“Your hair is your beauty,” she frequently reminded us. I’d always thought that was easy for my great-grandmother, affectionately called Mama, to say. She’d had long, thick, flowing locks that created an available path for her brown and black children to run their fingers through. It was a shame she kept it bundle up in contraptions later in her life, it graying at the root. Hair like that deserved to gracefully fall at her slender shoulders. Hair like that was her beauty.
I’d decided hair like mine would need a bit more wear and tear. Kinky, nappy, curly, black then brown, unruly and the one characteristic I had in common with Mama’s hair, thick, my hair was not my beauty. There was no gracefully falling at my rather broad shoulders for my small-packaged body. There was however, pulling, a lot of pulling. And tears, more then I’d like to count. There was also grease, pins, heat, chemicals, burns, slaps…well, more on that later.
Instead, I should start from the root, pun intended. My life and so many other women’s lives can be told through the history of their past hairstyles. Hairstyles, some for the boys, some for my parents, some for myself, some wacky, some practical, were my essence if not at first my beauty. As an African-American, my childhood was a series of braided hairstyles, some simple, some in the most intricate designs.
Ages three through six found me with plaited twists atop my head that traveled down my neck. Dangling from the ends was plastic neon colored barrettes that kept the ends together. And wound around the root of the plait were bright colored bobbles. You don’t know true pain until your Nana or Mom has wrestled you into them doing your uneasy to manage hair. They pull at your hair with such an unwelcomed force and blame you for being “tender-headed.” True pain: when they have finished tying the bobbles around the breads to hold them in place and snap the plastic rounded decoration decorating the elastic against you scalp. Ouch! But if beauty is pain and your hair must be your beauty, then, why not, right?
At age nine, I walked into the black-owned hair salon close to my home and walked out a seemingly new person. Bright and bubbly to passerby who’d complimented me on my newest hairstyle, the braids, called cornrows, threaded across my scalp were intricate curly clues. Cascading off my head and reaching the midway point of my neck, the braids were adorned with navy blue colored beads that rattled when I moved in jubilation. I sported the hairstyle to school, and eagerly welcomed praise from teachers and curiosity from non-African American students unfamiliar with braids. The resident class clown caught me approaching my Mom after regular 8:00-3 :00 (hey, being a student is a full time job) and asked me one of the funniest questions I’ve received in all my nine years at the time. “Did they nail that diamond into your head?” Wait, what? I laughed as my hand traveled to the decorative cubic zirconium nestled in between a circular braid on the top of my head. It was attached to my hair through a Velcro base, but I’d never considered it being out of the ordinary or that others would think I had a real diamond embedded in my skull. I assured him I wasn’t about to pass out from the shock of a diamond being partially implanted in my head, my mom, Raymond, and I shared a good laugh and the Velcro encrusted cubic zirconium was the last of my experimenting years for a while.
The age of thirteen brought an unadulterated sense of wanting to be mature and wanting to look like the successful black and brown people on my television screen. Also, I was just physically exhausted from the pushing and pulling, and wearing and tearing that my natural hair textured had endured over the years. So I sat my mom down and broke the news to her. “I want to get my hair permed.” She didn’t take to the news too well at first. Having your hair permed for African-Americans means to have it chemically straightened. The process can sometimes be painful for you or harmful to your hair, but above all, she was hesitant on what it would mean for my development. Was I trying to grow up too fast? Did I not think my natural hair was beautiful? Maybe. But, she conceded. As almost a right of passage, I received my first perm in the basement of a friend of a friend whose business was up and coming. I couldn’t remember a time when I felt more beautiful. Maybe my hair could be my beauty after all, I remember thinking.
At age seventeen after four years of perming my natural hair complimented by a simple side swept bang, I tried my luck once more at an experimenting style. Mom always meant well, but she could be very controlling about my looks. Well, she was really only controlling about my hairstyles while shooting down any hopes of me ever getting a tattoo or nose piercing. I told her getting blunt bangs to go across my forehead would give me an edge. She didn’t understand why a black girl would want to willing cut her hair, given the slow growth process for our natural hair. But after years of begging, at seventeen I got my first bang haircut. I felt even more beautiful than when I’d gotten my first perm. I tried the new ‘do out at a family function and adored the compliments swept at me. But, being the one of the two most influential women in my life, my mom and her younger sister, my aunt, sat me down and gave me a much needed lesson on self-confidence and history. 1. I had always been beautiful, without the bobbles, beads, glittering hair decorations, perm, or bangs. I was beautiful for being me, like when my brown irises seemed to sparkle no matter the occasion, or when my cheeks traveled to those sparkling eyes in joy. 2. My hair didn’t make me beautiful. I didn’t understand. “How can your hair be your beauty if it doesn’t make you beautiful?” Good question. Mama wasn’t around anymore to answer it. In fact, we were at the wake for her funeral during this conversation. But her granddaughters, my mom and aunt, carried on her legacy with what they told me about what she really meant about hair and beauty. Mama meant that your clothing can be worn, tattered, mismatched, old, etc., but as long your hair is taken care of and healthy, exuberating a confidence from you, you can always be beautiful. That is how “your hair is your beauty.” You’re stunned I know. What insight! What wisdom! I’ve inherited some pretty smart genes here people.
Attempting to live up to the generation of beautiful, strong-minded women in my family, at age nineteen while a sophomore in college, I decided to take care of my hair better. For me, that meant no more perms. At the time when this article is written, I have had natural hair for a year. Erupting from me is a confidence I never felt after my hair was permed, or when I got a trendy haircut. My hair is my beauty because I made a decision for myself to wear my hair the way I want to without regard to societal norms, how it will make others perceive me, or if it will make boys like me. Whether in braids, twists, a bun, or in a protective style (weaves or box-braids), I am beautiful, and without pain.