raising cocoa children in a bittersweet world
I don’t know if it rises to the level of an epidemic, but lately I’ve seen a number of little girls – as in, girls under the age of 12 – wearing hair weaves, wigs and lacefronts.
As black women, our hair issues begin at birth. We black mothers study our girls’ hair texture, waiting to see if those fine baby curls are going to “nap up.” Some of us start putting that baby hair into plaits, cornrows and ponytails as soon as our baby girls are able to sit up. If there’s not enough hair to comb, we brush it as best we can and put a headband on our girls’ heads, so everyone will know the baby is a girl and not a boy (strangers still get it confused, though).
I didn’t really know how to take care of a girl’s hair when my daughter was born. My mother did my hair until I graduated from high school. Although I didn’t relax my hair until law school, I wore it pressed from age 12. I had decided my girl’s hair would stay natural, but I had no idea how to style natural hair.
I was lucky to find a wonderful babysitter, a Mexican woman who taught herself how to care for my daughter’s hair. She styled my daughter’s hair in elaborate beaded cornrows and two-strand twists. Even after my daughter started school and we no longer needed her babysitting services, our former nanny still styled my daughter’s hair.
It never occurred to me to consider letting my daughter wear her hair out, loose, free. I was brought up that only white girls and girls with a certain hair texture – what we used to call “good hair” – could wear their hair out all the time. I shunned the term “good hair” but was still trapped in its mindset. I believed not combing my daughter’s hair would result in it getting tangled, matted, and eventually falling out.
I said complimentary things to my girl about her hair. I told her how wonderfully thick and curly her hair was and how much she should admire it. I bought all the right books and said all the right things to combat my girl’s jealous feelings towards classmates whose blonde and brunette locks swung down their backs. But my actions spoke to a different belief – that her hair wasn’t the right texture.
My daughter and I began having hair battles. I kept her hair washed, conditioned, combed and braided, but I could no longer fit trips to the nanny into our schedule, and I didn’t know enough cute natural hairstyles.
I gave up and took her to the African braiding shop. I thought I’d found the answer to all my prayers. Their cornrows were so perfect! Even without extension hair braided in, the style would last at least two weeks. With extension hair braided in, they would last even longer.
And so we continued down that steep, slippery slope of “your hair isn’t good enough.”
My daughter complained about the African braiders. They pulled too tight, even when I asked them not to. It took a week for the braids to loosen up enough so her scalp didn’t hurt. I began noticing bumps and bleeding on her scalp – traction alopecia warning signs.
But she loved having that extension hair swinging down her back. She loved being able to get into the pool and not worry. And I loved not feeling like a bad mom because my kid was going to school with her hair undone.
So I was surprised when my daughter said she didn’t want to get braids anymore. She showed me her hairline. The hair around her hairline had broken off to nothing, less than an inch of hair. Her scalp was a mess of bumps. I agreed – no more braids.
At 12, my daughter wanted to start straightening her hair. I refused to allow her to get a relaxer, and made her go back to my rudimentary ponytails and plaits. She told me her “little girl hair” was “embarrassing.” She was teased at school for still wearing her hair natural, in “kiddie” styles.
Finally, I gave in and let her go to the Dominican shop near our apartment for a blow-out. If it turned out well, I was going to let her get it blown out once a week.
It was a disaster. Her hair looked great the first day and then fell out like crazy. It smelled like burnt rubber. Whenever we washed it, big clumps came out in the comb.
The heat damage changed how we both thought about her hair. My daughter was devastated about losing so much hair, and for a while was turned against wanting to wear it straight. I knew we had to do something to get us both comfortable with her hair, both “done” and “undone.”
While her hair recovered, she wore it in two-stranded twists. The twists allowed the broken pieces to grow out. Conditioning restored life to the hair that remained. Products such as Kinky Curly Hair Pudding and Carol’s Daughter Hair Milk allowed to let her wear her hair out in frizz-free curls. No styling, no fuss, just wash and go between twists.
For a while she hated it. I had to do more talking, more convincing. Compliments from her classmates at school and from strangers on the street helped convince her that her hair looked okay.
So I get why women wind up putting their little girls in wigs and weaves. Wigs and hair weaves are all part of the continuum. Doing hair is time-consuming. Straightening can be very damaging and isn’t permanent. Even a relaxer doesn’t make black hair “straight.” And no one wants their child to be teased about the length or texture of their hair. A wig or a weave may seem an easy solution.
We teach our girls that their hair has to be done a certain way to be acceptable. We teach them that styles that help protect our hair, such as braids and cornrows, are for little girls. They learn from their peers and us moms that when they grow up, they have to wear it straight.
We don’t teach our little girls acceptance of their hair as it is, clean and conditioned, without a comb touching it. That their hair is beautiful without alteration. And perhaps that is the first step.
I remember when Alison Samuels of Newsweek called out Angelina Jolie for not “doing something” with Zahara Pitt-Jolie’s hair, and the blogosphere erupted. I agreed with those who felt Samuels should focus on something more important than a 4-year-old’s hair. At that time, I was just learning to adjust my own thinking of what my daughter’s hair had to look like for her to be accepted and for me to be considered a good mom.
Contrary to what I thought, my daughter’s hair did not become matted, dry, break off and fall out because she wasn’t wearing it “done” all the time. We’ve had some challenges – I’ve had to keep her from wetting her hair every day, because it is too thick to fully dry, and damp hair will eventually rot off. I’ve had to find products that add moisture and sheen. I have to remind her to oil her scalp so it doesn’t dry out. Still, letting her just wear her hair out has led to her accepting her hair as it is more than all the books and lectures.
My now teenage girl still wants to wear her hair straight. I want to scream at her every time she talks about it. Sometimes I can’t help myself, and do. As @sunsetsarefree said on Twitter today: “Feeling like you have an abnormality growing from your head affects your entire self-image.” We have to teach our girls that there’s nothing wrong with our hair – but first, we’ve got to make sure we know that ourselves.
Maybe we black women and girls should have a worldwide hair-out – a day for freeing our hair, and our girls’ hair, from braids, twists, wigs, weaves, etc. and just letting it be. Let’s confront our fears and insecurities about our hair head-on (no pun intended) – especially those of us whose hair grows up and out, not down.