In a new series exploring the complicated relationships we, as women, hold with our hair throughout our lives, All the Pretty Birds introduces ‘Our Hair, Don’t Care’, an installment series of women we love sharing their personal beauty journeys.
“YOUR HAIR LOOKS LIKE BRILLO.” I am eating lunch with my school friends, we are all maybe 8 or 9 years old, and I don’t remember what in the conversation prompted this girl whose name I’ve forgotten to say this, but there it is. “Why does it look like that?” she continued, in a short-but-memorable line of questioning that even as a young girl, I had learned to expect in primarily white spaces.
At this point, I also don’t remember what conversation tactics I’d developed as a child to wiggle my way out of these moments. I am one quarter black – my mom is white, and my dad is pre-Loving Era biracial, black and Jewish. I am fair-skinned even if I were a white person, I have freckles and blue eyes, and while my features are touched with the shapes of my West Indian ancestry, the rest of my looks often throw the observer off the trail. I’m 33 for another few months now, which means that I was a young girl in the era when there were no interracial couples on television, the “All-American” look was in, and the internet was only in its nascence. Especially to white people, my visual presentation was very confusing.
And there was my hair. Nappy, inconsistent, frizzy… honestly everyone’s worst nightmare of biracial hair. I spent hours in the bathroom trying to figure out some magic combination of pomade, water, and D.E.P. gel to coerce everything on my head to lay flat to my skull. Breakage was real. I convinced my mother to buy me every styling tool under the sun, and at age 12 I was ironing my own hair as best I could, pressing the life out of it with an archaic early-90s Vidal Sassoon flat iron that probably never climbed above 190 degrees Fahrenheit. These were dark times.
My poor mother, who herself has a thick, smooth, luxurious mane of what can only be described as Scandinavian Viking hair, had no idea what to do with me. She brought me to salons for a relaxer, bought me extra of whatever she was using on her own hair at the time, but was completely out of her element in both her daughter’s unruly hair and also the accompanying devastation to my self-esteem, and too defeated to tackle either.
Like many women before me, my relationship with my hair has been a long and arduous journey, and for how much of it is on display for the world to see, most of that journey has actually been made up of the internal reckonings of insecurity. Insecurity of my beauty, insecurity of my ethnic makeup, insecurity of the way I am perceived by the world around me (which is ever-changing depending on the crowd I find myself in at any time). I started using relaxer in my hair at age 12, and now, for 21 years, I have been either chemical or heat-styling my hair into a form that could absolutely never occur in its natural state. What’s more is, because I am achievement-oriented and good with my hands, I am now so skillful with my flat iron that no one that meets me knows that my hair is naturally curly. Including my 4-year old daughter, who has spent every day of her life with me.
And I think about this all of the time. Not to say I think about my hair all the time, it’s more that I think of the social and political ramifications behind the two decades of my life that have been devoted to brutally beating my hair into some proximity of the white beauty standard. I won first place at flat ironing and… now what? I am at my most comfortable and feel my most powerful when my hair is clean, straight, and very, very long. The beauty I feel when my hair whips in the wind or slides out of a top knot or falls from the plow of my fingers through my scalp is as much visual beauty as it is the spirit of confidence that emanates from my soul knowing that I have conquered frizzy hair. This is the spirit of a woman who has been chasing white beauty standards since girlhood. The Samson of insecurity.
A few years ago, at the beginning of the upswing of the natural hair movement, I did take a break from flat ironing. I went through a few months of retiring the heat tools and just washing, conditioning, and styling my hair using minimal product. I tried lots of new treatments and tools, and spent hours on the internet dissecting techniques for improving and defining my curl. This went on for a few months, each day I arose and applied the same might and willpower I used to beat my hair into silkiness to the task of having the perfect “natural” curl – which ended up being yet another beauty standard that I could not live up to. At the end of the summer, I started heat-styling my hair again, falling into my usual routine of a wash and iron once weekly (unless I got caught in the rain).
And as I wallowed in the defeat of not having achieved the perfect curl in two months of attempts (after two decades of abusing my hair to lay flat), I felt terrible. I sat in the vanity in my bathroom for a while one night after my daughter went to sleep and genuinely apologized to my hair. For 22 years, I obsessed over changing the natural qualities of my hair into something that it could seemingly never achieve, and that obsession was fueled by hate and shame and disappointment. These are horrible elements to use in your beauty routine by the way, regardless of the results. I hated my hair with such a passion for so long, and only loved it when it was docile, tamed – essentially, I loved it only when it wasn’t its true self. And then, what’s worse, when fashion dictated that it was finally acceptable for me to love my real hair, I expected it to shed the years of abuse and emerge as if from a chrysalis, virginal and perfectly in tact, holding no grudge to me, the abuser. How dare I hold myself to these standards, how dare I expect this of myself?
There is a whole litany of feelings I have now about flat ironing my hair once a week. Sometimes it’s Me Time, when I get to sit with myself and perform an essential self care ritual that has become a part of who I am. Sometimes it makes me incredibly angry that I have spent two thirds of my life mastering making my hair Pass, angry for devoting myself to conforming to standards that keep me subservient, that keep me from living my truth. Sometimes it makes me nostalgic, now that I have finally mastered this process and am complimented so often by women – by white women! – on how smooth and silky my hair appears. And sometimes I am embarrassed by the vanity of what a huge part of my personality my hair has become. The richest irony is how much time and energy I devote to making my hair look like my childhood standard of total effortlessness.
So I’ve decided to stop hating myself for these contradictions. It is easy, as multiracial existences come into vogue and the world at large makes an effort to think more broadly, to forget that a few decades ago the reception to these more complicated ethnic identities was not as welcoming. In my thirties, as a woman with a career and a child and Patagonian range of personal ups and downs behind me, I now refuse to spend a drop of time doing anything other than loving myself, in whatever straight, frizzy or unexpected shape that takes.
Photographer: Jason Eric Hardwick