encapsulated other aspects of life.
As would be expected, my hair suffered greatly from this interruption in our relationship. I remember starting high school with a healthy, thick ponytail and a big fluffy bang, to experiencing breakage for the first time, resulting in hair that resembled a well-worn straw welcome matt at best. My head of shiny kinky curls reduced to a broken, tangled, matted mess, a state that basically represented how I treated my mother. A web of emotions that I couldn’t control, a deep crack in the respect expected for a parent whose selflessness exists unconditionally, and the whole experience, a maze, extremely difficult to navigate.
I remember being so frustrated at the time. Trying to work with what my hair had become. At one time it was in such bad condition. But as many of you can relate, it’s such a strange and heavy period of our lives, and little makes sense. We often feel so helpless and often are just as helpless in our actions. I probably went to school with what looked like a abandoned bird’s nest on my head for weeks between the times that I was calm, pleasant and present enough for my mother to get her hands on my head. And all along, despite the hurt and bewilderment that I expect she felt, she was strong, and patient. And when I finally emerged from that horrible phase, she was there to support the next stops on my hair journey.
Discovering my personal style under the influence of pop culture and my peers
After the shock of adolescence waned, I entered the moment in my hair journey where I was influenced by my peers and the endless inspiration found in hip hop and dance culture. I moved on to having my mother braid my hair and letting the ends spiral naturally for a look that resembled dreadlocks. This was the height of my club-kid inspired style, mixed with my admiration for anything afrocentric. It’s funny: in this phase, I wanted nothing else than to be considered unique, and I drew a great part of my style inspiration from the trends that I observed on the afternoons that I “ran away” from Nyack to window shop and people watch in the West Village. At the time. I listened to an eclectic mix of dancehall, and popular hip hop bands like De la Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kwame, and house bands like Black Box (back then, I had no clue they were Italian) and Deee-Lite. I infused all the flavour that I received from my favorite music into my personal look – from my brogues and vintage levis to my crown of faux locks.
A couple years into wearing my locks, my need for a relaxer became urgent and I begged, cajolled and negotiated with my mother to let me have one. Relaxed styles at the time were so boss, girls would go to the Bronx and get their hair cut into the sickest bobs, and my Jamaican friends were whipping up out of this world styles – literally, the higher the better, the more constellations, even better. Everywhere I turned, my friends were living what I felt like was their best hair life. It was customary at the time to spend Sunday afternoon at the local park in Spring Valley, the town over from Nyack. Friends would catch up after a long week, listening to music, and now that I think about it, just peacock. And I can remember distinctly the times that Kelly and Tyese would roll into the park in their convertible Jeep with their hair freshly done. They were so pretty and so shiny and their weekly “dos” were mini-events in the course of our weekly routine. Anyone who appreciated a good haircut got excited. I suffered so much over not being able to get close to these styles with pressed hair.
I finally talked my mother into allowing me to get a relaxer when I was 16. Off I went with my friend Tanza to this Jamaican hair salon on Flatbush Avenue – this is 1992, it’s not the Flatbush Avenue that you are thinking of today. The whole experience was amazing, because here we were: three teenage girls on a day trip to Brooklyn, a Jamaican Mecca that we dreamed about visiting everyday. As sometimes is the case, I should have known something was wrong when the woman who usually did her hair was out for the day and we randomly picked another salon where the hairstylist used Revlon Super on my hair and washed around 30% of it down the drain with the neutralizer. I remember my hair being so straight and limp, like a wet dog, and I surely didn’t get the fly AF haircut that Kelly had with what I had left.
Hair relaxed, I started the part of my journey that included trips to my local salon – which is probably where I should have stayed because the stylist there was amazing at caring for my hair. But as usual, New York City and whatever the cool girls were doing always sucked me in.
I entered my phase of going to the Dominicans on 149th Street for blowouts and my hair wrapped into the pinned style known as a doobie. Then there were the numerous times that my Jamaican side got the best of me, and I pursued styles that included pin curls swirled up into a pineapple on top of my head and then sprayed with bronze hair spray. It was amazing, trust me. And the adventures with friends to get the styles done were always bonding moments. Especially because a trip to a black hair salon is usually a day long event.
