The Physics of my Magical Black Hair
“So that’s technically not your real hair?” The day I no longer have to hear those words will be the day I rejoice in gladness – that much is true. And I must say, it takes real strength to exercise patience when I’m told how “gross” I am for not washing my hair every day or that I’m “weird” for intentionally adding oil to my hair for a greasier consistency. I can’t get mad when non-blacks spew such dense remarks my way. Well, I suppose I can… But I really shouldn’t. And I guess I should get used to it since I recently decided to ‘go natural’. That phrase may not translate to some but what that means is, I came to the conclusion that chemically butchering my hair was probably not the best routine to preserve.
For most of my life, my frustration over my hair (unlike my hair itself) just grew and grew. I didn’t really understand it. Being adopted into a white family, my mother struggled to properly care for my hair and so chemical relaxers became her go-to… It was like having the answers to a test you were about to take, or the cheat codes to Mortal Kombat – it made your life a whole lot easier. Goodbye coarse and kinky, hello soft and silky. Just For Me relaxer was the holy grail in the Stephens household. My mother no longer had to replace the combs with missing teeth which broke off in my head, trying (and failing) to untangle my feral afro. She didn’t have to stare at my scalp confused as to why my tight curls were drinking copious amounts L’Oreal – huffing and puffing at the idea of reapplying yet another palm full. She no longer had to carry the weight of unspoken criticism from strangers, nor the expressed disapproval of how “nappy” my hair was.
Yes. The chemical straightener lightened her load, both physically and emotionally. Because of this, I knew as much about my own hair as she did until attending University at the not so tender age of 19. This had become one of the reasons why I had never felt ‘black enough’ to call myself black. After all, which black person can’t take care of their own hair? (In years to come, I would learn the answer to that rhetorical was, in fact, plenty.) By the time I was 17, my hair was damaged and my edges had joyously ridden into the sunset with my self-esteem. And instead of repairing the breakage, I just hid the devastation under costly weaves and hair pieces. For many black women, this is seen as the acceptable thing to do – sabotage your locks until it no longer bends, but breaks at your whim. Sit and scald you scalp until it damn near falls off your head before seeking refuge under the shower head. All in the name of Western beauty ideals. Sadly, many black women believe this Aryan-adjacent image is the sole vision of attractiveness and so do whatever necessary to attain it… Even if that means ruining themselves in the process. For years, I guess you could say I was conditioned to think this way also.
Last month, I sat myself in the waiting area of BeBe’s Lounge: a hair salon in East London, awaiting my bi-monthly hair appointment. It was there where I met a woman who, for the first time in my life, educated me on black hair. She went on to tell me how “hair is not rocket science,” but in that moment, it was more like quantum physics. After working up the courage to ask her for advice on how to best care for my hair, she said, “contrary to popular belief, no one else will know your hair like you. No hairdresser, no YouTuber, no Instagramer… not your GP, the old lady down the road and most of all, I won’t know your hair like you do.” That made sense. I listened attentively to this woman as she went on to describe what it is I had been carrying around on my head for twenty-two years. Magic. It was the equivalent to pixie dust growing from my scalp. Who else’s hair defies gravity, or grows with patterned spirals which mirror that of electricity, tornadoes and DNA? Who else can say their hair both grows towards and provides shade from the sun? Afro hair has to be some form of sorcery. I mean, have you seen it? It can contort and hold locks, twists, braids and shapes like no other! Though, truth be told – it’s not just a ‘black thing’, I’m aware that many people of different races and cultures wear their afros with pride. So why shouldn’t I? After hours of research, I eventually came across a blog run by a group of African- American women called FroGlo. This website had all kinds of tips and tricks on how to maintain afro hair and plenty of FAQ’s to read up on. In the spirit of genuine curiosity, I ended up emailing them a ton of questions I’d pondered since childhood and sat in awe at their awaited response.
Last weekend, I did it – that “C” word most black girls tremble at the sound of: The Big Chop. I cut my hair and began my journey back to happier, healthier hair. Ever since, I’ve received the most discouraging looks from people in my heavily Caucasian populated neighbourhood and others in the workplace. Fair enough, it was a drastic change from Becky with the ‘good hair’ to Bon Qui Qui with the big mouth, but damn! Although at times, I was not directly facing anyone, I could still feel them gazing my way for far too long. I was beginning to think that I had something ridiculously offensive written on my forehead or perhaps a “kick me” sign taped to the back of my polar neck. Yet still, I can, with good grace, say that this transition was one of the best decisions I have made in a while. It does have its benefits; for example, my fro provides great cushion for those unbearably boring days in the office when I need to take a power nap on my desk in the middle of the work day (weave 0-1 natural hair).
Yesterday, I was called into my superior’s office and was told that I should “consider putting my extensions back in” because my GOD GIVEN hair is apparently “unprofessional in a work environment”. Because it’s not at all unsavory for people assume that the hair upon any and every black woman’s head which doesn’t resemble a sponge microphone cover, must be store bought, right? How hilarious…. The hair that GROWS OUT OF MY OWN HEAD, is “unprofessional.” The notion that black hair, minus the European-style appearance, is improper is not only ridiculous but discriminatory. Why did he stop there? He may as well have asked me to bleach my skin so I can assimilate around the office. “You seem different lately… Troubled. Is everything alright at home? Financially?” Amazing. Those words came straight from the horse’s mouth. Because by his logic, an afro is a symbol of distress it appears… It’s the equivalent of throwing up the Bat Signal to locate all other radical black feminists – a cry for help. Right? Wrong. I don’t grasp why he fails to understand that wearing my hair in it’s natural form is not a rebellious statement or a sign of me joining some sort of counterculture. It’s just me. Hannah Stephens.
In all my time at HappyHour, I had never felt so offended…. And I’ve taken my fair share of offense. I can understand that going natural would seem a bold move. And I knew it would draw attention to me, forcing me out of my wallflower customs. Though, what I didn’t expect, was for my employer to order me to straighten my hair or “try and pull it back into a ponytail or bun,” because it was “distracting” and a “violation” of what is expected from employees. What a damn shame.
As you’ve probably guessed, I quit my job. And as sad as that is, at least my hair has grown 1.5inches. I suppose that’s something… Right?