“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. That picture you sent me, you had your hair covered on the boat. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do. If you go natural and take good care of your hair, it won’t fall off like it’s doing now. I can help you cut it right now. No need to think about it too much.”
My friend Jeannette has the most beautiful hair. She has worn it in braids, she has worn it straight, she has worn it full and curly. I never know quite what to expect when I see her, and I used to be reluctant to comment as if I was drawing attention to it unnecessarily.
But when we drove to Normal, Illinois, together for our National Board Certification ten years ago, I told her, “Jeannette, I love your hair. It’s always so beautiful.”
“My hair?!” she screeched. “My hair and I are divorced! We have irreconcilable differences.”
Which made me laugh, and remember what she said perfectly clearly even today, because curly hair is a Big Deal whether you’re Black or White.
Ifemelu, the charming and honest heroine of Americanah, centers her story of coming to America from Nigeria around her hair. Interspersed with the chapters of her life, are the tales of going to salons for braids, or going to the drugstore for relaxers, or having her friend take up the shears to cut it an even two inches all around. All this fuss is because hair is important. Far more important than just the literal stuff that comes out of your head. Hair practically defines you.
When I was in high school, the popular girls had hair like the girls in 1970s Pepsi commercials. Their hair was blonde, straight and parted down the center. It swung when they tossed their heads. It never frizzed out of control in humid Illinois weather, or took hours to dry after swimming lessons. It resembled my own hair not at all.
My Italian hair is thick, and curly, and prone to wildness. It has taken me years to find a stylist who can cut it, and years to find the way to dry it with a diffuser so it is full and swirls around my face. It has taken me years to accept it as who I am, which once I’ve done I now embrace. And with that embracing comes compliments from others. “Oh, I wish I had your hair. Is it natural?” I hear that all the time. Because once we accept the natural part of who we are, quit forcing a part of ourselves we don’t like into something it isn’t, we become more beautiful.
So while I commiserate with Ifemelu’s woes, her distress and pain about fitting in, I suggest it isn’t just hair that’s the problem. It’s cherishing who you are no matter what the rest of the world holds up as a certain standard.
“On a unremarkable day in early spring – the day was not bronzed with special light nothing of any significance happened, and it was perhaps merely that time, as it often does, had transfigured her doubts – she looked in the mirror, sank her fingers into her hair, dense and spongy and glorious, and could not imagine any other way. That simply, she fell in love with her hair.”