Fast forward to Binghamton University where the bonding with my peers continued as the single black hair salon was inconsistently opened and we had to do our own hair in our dorm rooms. Most of the girls were experts at managing their own hair, often did each other’s relaxers or styles and they taught me a lot about hair care. We fell into a weekly schedule where everyone knew when everyone else was washing their hair. We also started to inevitably wear the same styles. There were moments when we all wore braids, those frigid winter moments when we covered our hair with silk scarves and berets. It was such a natural and organic part of our relationships and the way we interacted and a huge part of the way we defined our collective style and the cultural beauty tribe that we belonged to as young black women. It was a perfect existence, when I think about it. We lived through our growing pains with our hair being one of the prominent connective factors – that and of course our West Indian, Latin and black American roots coupled with crazy female ambition.
An iconic moment in my hair journey
After university, I started law school with what my friend Arnt liked to call helmet hair. Blue black (I was a huge fan of rinses), long, swept back with a front bouffant. Hey, it was 1998, and I found the look extremely sophisticated, especially for what lay ahead of me at the white shoe law firms of NYC. During my second year at law school I met my Italian husband, who – contrary to many men I had dated – loves women who wear their hair short. After a year and a half of my bouffant, I was looking for a new style and became interested in the chin length bobs that were popular at the time (coincidently that was the Spring of 2000 and they are equally popular for Spring 2018). Inspired by my husbands suggestion, I made an appointment with my first celebrity, the hair whisperer Edris, then of Warren Tricomi, now of her own eponymous salon.
I remember being on cloud nine experiencing what it meant to have your hair done at one of the most prestigious salons in the US. I mean, clients flew in from all over the country to have their hair cut by Edris. That hair cut would ultimately lead me to my favorite haircut of all time. After wearing the bob for a few months, I decided to go shorter and ventured out to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to Time Salon, where a much praised stylist, Heather, was serving up major shortcuts. It was there that I had my hair cut like Halle Berry’s pixie cut. This style was everything and it was a moment in time when Berry was sizzling on the screen and delivering unforgettable moments as Jinx in James Bond, Die Another Day and making history as the first African American woman to win Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball. Drop dead gorgeous and talented, I was so inspired by her, and she was definitely my style icon.
It was also a hairstyle that would lead me to meet one of my closest friends Jo, who is really like a sister to me, and who was also working at Time. Jo became my stylist after a scheduling conflict and we’ve been thick ever since. We went through so many revisions of my original pixie, and it’s thanks to her that the look is truly one of my favorites. I also have to give thanks to her in so many other ways. She is one of my greatest cheerleaders and there isn’t one day that passes where she isn’t lifting me up. I know that many of you can relate to how special it is to find friends like these. Also, as many of you know, the salon environment can also be a sort of community center where women go to connect with other women. I can’t tell you how many friends, old and new, I crossed paths with at Jo’s salon, and the love and warm fuzzy feels that we shared about everything from great memories, to romance, to family. And just like my university days, in my young adulthood it presented another opportunity to bond with women over beauty.
My Italian Hair
I stuck to the pixie through my move to Italy and gradually abandoned the style because it was impossible to find a stylist who could recreate it in Italy.
High quality natural hair care and arguably black hair care in general is practically nonexistent here. When I moved, I was hopeful that with some research and maybe trials, I would find a salon that could maintain my pixie cut. Before moving, I received a few words of assurance about an African stylist who Naomi Campbell frequented when she was in Milan for work. Or that there were other African stylists who specialized in braids and weaves. I should have caught a red flag or at least a yellow one or at least have read between the lines with these comments. Because at the end of the day what I learned when I moved to Italy is that basically no one knew how to properly apply a relaxer and very few stylists work with natural hair.
I’ve heard that the hair industry in France and the U.K. is different, because there are more women of color living in both countries, which encouraged the growth of strong hair care and beauty markets. It’s the opposite situation in Italy, because WOC color opt for braids or weaves and very little in between. There are some Dominican salons, but because many Dominican women tend to have curly to straight hair (rather than kinky), the stylists here tend to have very little experience with relaxed hair.
Upon my arrival, I did visit Naomi’s hair stylist who I found to be an absolutely charming and fabulous woman. I don’t remember her name, but she was everything. Unfortunately she didn’t do my hair because, like I mentioned earlier, she only focuses on weaves or braids. So, she sent me to an male Italian stylist who had supposedly spent time in New York and had worked with black hair. I made my way to his salon enthusiastic about entering my Italian hair journey and was met with the first of many disappointments.
