Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hair We Are

My cousin, Pam, recently posted on her blog, Pam's House Blend, about being interviewed in 2005 by Heather Barnes for a documentary about women and their relationship with their hair. I went over to the blog associated with the project, Hair Stories, and checked out the interview.

As usual, Pam had interesting and thought provoking things to say about hair. I was even surprised to discover that she mentioned Sugar, and how I handle her hair. Of course it got me thinking. Thinking about how idealistic and optimistic I was when I first became a mother, and how I've been hit a few times with some serious doses of reality. About how, hard it is to maintain a positive influence, and build positive self-images for my girls when there are so many voices out there ready to tell them that their hair is all wrong. About how hard it is to be a positive role model for my girls when I'm still riding my own hair roller coaster.

I mean, I think, generally, I'm privileged and have very little reason to complain. I have resilient, versatile hair. It is naturally curly, but can be styled straight or wavy with relatively little work. Still, I went through most of styling agony that other black women endure. My earliest memories include hours spent under a hair dryer with my hair in giant, beer can-sized curlers and sitting in the kitchen inhaling the smell of sizzling hair waiting for that inferno of metal called a hot comb to pass inches from my forehead and eyes as it removed the curls from my bangs.

And, of course, I spent many years thinking I had the worst hair in the world. I wished for stick-straight hair and tried numerous relaxers in pursuit of that - relaxers that left my hair dry, brittle, damaged, but still curly. Which left me feeling like I was stuck in the worst kind of hair limbo. People kept telling me I had "good hair," but the people who said that could at least relax their hair straight - something I couldn't do.

But eventually I came to appreciate and even love my hair. And then I had daughters and with them came an overwhelming desire to instill in them a confidence about themselves and their appearance, including a love of their natural hair.

I vowed that I would not ever use relaxers on my daughters' hair. When they get old enough (at least 18 hopefully - but I'm enough of a realist to know it might be sooner) to chose for themselves, and pay for it themselves, they can get their hair relaxed - but I won't encourage or assist them in it.

I try to give my girls a variety of fun and interesting styles so that they are aware of the versatility of their hair. I think, sometimes, girls grow up hating their hair because their just flat out bored with it. Their parents figure out one style they can manage regularly and they stick with it forever. This was my plight. Two long braids and bangs - for 12 long years.

Still, even armed with a positive attitude, lots of barrettes, a wide toothed comb and big old jar of Carol's Daughter Healthy Hair Butter, there have been some pitfalls along the way. It's hard, in this world, to continually and consistently give my girls a positive message about their hair.

For one, after years of braiding, twisting and cornrowing Sugar's hair into various beautiful styles, it finally occurred to me, when she was about 5 years old, that I was actually doing something very similar to what my family did to me with the the hot comb and the two long braids - taming and controlling.

At that point Sugar had NEVER worn her hair out. The only time her hair wasn't braided or twisted was when I washed it and then it was immediately corralled back into a style. I started to wonder, what kind of message was I really sending to my child with the myriad hairstyles I treated her to? And I could only come up with one answer - that I was telling her that her hair in it's completely natural state, as it grows out of her head, is too wild and unruly to be left alone - that it has to be tied down - braided, twisted and barretted into submission.

Now, even having had this realization, it has still been difficult for me to just let her wear her hair out. I am still a product of my culture - which says that little black girls with their hair out and untamed, in it's natural state look neglected and uncared for. And I'm a product of my own good sense that says that a child with textured hair half-way down her back is going to be screaming her head off when I have to de-tangle all that hair after it's been out for a whole day. But how do I teach my child that her natural hair is beautiful if I won't let her wear her hair completely naturally? So, I started, from time to time, letting her wear it out - no braids, no twists, no barrettes - though often with a headband to just keep it out of her face. It's not a perfect solution because, quite honestly, I have to admit that I don't have it in me to do it very often.

There's also the influences of others. Sugar goes to school with girls of various ethnicities and hair textures. And many of the black girls in her school have parents who've chosen to handle their hair in a variety of different ways. There are girls who have their hair pressed regularly, those whose hair is relaxed, girls who get extensions, and a whole range of other styles. And then there are the girls, of various ethnicities, who just have straight or curly hair that is worn out in it's natural state.

All of these girls have their own ideas and thoughts about hair. Some of them already have their own insecurities about hair, that they apply to others in some strange ways.

