Our Hair, Don’t Care: Charisse Kenion

by Charisse Kenion

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If you’ve read anything I’ve written on beauty, or follow me on Instagram, you’ll know; beauty is my thing. It’s my one true love. From those first copies of Elle and Vogue to my first journalism role as a beauty writer at the Metro newspaper, beauty caught my imagination from an early age, and I’m still just as obsessed with it. 

Hair on the other hand; well, it just didn’t seem like it was my bag. And while, today, of course I put hair and beauty on the same pedestal, and write about both, it’s taken me awhile to get there when it comes to what’s actually on my head.

 

Mixed feelings about mixed race hair 

Growing up, I have two key memories of hair. First was how it felt. When I touched my hair it was almost like I had two fluffy clouds floating above my head. It was very fine but I had lots of tiny curls that would interlock. My mother is a white woman, and as I was her first child, and her world was very white, bar my father, she wasn’t knowledgeable on what to do with my hair. I think my paternal grandmother told her Vaseline would help, and I remember that feeling around my hairline of something slippery that would sometimes seem to melt down my forehead.

The second memory I have is one of feeling guilty, without knowing why. I think I might have been six or seven, pretty young, and telling my father how I wished my hair was like Barbie’s. For me, her hair was beautiful – not necessarily because it was long, straight and blonde, but he got mad at me. He was angry at the thought that I didn’t want my own hair that was growing out of my scalp. Years later his outrage would come back to me, and I would argue back in my head; why send me to a white school, where I am usually the only face of color? Why live in a white neighborhood? Why love and marry a white woman?

Today I don’t have an issue with his outrage. I know the struggles my parents faced by choosing to be together (yes, they are still together). 

 

The early experiments

When I was around 11, everything changed. Puberty had kicked in, I no longer felt comfortable going to my dance classes and on top of that, I was told that I needed to wear glasses. I can’t tell you how many feelings of ugliness popped up at this time. I was still one of perhaps three brown faces at my school, so I already stood out (but that doesn’t mean I was seen) and I think I just started to feel that urge to change something.

So, over the following years I tried a few things. At this stage I still thought my hair was a fine afro texture and really wanted corkscrew curls. So I got my mum to take me to the only black salon in the city, and book me in for a perm. I remember how cold the perming rods felt as they fell across my face, and the various smells of the curl activators I would try. Luster’s Pink Oil Moisturizer Hair Lotion was the one I used most often; I remember how thoroughly I would have to smooth it through my new curls, otherwise I would see it later on, gathered around my hair elastic in gooey clumps. I’d go to school with my curls freshly washed and spritzed with all manner of shine sprays, but when I’d get home, the collar of my white shirt would be soaked through with product.

mixed race hair journey

 

Going straight

Honestly, I can’t pinpoint why and when I got a relaxer. My hair memories from my teens were very much linked to beautiful curls, but obviously something happened, because soon I switched from unctuous curl lotions to the burned scalp that seemed to be a rite of passage when it came to having straight hair. 

I remember sitting in Heslyn’s Hair Salon tapping my foot in a way to distract my brain from the pain my scalp was feeling. I told myself, ‘you need to be quiet because otherwise you’re not going to have nice hair.’ Seeing myself with my hair being blown out in the mirror made me almost forget the piercing pain I would feel each time the stylist scraped the brush on my now tender scalp. 

Fast forward through my university years and my first ‘proper’ jobs and I kept the relaxed hair. I also started experimenting with color and it was always blonde – well, more like orange. I tried every style going; from Farrah Fawcett flicks to T-Boz’s bowl cut with the extra-long sides and Mary J’s mullet. I had serious blonde ambition.

 

mixed race hair journey

 

Pandora’s box

When I got my first beauty writer role, with it came a whole array of options. I now realized that my role meant that hairdressers all over would invite me in to get my hair done, for free! I didn’t even have to write about it; it was just part of the PR/journalist relationship. 

On the plus side: I learned that black women or women with dark hair could have blonde hair – but it would never be from a box, and it would often take two or three trips to the salon.

On the negative side: I learned that some stylists really didn’t know how to handle my hair. The hair I’d always thought was this super soft afro. How complicated could it be? 

As the years passed I learned a few things: that my hair would never grow past shoulder length, and that I had curls. Honestly, it blew my mind that I didn’t have an afro all this time. Once I stopped using any kind of chemicals on my hair – after one too many bleaches and undercuts (I was rocking Rihanna’s blonde look from her Rude Boy era), I just went cold turkey.

Instead of booking colors and keratin blow dries, I was now booking in for hydrating treatments and trims, and slowly, my curls emerged. Occasionally those appointments would end in disappointment. I could literally go to any high-end salon in London and I’d say 50 percent of the time, I would leave disappointed. It almost seemed that the more expensive (and euro-centric) the salon, the less happy I would be. I’ll never forget the awful haircut I got from one of the country’s leading, dare I say iconic, hair groups; I walked out looking like a pensioner/poodle and immediately went home to wash my hair in the hopes it was a styling error rather than a cutting issue.

 

I soon realized that if I wanted a blow dry during my transition phase, the person doing my hair had to be black, or Italian. For some reason Italian hairdressers just knew how to twist that blow dry brush and apply the right amount of pressure, and I knew the final look would last for days. 

 

Lockdown learning

Once I started my own publishing company and went freelance, the free offers of hair appointments dried up, so I began paying less attention to my hair. It was just easy to throw it up into a topknot, especially now I had the coily curls I’d always dreamed of. I spent years ignoring my hair. I could manipulate into a variety of styles for events, but otherwise, my focus was always more on what I would put on my face, especially as I’ve dealt with adult acne on and off for years. While hair could be hidden out of the way, my skin couldn’t, so I would spend time thinking about it, stressing about it, trying to improve it, and sometimes hiding it. 

This all changed when lockdown happened. At the beginning of March my curls were looking healthy but I wanted a new look. I got an undercut and the remaining curls were shaped into a gorgeous, flattering wedge shape. But by the fifth week of lockdown, my head was a mess of various lengths and I had no hope of rectifying it any time soon. I thought about shaving the sides off myself, and got my husband to give them a trim, but eventually I decided to embrace my hair and the process. I got my friend to recommend a ton of products and began a new weekly regime of protein treatments, twists, and hydration.

 

But it was a post written by Trinity Mouzon Wofford, founder of Golde, on her Instagram that got me thinking. Trinity was talking about how she’s always being asked for her hair growth secrets but rather than sharing them, she told us: 

“Approach your hair with kindness, gratitude, and a lot of patience. In conversation over the months/years you will learn what it needs and how often and which way. Approach everything in your life with compassion and before you know it, you will feel the shift.”

 

These words struck me. How could I be so cold/mean towards my hair? It’s so easy to disregard or belittle ourselves and our features, but when we do that, we are limiting our self-love. It is something to be nurtured. One of my favorite quotes lately is, ‘cultivate your garden’, and I understand it now, more than ever. I know my hair journey isn’t over, and I’m excited – yet patient – to see where it goes.

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