I can remember first hearing India.Arie’s song “I Am Not My hair” in high school. It’s a great song, and has really good advice; don’t wrap up your self-esteem in your hair, or anything about your appearance for that matter. And I agree, but what we really have to do is to gain self-esteem in the first place so we can stop letting others control how we view our hair, and by extension us. Whether it’s a parent, a significant other, a friend, a hairstylist or just society in general. Letting them control our hair is only a symptom of a bigger problem. Letting others’ opinions become more important than your own shows a lack of confidence in yourself. And without that confidence, you end up letting the hair (or something else about your appearance) and how people react to it become your source for self esteem and even if you do everything they want you to do you will still have no self esteem. I know, because it’s my hair story.

Like many biracial children I grew up in White neighborhoods. I had a White dad and a Black mom who was very laid back and low maintenance and didn’t force any beauty products on me (though I wish she had at least told me about deodorant but that’s another story). So I had to figure out a lot of things on my own. Nobody dragged me into a salon to get a relaxer, nobody gave me traction alopecia by braiding too-tight braids into my hair, nobody was telling me I had bad hair (my dad didn’t even know that phrase and my mom would certainly never use it), nobody forced weave on me. No, nobody did any of that stuff but neither did anybody instill confidence in my hair type, tell me I had good hair so I ended up doing all of these things to myself in the end anyway.

When I was two years old, my well-intentioned father took me to his barbers shop for white males to get my hair cut. I had an unintentional Frohawk too short to pull back into my habitual bunny tail for months afterwards. And that was the last attempt my dad made towards styling my hair. Even my mom was clueless when it came to what to do with my hair. Growing up I was deemed too tender headed to do anything with. Through elementary school my hair was just something to pull back in a hasty puff. Looking back at pictures I can see my hair was ready to blow it was so dry. Thank goodness I didn’t play with matches; I would have taken my whole block with me. I realize now that I had a low level embarrassment towards my hair. It was different. I went to a heavily white school in a white neighborhood. All I knew about my hair were the small comments other people made about it.

A series of vignettes: A little blonde classmate patting my hair with innocent curiosity “It looks like a sheep”. Wearing a shiny weave ponytail to school one day (just the ponytail mind you, the rest of my hair was left nappy) that I now know must have resulted in a hilariously obvious texture difference. My first grade teacher commenting on how good it looked and me honestly telling her it was weave. Her admonishing me to never tell someone it’s fake. Having one of the teachers at my day care center teaching me how to braid. The point of all these small experiences is that I didn’t know anything about my hair; I saw it only through the eyes of those around me. Of course I now can see in hindsight what these things meant. A hair type different than hers fascinated my classmate, and it was nothing to be hurt by. I know now that I wanted a ponytail like my classmates, so I wore a weave attachment because nobody ever complimented my puff. I know now that my teacher had been taught her whole life that weaves are a woman’s (especially those women using it to cover an undesirable texture) little secret and should stay such. She was only trying to be helpful but only ended up making me self-conscious. I know now that my day care teacher was taking pity on me and trying to be subtle about the fact that I came in day after day with the same dry puff and was probably itching to give me a cute style. Unfortunately, that was the last fellow female I would meet for a long time who used their control over my self esteem to empower confidence in my natural hair. Too many of us try to find the self esteem we need by tearing down other’s down.

I had reached middle school. It was a new school and I didn’t know anybody. For the first time, I was going to school with plenty of other children my color and I had a whole new set of eyes to see my hair and myself through. But for the first time in my life, I met people who were not curious about my hair. That’s because they already knew everything there was to know about it. Or they thought they did. They were still fascinated with my hair though, but for completely different reasons than those at my previous school. As one classmate with about 3 inches of dry perm herself, in a tone of utter disgust, put it “You have the nappiest hair I have ever seen.” I couldn’t go a week without a Black female schoolmate (most I had never seen before) stopping me in the halls to demand why I didn’t have a perm yet. My hair offended them in way I didn’t understand at the time. But I knew I had to do something drastic. These people must see something in my hair that I didn’t. And in true keeping with my lack of self-esteem, I was sure whatever it was they saw was reality. By the 8th grade, I was 13 and I wanted to look pretty so I asked my mom if I could get a relaxer. She didn’t want to but for, better or worse, she let me make my own mistakes. I was so excited to be getting a perm. I couldn’t wait to have hair that swayed in the winds and swept my shoulders and made people finally look at my hair, not with disgust or a fascination that should be reserved for zoo animals, but something resembling appreciation. Of course I didn’t know that last part then. Even my hairstylist asking a nearby coworker how to apply a virgin perm (as she was applying mine) couldn’t dim my delight. I was very pleased with the results. I found a better hairstylist and she took me under her wing.

