My daughter’s only two year’s old, but she’s finally past the baby bald spots stage and starting to grow a head full of thick kinky/curly hair that I’ve been having fun with. I enjoy taking care of her tresses and I hope she learns to enjoy her hair when she’s old enough to understand the necessity of doing so. She’s not fond of sitting still for styling or even washing because she’s a toddler, but because of my own journey with learning to appreciate my natural hair, and what I’ve learned from that struggle and how easy it is to send the wrong message to a child, even at a young age, I plan to tread lightly with how I approach her luscious ‘fro.
I inherited negative perceptions of my hair as a small child before I really understood what self-love was. It took me nearly two decades to shed the negative image I had of my kinky 4C texture. Ironically, no one close to me directly told me my hair was ugly or that it wasn’t acceptable, but the implications were glaring. My mother, who meant well like most moms, didn’t really know how to style or take care of my hair but she wanted to keep it neat. Her response was to get it braided frequently, often with extensions, which sometimes lead to traction alopecia due to braiders pulling too tight around my edges, which then led to me wearing lots of headbands and generally having to wear my hair draped over my edges to camouflage baldness until my edges grew back. It was always lotioned and potioned to death–but never nourished–and always suffocated in the name of sleekness. Press ‘n curls never lasted on me, and wigs and weaves were seen as too grown, so a perm was the natural progression—especially since the Black-owned dance school I attended at the time said that braids weren’t allowed at our yearly recital. They actually (and unfortunately) referred to it as “ethnic styles.” We all know that braids or “ethnic styles” not being allowed is coded language for hair that needs to be as Eurocentric in appearance as possible, aka straight. I never saw hair that looked like mine on TV, movies or magazines, and the textured hair that did get praise was usually the loose curly or wavy textures—you know, the DeBarge special. I did not have “good hair” without excess manipulation so the concept that my hair, the way it grew out of my scalp, wasn’t good enough, was confirmed.
By the time I got to my sophomore year in college, I was tired of trying to force my hair into an aesthetic that didn’t feel comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, playing with hairstyles is fun, but back then It wasn’t because I always felt like I was chasing something that my hair could never be. Fed up, I decided to big chop and instantly regretted that too. I didn’t remember what my natural hair looked like outside of baby pictures, so it was a shock to see it again. Initially, I felt as though the elders were right—my hair wasn’t acceptable– and it seemed like no products worked for me. I didn’t have the money to go to a salon to learn how to take care of my hair and the only social media available was Naptural.com or Fotki photo albums. However, the problem with those sites and communities was that the women who had the silky wet and wavy textured hair were always the ones who were lauded. The women with textures like mine were also in a state of trial and error so it was the blind leading the blind. Eventually, with encouragement from my friends, I began experimenting with protective styles like twists and Bantu knots and even braids again, but on my terms and done by people who respected my edges. I even started figuring out how to comb and detangle my strands properly (moisturizing first and then using a wide tooth comb), and which oils and creams seemed to produce the best results before finally loc’ing my hair a couple of years later.
I had my locs for more than a decade before cutting them off Christmas Eve 2017. It has been a little over a year since my second big chop and I’ve learned even more about my hair, particularly its porosity and how that can affect the way it retains moisture. This knowledge was a game changer, not just for me, but for how I take care of my daughter’s hair. That care doesn’t just come in the form of the products I use, but also my words. This isn’t about vanity, it’s about protecting myself and even my child from the ugliness that sometimes accompanies conversations about kinky hair, and African features in general, even from people who are closest to us.
For me, it’s the micro-aggressions and criticisms from my mom and my mother-in-law that have been most difficult. My mother-in-law hates when my daughter’s hair “isn’t done.” Her loose afro is just too much to bear, and when it is actually styled, it still has to look a certain way by her standards. She once criticized my daughter’s cornrows for not being curled at the bottom and questioned me for not putting barrettes in her hair. My own mother often asks me about barrettes when I do my daughter’s hair and leave it undecorated. Barrettes and adornments are fun but not necessary; there is a difference.
My mom also once took a comb that wasn’t even meant for coarse hair and tried to comb through my daughter’s hair without any kind of moisturizer first, simply because it had lent in it. Mind you, we were at home and had no plans to go anywhere. Plus, my toddler refuses to adhere to “the rules.” She doesn’t want to wear a satin bonnet (something that I will introduce when she’s old enough to understand hair care over vanity), and she’s fond of playing by any means necessary, which means her hair isn’t always going to be “done.” I want her to keep that carefree sentiment she has, and I also want her to understand balance in a way that is healthy. I obviously know that the elder women in my life mean well so this isn’t to disrespect them, but I also understand that, sometimes, when people are set in their ways, they may not understand the profound ways in which they impact their descendants. When it comes to both women, I have made it clear that their issues (or anyone else’s issues) with my daughter’s hair aren’t mine and will not be hers.
I hope my daughter learns from watching me (she’s already aware of when I change up my hair) that while styling can be fun, it’s most important to love her hair in any form it’s in, especially the way it grows out of her scalp naturally. People’s expectations of her texture do not define her and they do not define how I parent. To quote India Arie, she is not her hair. Neither am I.