I experienced one of those moments where the situation was just wrong from the moment he opened the contents of the relaxer. It was one of those flashback moments where you can see your personal stylists face and hear her voice giving play by play commentary of what was being done incorrectly and how these actions would severely damage your hair. For example, he spread the relaxer not only on my roots, but on my scalp and too much of my hair. As I sat in his chair, I visualized the burns that would come later and the breakage that would occur. Relaxer done, it was time to flat iron my hair. Since I wasn’t sure he would have a good flat iron, I brought along the fancy one that I had purchased before moving to Italy. That part of the appointment was a disaster too, as it takes great skill to curl hair that is about ¾ of an inch long. The disappointment at the final result was real, but like many of you, when it comes to hair fails, I tried to make the best of the situation and fake smile through my displeasure. When you’re used to perfect hair, a bad hair style is a seriously painful situation.
After realizing that the pixie was not going to be sustainable in Italy, I decided to grow my hair out. I thought that if I could at least get a decent relaxer, I could wash and set my hair like I did during university and could make it work. So, I started to grow my hair out, and that worked for a time. I never was able to find the perfect relaxer, but with some length and beyond that awkward in-between stage, my hair looked reasonably decent.
In late 2006, a year and a half after moving to Italy, I became pregnant with PJ. I was in between relaxers when we found out, and influenced by the cultural myth that you shouldn’t relax your hair during pregnancy, I let my relaxer grow out. That being the case, the best solution at the time was a blowout, and so I dug up the card of a Dominican woman that I had met a few months earlier and asked her for the number of a salon right outside the center of Milan. At first, the experience felt promising, and even though I loved the stylist that I worked with, my blown out roots reverted after what felt like 23 seconds. So, when my husband and I made our then annual trip to NY, I visited what I think was Deva Curl salon and cut off my relaxed ends for a TWA.
This was my first encounter with the contemporary natural hair world. It’s when I discovered brands like Carol’s Daughter, Ouidad, and Hair Rules, to name a few, and added them to my rotation of hair products. My next hair challenge occurred when traveled back to Italy for PJ’s birth and I had to find someone close to our apartment to cut my hair. I was 36 weeks pregnant, it was July and hot AF, we had a wedding in Tuscany. I remember repeatedly asking myself why I didn’t cut my hair in NY before returning to Italy. Anyway, I found this really cool salon in our neighborhood. It had the perfect decor and the stylists were very fashionable. All seemed well when I sat down in the lead stylist’s chair. He talked about working in NY and being the stylist of choice for Anna Wintour when she attended the fashion shows in Milan. I raised an eyebrow to that one because, what does Anna Wintour’s signature bob have to do with my TWA? And predictably, his scissors were powered with more talk than precision because my final cut resembled a Japanese topiary tree. I’m still SMH.
After PJ’s birth, I repeated the motions of growing my hair out long enough to transition into blowout territory and waited patiently until my first trip back to NY where I got a relaxer and a pageboy cut – bangs were the rage that spring/summer. By the end of my four month stay in NY, I chopped off my hair and tried all over again with the pixie, because in the end, I am truly a short-hair-don’t-care kind of girl. But, it’s like that situation where you keep repeating the same error over and over again without facing the hopelessness of the situation – in my case that it would be impossible to maintain the style in Milan. Then sure enough, when I arrived home, reality hit, and it was as if I didn’t have a pixie, because I wore my hair in a slicked side part most of the time. What are you going to do? I grew my hair out for the umpteenth time and experienced bad relaxer after bad relaxer until I got a massive burn which caused acute psoriasis. Please look up acute psoriasis and you will understand why I booked a one-way flight back to natural hair. Read about my massive burn.
For the past two decades, the natural hair movement has been reasserting itself among WOC. Women are embracing their curly hair in all of its forms and have created a venerable haircare universe. Social media has helped women share tons of useful information and inspiration related to natural hair care and beauty, and hundreds of new brands have emerged in response to the enthusiastic demands. It’s a fantastic and beautiful time to be a natural girl, and I am loving every single minute of it. I am a minimalist when it comes to my hair care, using only a Ouidad cowash and a homemade moisturizer made from a mixture of jojoba, coconut and castor oils.) I found an amazing young stylist who could be my younger brother at Six Inches salon here in Milan. I get frequent haircuts because (1) I prefer a TWA to a full afro and I definitely hate the awkward stage in between, because I feel it makes me look like an old black man; and (2) I am addicted to cutting my hair, because I love the feel of it and maybe the sound of the scissors which sometimes puts me to sleep. My current style is also absolutely conducive to my demanding work schedule, which requires me to travel a few times a month. This is the freest I’ve been when it comes to my hair, and even if I still think that the pixie is the GOAT among my previous hair styles, I think my journey going forward will always be au naturel.