MY COMING OF HAIR STORY by Iman M’Fah-Traoré

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I’m a black woman in a white man’s world. Sadly that is how most of us, young black girls, learn to hate our hair. Kinks and curls and all but the regularity and straightness white girls have. The need to feel like everybody else. The need to fit in.

 

 

As a child, attending a predominantly white, French, private school, I was the outcast, the weird one. “You have two pieces of shit hanging from each side of her head,” they’d say, laughing. “Ha! You’ve changed your hairstyle! Now you look like a poodle,” tears of laughter for them, ones of self-hate for me. Nothing satisfied them: the braids, they look like poop, the half-braid-half-poof, poodle, just the poof on top, I can’t see the board!

 

A rich, upper east side, blonde, attractive, popular, girl, started a petition. She asked classmates to sign it. If passed, the petition would’ve ruled my banishment to the back of every classroom to assure, no matter the hairstyle, no matter the day, I wouldn’t bother anyone’s precious sight with the horror that filled up too much space perched upon my head. I was fifteen.

 

A group of boys — I shall omit the adjectives I wish to define them by — once spent an entire class period making, calculating, and throwing little balls of paper into my hair. It was a game. What else can one do while bored in class? You get more points if the ball doesn’t bounce off and stays there. Which ball is yours? Oh, you win it’s closer to the target! What if, we throw a curve ball so it lands right in the middle and she won’t notice? I was thirteen.

 

I turned around. My best friend’s accusatory finger pointed at me. She was a couple meters away. Swiftly, she turned around too. All I could see then were her shoulders quivering in hilarious chatter. How could I have missed this? She mocked me too. I was ten.

 

I called out the paradox that was her tiny tiny rectangle glasses on her ever-so not tiny round face. It was my first day. I must’ve wanted a friend, someone to laugh with me. But I felt it, how I had just hurt her. Remorse. It came with her look. That sad look amplified through her magnifiers. She told the teacher. The little brunette told on me. I was taken out of class, or punished in some way. Memories blur the more you grow. Your mind may forget the facts but your heart will retain the pain. Later that week or month, it started: the name calling. I was branded: the girl with a shit hanging from each side of her head. I didn’t tell the teacher. But I knew they knew. The adults, just like me they heard it, over and over and over again. There was no taking out of class. There was no other form of punishment. There was no remorse. There was me. And there was them. They were together. I was alone. I was six.

 

I didn’t confront the blond girl, or the kids in the school yard, or my best friend at the time; but I did confront them: the ballers. Some apologized vaguely, some scuffed, one, only one, shed a single tear and placed a single hand on my right shoulder, and he sincerely apologized, verbalized his remorse, and tried, even how little he could, to understand an ounce of my heartache.

 

How can you learn to accept yourself in a world which sees you as entertainment? How can you feel free to try new things with the play-doh you call hair if it will only attract commentary, mockery, and humiliation?

 

My mother would braid my hair every Sunday, we’d call it, “the torture session.” The pulling of the rough brush against my soft hair made me scream. Was it actual physical pain or my coping mechanism for the past six days? Patient, my lovely mother wouldn’t flinch one bit. She’d simply brush, comb, wet, braid, until I looked ready for the world. You had to stand still when she’d pull and it’d hurt or the braid would come out tordue (bent). You had to sleep with your braids held down against your face, on Sunday night, or you’d risk waking with an antenna on Monday morning. You shouldn’t pick or scratch at the braids’ roots, no matter how tight they felt, because you’d mess up the meticulous work.

Gradually I taught myself to brush, comb, wet, detangle. In the bath for one, two, sometimes even three hours, I’d sit with myself removing all the knots. It was tough but it was freedom. One day, I told her, my mother, that I no longer needed her braiding expertise. I wanted it out, breathing, loose, and I deserved it because I was the one dealing with it now.

What do parents always say? My house, my rules! Well, forever my hair had been my mother’s house; she was the one to know where everything went, where to put away the broom, where to cook the food, where the band-aids were. It was me now, I could separate the rooms and twist them into little detangled boston cream donuts; I developed my own system: it was my house now. I could sit there for hours, pouring more and more water on my hair.