From that day forward for 7 years, my hair was touched-up and styled every 6-8 weeks like clockwork. But even as my satisfaction with my hair and how it shined and swayed grew so did my alienation to it and it’s care. I, at the time, would have been utterly shocked to learn the chemicals in the relaxers going on my head and even that certain products were used for certain reasons. I didn’t even realize I was getting deep conditioning and protein treatments or what this would have meant had I known. I sat where I was told to sit and read a magazine while I went through the process that would make me beautiful and acceptable to others. I was kept completely in the dark. I did tentatively ask my hairstylist once how she got my hair looking so good so that I could replicate it in between visits but some hairstylists feel they need to keep secrets to keep clients and she was one of them. It’s not their job to empower their clients and I can’t blame them. They have to make a living too. And so for the next years everything bumped along fine while I sat content in the passenger seat and my hair grew, and I finally got the appreciation I wanted. Everyone exclaimed over my long hair (well past shoulder length which is long for relaxed hair sadly). But then the worst happened and I could no longer afford to hand over the reins without a care. In my junior year of high school my hair began shedding and it didn’t stop. It got bad; everywhere I went I left massive hairballs behind. I hid what I could in socks, pants pockets, under desks. I tried to ignore it for as long as I could, pretending I believed my hairstylist’s assurances that my hair was fine. Nobody wanted to believe I was losing my hair. “Look at how long it’s growing!” They would say. But who cares about long hair when it’s pathetically thin? I watched my hair go from lustrous and thick to stringy and dull. I got blood tests to check for iron or vitamin deficiencies and went to several doctors but nobody could tell me why it was happening. It was completely out of my control, but this was nothing new. It was only the first time I had cared. In the meantime, my friends were left with the piles of hair to clean up after I would visit their houses. And I contemplated just cutting it all off so I didn’t have to feel my heart break in small doses. During this time I heard “I Am Not My hair” and I kind of absorbed the message and it helped but I wasn’t quite done letting others decide what was best for me. I succumbed to peer pressure, nobody wanted me to cut off my “long beautiful hair” (which at this point was far from beautiful). I was the only one without blinders on but I went along with what they thought best. But I couldn’t look at the pitiful mess for one more day so I compromised and got weave. It was a culmination of what I had been leading up to my whole life- complete alienation from my hair. If you like weave and it’s your choice, that’s cool. But getting one was the worst choice I could have made because I made it for all the wrong reasons.

I felt trapped and it was 1st grade all over again, ashamed that someone could detect I was a fraud. I had gone from hiding my real hair texture to hiding my hair loss to hiding weave tracks, always for other people. I was imprisoned by weave for 2 whole years. Going to my hairdressers became a grim, painful task where I would endure hours of that process to turn me beautiful. Except it took a lot more now to make me acceptable (both in time and dollar signs). We had to relax, then corn row and then sew the pretty hair in on top and after all that, I had lost even the little thrill I would once get after it was all done and I saw “myself” in the mirror. During those years, the weave might as well have been a rodent that had found it’s way onto my head and died there for all the connection I felt to it. It was a means to an end. I never even saw my own hair in between weaves; I didn’t want to. I got out of one only to put another on immediately. The weave was both my mask and my prison. There were a few good things about all the weaves and one is that it opened my eyes to my pattern of valuing other’s opinion over my own. They liked my hair. I hated it. Who would win? It was a long battle but I finally did. I took out the last weave on my own, cutting the strings sewn in, unbraided my cornrows and it felt like a great weight fell off my shoulders. I could finally feel my scalp. My hair was still thin, my poor abused scalp had developed severe dandruff from two years of about 10 weaves in a row and 2 years of inattention, I had several inches of new growth and I was missing chunks of hair at my temples from traction alopecia that are currently growing back quite nicely. But I felt free and I decided why not go completely natural and do my own hair? I didn’t know if I could stand sitting down complacently in a stylist chair ever again anyway.

I transitioned for 10 months, did the BC last December though I was a bit apprehensive about how my round face would look with short hair. Looks right to me and that’s all that matters. Now I can make my own decisions about the kind of relationship I want with my hair (which stopped shedding once I went natural and you can’t even tell it’s thin now that’s not straight). I rock twist outs, twist, various braided styles, wash and gos, frizzed out afros, (many of the styles, products and techniques which I only know about thanks to this site and others like it) and anything I can imagine. I plan on getting the biggest Afro possible and once I reach that goal I may try locs. Whatever I decide, I will be confident in my decision. And that comes from a more real kind of self-esteem than the fake self-esteem from a hair style or other people’s acceptance.

1st picture– The Frohawk after the infamous haircut
2nd picture– A good example of my #1 style growing up, the bunny tail was good for all occasions. Not.
3rd picture– I may be smiling in this picture but my hair is distressingly thing here
4th picture– My dead rodent hair
5th picture– All Natural since 08