I can vividly recall sitting on the living room floor between my mother’s legs as she tugged, wrestled, and manipulated my relaxed hair into straight-back cornrows. I hated wearing my hair in straight-backs. My brothers would joke with me saying I looked like I was ready for the penitentiary. I suppose that’s the style that men and women who had committed hardcore crimes wore. Either way, I was not a fan.
The style I loved was what we now call a “braid-out.” For those who are unfamiliar, a braid out is the process of braiding one’s hair, allowing the braid to contour the hair into a crinkled pattern, and then unraveling the braid. This process allows one to obtain a voluptuous, curly hairstyle without the trouble of heat damage. As a child, my mother would instruct me to remove my braids, and my first instinct was always to wave my hair back and forth, side to side in the mirror. I absolutely adored the curly pattern that only came from my braid set. One day I asked my mother if I could just wear my hair curly for a few days. Her response: “No. It looks nappy.”
This was my first introduction to expectation management as it pertains to Black women and hair standards.
If my hair was too kinky, kids at school would offer to purchase a relaxer for me or take one from their mother. If my braids were too large, they weren’t box braids; they were doo-doo braids. I forced myself to endure consistent scalp burning, broken ends, and damaged hair just to fit in. The harsh reality is that it didn’t matter whether the mold I tried to conform to was my mother’s, the women at church, the school teacher who told me to tell my mother I needed a perm, or my friends. I just wanted to fit.
Then, I accepted my offer to the United States Military Academy at West Point. The hair standard is a nice low and tight bun, just like all the other girls. We were all in uniform with our similar hairstyles. The only thing is, I was in a class that required me to submerge in chlorine water daily. If the years of trying to look European hadn’t caused enough damage already, this was the final strand—literally. Finally, in January 2011, I decided it was time for my big chop. 10 inches of dead ends holding on for dear life gone over the course of 20 minutes by my own hands and a little inspiration from India. Arie’s hit I Am Not My Hair. Who knew the next nine years of experience would solidify that anything natural was truly unacceptable, and my mother was simply trying to protect me.
As my hair grew out, I faced a plethora of sharp-tongued remarks. The first was, “you look like you stuck your finger in an electrical socket,” which was right after my big chop. My personal favorite was that I looked like Buckwheat’s little sister. When my hair started to grow out, I experimented with a variety of two-strand twists, braids, and flat twists until I found what would work for me. Surprisingly, my every week, at inspection formation, my leadership would politely inform me that “dreadlocks were not allowed in uniform.” And every week, I would kindly remind them that my hair was in twists or braids—not dreads.
Now, I am no longer serving in the military. To commemorate my retirement, I decided to wear a long, straight purple wig. I looked at myself in the mirror and gave myself the approval to rock it. Finally, it didn’t matter to me whether or not someone else approved of my hair. I only cared about whether or not I loved it. And love my purple wig, I do!
My husband doesn’t think he will ever get used to the loud color, but he appreciates the confidence I exude when I wear it. My mom…it has grown on her—sort of. My Uncle says I look like a ghetto girl from the hood to which I reply: GOOD!
The fact of the matter is: hair does not determine the employability of an individual. Hair does not dictate the quality of work an individual, more specifically, a Black woman, can provide. Hair does not make someone “ghetto” or uneducated. I eagerly wait for the day that an ignorant person misjudges me for my hair. I expect this will be the perfect opportunity to educate that individual on the history of Black hair. I imagine this as a chance to speak with such eloquence and poise about how their initial judgments make them look foolish. I presume that my clear articulation will make this person feel microscopic when learning about Black hair and its complexities and uniqueness. Moreover, I see it as a chance to let people know the wild freedom of my hair does not diminish my ability to think intelligently. Many have been taught never to judge a book by its cover; so why does a person’s hair earn them judgment if we are not judging solely by what we see.