When I was a baby, it took awhile for my hair to grow in; at first, I was often mistaken for a boy. When it did arrive, though, it began growing with a vengeance. My mother soon started putting it in braids, and my hair remained in some sort of braided hairstyle all the way through freshman year of high school.
I hated getting my hair done, especially when it needed to be washed. The screams as my mother tugged on those tangles echoed throughout the house, causing my (white) father to make jokes about the noise. I was comforted when reading Tenderheaded to see that this ordeal has been endured by many a young black girl. At least I avoided the scorching touch of the hot comb.
In '82 we moved from West Liberty, West Virginia to Pittsburgh, PA. I went from a nearly all-white elementary school with under 200 students to a 60%-black middle school with over 1700. The black kids there teased me mercilessly about my hair, and my speech. I wasn't "black enough" for them. And yet, some of them said I had "good" hair. I just didn't know what to do with it, apparently.
Sophomore year in high school, I got my first salon haircut (layered and rather ugly), and my mother started treating my hair with chemical relaxers. This straightening technique is very common among black American women. I had to use very specific products (TCB - "Taking Care of Business") including lots of hairspray, and set my hair in foam rollers every night for it to have any chance of looking good. Any moisture or humidity was apt to ruin it. Try avoiding humidity during the summer in Pittsburgh!
I always disliked taking care of my hair. Among other normal human activities I never got the hang of - the list includes whistling, snapping my fingers, and blowing bubbles in chewing gum - I could not manage to hold a blow dryer in one hand while combing my hair with the other. Especially as my hair was so prone to tangles. I used a dryer with a comb attachment. It took me forever to wash, dry, and set my hair, a process I did only once a week at most. I didn't like the dandruff buildup, but my hair would tend to look bad for at least a day or two after washing it, so if I washed it more often than weekly it would basically look bad all of the time.
And I still hated those foam rollers. Sometimes I would be too tired to use them and just wear a satin cap to sleep instead, knowing my hair would probably look bad the next day and I'd have to put it back in a ponytail.
Finally one day late in college I decided to just let my hair air-dry. I was shocked to find that it sprung into a huge mass of curls! Having my hair braided or relaxed my whole life, I'd never gotten the chance to see that my hair was naturally curly, other than a very brief and disastrous experiment with a quadra-curl (less slimy version of the Jheri-curl made popular by Michael Jackson etc. in the 80s) one summer in high school.
So I tried wearing my hair curly for awhile. Sometimes it looked good, but more often it felt like an unruly mass of frizz. I couldn't comb or brush it, and if I put it in a ponytail while curly it left a permanent crimp until I washed it again.
Senior year of college, I finally gave up and got the "big chop". At first I was afraid to get it really short, but progressively I had it cut shorter and shorter till it was no more than an inch long. When I moved to Berkeley in '92, I learned to tell Telegraph Ave. salon to use the "number four razor". I loved getting in and out of there in fifteen minutes, instead of the hours of agony I used to endure dealing with tangles, braids, and relaxers.
I did occasionally try to grow it out. I would try straightening it just with that comb-attached hair dryer, rather than relaxers. Usually, it would end up a mass of frizz.
Complicating things, hair-wise, I was of course by now having overnight dates. When I tried putting my hair up for the night, one lover said "How do you expect my dick to get hard when you're wearing that?" This is where the Tenderheaded book most spoke to me. There's a chapter entitled "If you love me, why won't you let me touch your hair?" The tales of black women "training their men" not to touch their carefully-coiffed 'dos, and to put up with the massive armature required to set it at night, really got to me. I know boyziggy is always sad when I sometimes push him away from touching my curls. I just know that they will unravel and become frizzy. If we're making love, though, I'm generally not going anywhere right afterward, so I don't care how messed up my hair gets. My man is more important!
In any case, I gave up on growing it out and went back to the number-four razor, continuing with the "teeny-weeny Afro" style up through my wedding in Sept. '04.
After the wedding, I started growing my hair out again, trying to see how long it would get. I didn't cut it for over a year. It became harder and harder to manage during that time, and I amassed an arsenal of scarfs and headbands to cover and control it.
When it got long enough to pull back in a ponytail, I started buying black hair magazines, trying to decide what style would work for me, whether I should go back to the dreaded relaxers, and whether I should give in and color the gray roots. I didn't realize that premature gray ran in our family, but by my mid-thirties that fact had become increasingly apparent. I tried various curl-enhancing products, but my hair still ended up looking like a mess much of the time, and I never left home without a scrunchie in my pocket (I still don't).
Finally, a friend of Ziggy's referred me to Madusalon. I got my first real curly cut, color, and 'do there in December '05. It cost almost $200, not counting products. But it was worth it, because I was introduced to the wonderful book Curly Girl, which taught me that everything I'd done with my hair my whole life was wrong. Out with the shampoo, brushes and hair dryers. In with the conditioner - lots of it - and home-cooked treatments with brown sugar, almond oil, lemon juice, and vinegar that got my hair more clean and manageable than any commercial product. I now rinse and condition my hair daily when I shower, and my routine is quick and painless, with extra time spent only once every other week for deep conditioning.
I wasn't crazy about the red color I originally picked, but the dark chocolate with caramel highlights I got on my second trip was a winner, and I've kept that color and style through this day.
So am I finally at peace with my hair? I'm not sure. I'm glad to wear it naturally curly, as my genes intended, though I feel somewhat guilty and ambivalent about relying on salon-added color and highlights. For now, this works for me. Thanks for reading if you actually made it this far. :-)