For instance there are two sisters who have short, very tightly coiled hair. Most often their hair is braided or cornrowed - frequently with extensions. These two girls tried to tell Sugar that her hair was too long and that she should cut it and then put extensions in it like they did. They had been taught to feel so uncomfortable about the shortness of their hair that they lied and said they cut it, because extensions were better than natural hair growing out of your head.

On the other hand, Sugar was picking up messages from all over that said to her that femininity is tied to long hair. That girls need to have long hair, no matter what.

I recently cut my hair short after 12 years of wearing it past my shoulders. Part of my decision to do this was to show Sugar that hair does not make the woman. The other part was that I just needed to make a change. Sugar was with me at the hairdresser when I got my hair cut, and she started trying to gather up the little bits of my hair and save them. She is still not comfortable with the idea that my hair is short and regularly urges me to grow it back. Sure, some of this has to do with me changing the appearance she's always known for me. But much of it is this image she has of hair and femininity.

Finally, Sugar started a couple of years ago to request that I press her hair. For a long time I refused. I felt she was too young to start putting heat on her hair. Then, finally, I agreed but only on special occasions. Then for a while, I was willing to do it once every few months, alternating pressing with twists and braids.

Now, this is something I agonized over. Everything in me said that altering the texture of my child's hair with a flat iron was going against everything I believe about teaching her to love the natural texture of her hair. And I know that, at least in part, she was getting her ideas about doing this because I used that flat iron on my own hair from time to time.

So I contemplated whether or not I was willing to stop pressing my own hair. And I finally decided that I wasn't willing to give it up entirely. I enjoy having versatile hair. I enjoy being able to wear my hair in different styles by simply running a flat iron through it or spraying it with water, or changing the products I use or don't use in it. OK, but was I setting a bad example?

Well, maybe. But maybe not. This may be a huge rationalization, but I finally decided that being a slave to pressing ones hair is negative. But as an option, it's fine. And that if I was all about teaching my child to love her hair by showing her all the many things it can do - then this one variation is not better or worse than any other. I know many would disagree with me on this, but it's a point of view I feel comfortable with.

But, what kind of freaked me out was that Sugar prefers this above all other styles. If I give her the choice between cornrows, twists, or ponytails - she might choose any one of them over the others on any given day. But if I give her the option of having her hair "flattened," as she says it, she will always pick that one. Why?

Well, the answer only just occurred to me after I started writing this post. When I think of being a kid and having my hair straight, I think of having to go through a hellish, torturous process - having my hair rolled, sitting under a dryer for hours, and then sitting on a stool in the kitchen will the dreaded hot comb is pulled through it and getting ears or neck burned in the process.

But, it's not like that for Sugar. She sits still for about an hour while I use flat iron that's designed not to touch skin, so she never gets burned. This compared to most other styles that require me combing out tangles, then braiding or twisting small sections at a time for 2, 3, sometimes even as long as 4 hours. Cornrows are particularly hard on her because the de-tangling hurts, and then the braiding itself hurts even worse.

So, what was torturous for me, is actually the easiest on her. And what I think of as staying true to her natural hair is actually the most torturous for her. How convoluted is that?

And what do I do about it?

I think I have no choice but to keep on doing what I do. I think like most things with parenting it's all about finding a balance. Sometimes her hair is braids, sometimes in twists, sometimes in ponytails, sometimes it's pressed, and sometimes it is just out and free in all its glory - and while I always let my child know that she is beautiful and unique and vibrant - I try to offer a little extra enthusiasm for her hair when it's dancing and playing free.

As for Spice...well she doesn't care so much as long as I spend time with my hands on her hair so she feels like she's getting as much time as Sugar. And Sugar has her own ideas about the fact that Spice's hair is a different texture from hers - more curly like mine - but that's something to be contemplated another time...

A few of the many styles Sugar has endured enjoyed over the years:


Yolanda said...

Beautiful girls and beautiful hair! You've really done an excellent job with all of their styling and I really love the twists. Part of the original reason why I went natural is because if I ever had a daughter I wanted her to have a living example that there is absolutely nothing wrong with black hair just as it grows out of our heads. Growing up I spent so much time wanting what other people had going on hair wise I never learned to appreciate the beauty of my own hair. My natural hair allowed me to do this for the first time in my life and I will never go back!

Your choices are a great example but ultimately as long as they know that they are beautiful and loved their hair hopefully won't have to be as heavily tied to their esteem as what we had to endure. You are doing a great job and I too support the no relaxers/chemicals until they are 18 and able to make that choice for themselves. Great blog here thanks so much for the comment on mine!