The more water pours the straighter it is. I wanted it perfectly smooth. Free of any curve, fizz, or wave. But how temporary the straightness was. Even when the shower-head would drench me, I could still fell the ripples and waves.

I was eleven.

 

Going full blown natural was the biggest event for my fans. It was the end of the year school fair in my hair. They could see even less now: too big and too in-your-face. And it was true. Gigantic. Rectangle. Squared. Unsymmetrical. As though it thought life was a constant 70’s party. Just a big, fat, mess mounted on my head. Embarrassing. Picture me, first row, singing in the winter concert choir. How many kids are missing from the shot? Four. One for each bushy corner: NE, NW, SE, SW. But my mother, as mothers always do, had a solution.

 

She took me to the hairdresser. It was my very first time. My only time. Specialized in kinks and curls, women with big bold hair everywhere. Wow. Could I look like that too? They brushed, combed, wet, but also dried, with so much unbearable heat. Three women stood above my head — there was too much volume for one person up there — three women…blowing at me with hairdryers. The heat was pain. But. Pain is beauty, isn’t it?

They straightened, cut, and spun me around as they do in the movies. Awe. Pure awe at the site of me, finally immersed. I nearly felt white. It was perfect, just like theirs. Silky smooth and floating in the wind. Layered and styled. The entire process took four hours. Too long for us to have the time to revive my completely dehydrated hair. I was told not to wash or wet it until the next Saturday when they would take away my newfound silky smoothness and replace it with a less boxy more appropriately styled and layered afro.

 

That entire week felt odd and awkward. It didn’t feel like my hair at all. The frizz and volume grew more and more as the no-water days passed. So many comments! Wait, you straightened it? Show me a picture? Why isn’t it all silky straight now?

Oh, it’s just ‘cause they took me out of my packaging…I mean! Do you think I’m a doll? Can I touch, must be so different?

 

Finally, the wait was over, I went back to the hair salon and sat in those weird chairs with basinets and a swoop to hug the back of your neck. They wet it but didn’t blow dry it and thank god. It’s best to leave kinky hair air dry. Better curl definition. They taught me to style it and showed me all the products, the good ones, those my mother spent a fortune on. Lite a spark on my face and a twinkle in my stare.

 

And there I was, a brand new girl, with brand new hair, ready to embrace it and show off.

 

But it wasn’t that simple. They didn’t stop. I told you, they were never satisfied. I thought the teasing and prodding was over. I would finally stop feeling like a marshmallow bag passed around a camp fire. Taken, and probed, and stuck. That’s when the games started and the “can I touch your hair”s and the petitions.

Kids are mean you know. But middle schoolers are worst.

 

That’s it. I’m fifteen now. That is it. I shall change my hair, myself, to fit in. My butterfly-looking middle part was not, in the least bit, flattering. Weeks of searching for the perfect woman. The one who would come to my house and twist my hair into fake extensions all the way down my back to my crack.

This would fix everything, I thought. And it did but not in the way I intended.

 

You can leave protective hair styles in for up to four months I believe — but I’m the wrong black girl to ask — I couldn’t stand it for one. The itch, the pull, the weight. You know when you step out of the shower, bend over, wrap all your luscious hair in an oversized towel, and flip it back. Yeah? Well having extensions feels just like that if not heavier. But you can’t unwrap them and leave the damp towel to fall to its fate. So, I untwisted them, every single one, after just two weeks of wearing them. I pranced down the stairs after unwrapping and dropping the damp towel, and showed off my new hairdo with a twist. Parted to the side and lifted back. Forehead exposed. Static but light curls poofed out into a perfect shape. I saw myself. For the first time, I truly saw myself. Running my fingertips throw my kinks and curls. Lightly grazing the sides of my bubble-shaped, stunning, ball of furry hair. I loved it. I finally loved it. It was mine. Self-grown, self-detangled, and self-styled, mine. I felt beautiful.

 

I can’t tell you what it’s like to hate your hair anymore because now my hair is the only thing I allow to be complimented. My hair is what I walk into a room with. My hair is what represents me. Big, bold, fuzzy, fierce, majestic: me.

 

So now when people say, “Oh my god! I loooove your hair”

I’ll smile and respond, “Thank you, I grow it myself”

They laugh and stare at it in awe, and I whisper to myself

“I love it too, it’s my pride and joy.”

 

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