Nina said...

It's amazing how early little girls become interested in hair styles. On the other hand, they have their hair worked on from day 1. I have to say that I am mom to 3 boys, no girls (yet), so I have had it "easy" in the kid hair department. But I remember fretting about my hair when I was a kid.

My mom, first of all, always had our hair cut short, in what they called a "pixie" haircut, which I didn't like, especially when people referred to me as a boy. Then, I didn't know what to do with my hair when I did grow it out--guess Mom wasn't too much help there, either. I didn't find a cut that would go with my hair until I was in my...30s, geesh.

Anyhoo, you'd think my boys were delicate flowers when I brushed their hair when it was a little longer. I think it begins from childhood: women as little girls/women enduring the pain boys/men don't necessarily feel because of the feminine/masculine divide. Maybe if men had their hair braided as boys they wouldn't be such babies as men when they get the sniffles. Hahaha!

Nina said...

Hi, I also meant to add that the photos of your girl are wonderful! What a cutie. :)

And, this post reminded me more and more of a friend I have who went through an ordeal recently with her son's hair. As I was thinking about that, I was reading over the sidebar on your blog, and saw some familiar names! I *love* the internet. Do you know, the Bear Maiden is a friend of mine from my mom's list? How cool. And she was not the one who sent me the link that brought me here the first time. So there ya go. :)

professor said...

I understand the hair thing...when choclahontas was younger I swore I wouldn't perm the hair...but as she got older, and that hair got thicker, and the screaming fits we had to endure to detangle the hair increased...I gave up and permed...
However, I never permed the hair to "straighten" but to "control"...
even with my hair (which is a lengh now that I don't have to perm to control- the weight and good conditoners pulls it down).
I never permed to take the curls out, just be able to comb it out at the end of the day without losing my hair...moodmagicbarb, who has "good" hair, gets permed every six months cause if we didn't that hair dreads up at the neak line...
My girls know that their hair is beautiful no matter what...and with the advent of better conditioners I am able to move away from relaxers...

The Bear Maiden said...

Me, I got several different kinds of hair, all going in different directions depending on the texture. It's a PITA. It was "natural" for years; matter of fact, Poppy originally left "The Plantation" with a baby me because someone remarked that I had "good hair" and he didn't want me to grow up with that. So in Jamaica, where most folks had tightly coiled hair (that they pressed with a hot comb) I didn't have quite the same issues. I wore "a natural" just about all my childhood. And I guess also, BigBear had such different hair than me... and from Poppy, and then the Professor came along and had different hair than any of us it that hair issued didn't really get to me.

Till I got to be 16 and my hair wouldn't do what the other girl's did.. they with the press n'curls and the hair driers. So I permed my hair. It turned bright red and broke off so badly I had to shave it all off.

Now, I keep it "relaxed", and go to the Domincan ladies every week so they can stick me under the drier with beer-can sized rollers, and then blow it out with a brush. It just makes my life SO much easier that I can pile my hair up on top of my head to go to sleep, or wear it out and not have to fight with it every day.

Yet... as my moms list friend Nina notes... and the Fat Lady knows :) I will willingly suffer the The Hair that owns my Sun... because he wants me to. That Hair is NO joke... which is probably why Poppy cut my hair for so many years. But, it's also why the Sun's hair is always in a tight braid cuz it's just too much work to let the beast loose. I told him when he's older he can "go dread" if he wants... so long as he takes care of it. And if I didn't think he'd look *too* girly with blown out hair, I'd let the Dominican ladies have at it... I often wonder how I'd feel if he *were* a girl... would I be as willing to suffer with it in it's natural state?

Ros said...

Augh, this made me think too much. I have a bias towards "done" hair, but in my defense, where I work hair that's not "done" is usually linty, uncombed, and goes along with a neglectful parent. There ARE a few kids at my high school who go way natural and tend it well. I think they look good, though it still tends to make me think I've wandered into a time warp when I encounter a total bush.

Ginger said... know white people have hair issues too. I spent my whole teen years HATING my super straight hair that would just never take a perm. I have spent a small fortune, cutting it, dying it, perming it. I'm not sure what natural really means...I mean, even when we go "natural" we're making a statement.

We have similar issues with Camille. She hates having her hair combed, so a lot of the time I just dont' do it. She goes out with her hair clean but oftne tangled, etc. And she refuses to get it cut. I have found a solution to the combing in that we bought her a special "ouchless" brush. And we did consider dreading it for awhile.