I don’t know what finally gave me the courage, but I knew I wanted out. I was tired of being trapped, ruled by the cellophane wrapped bundles of Brazilian curly and Remi straight, number 1B. I felt like an addict — a slave to weave. My drug dealer was an affable Korean man in his 40’s who ran a beauty supply store in a run-down mall downtown. He had an impressive knowledge of all things extensions, from texture to length to what color would be best to experiment with; honey blonde and deep maroon was flattering for my skin tone, he’d say. Sometimes he gave me discounts when I needed lots of hair and always made sure I left his store satisfied. But I was far from content.
Instead, I can remember an omnipresent, yet subtle buzz of anxiety that followed me around constantly. I had a problem. I was dependent on hair that wasn’t mine. For years I hid my own hair because I didn’t think it was enough. I thought that beauty, the kind that made me attractive to men could only be achieved by artificial means. How could I think any different when my own mother never left the house with her thick, natural hair exposed? Or when mass media promotes such staunch Euro-centric beauty standards? All I knew was that I was tired of it all. As I rode the bus on a hot, California spring day to the local beauty school, I thought about what it would be like to feel pretty without a weave.
There’s a school picture of me from the 3rd grade in where I’m wearing a curled bang and a braided side ponytail that reaches down to my shoulder. The braid, which is decorated at the top and at the end with thin, satin bows doesn’t belong to me, and in fact, isn’t actually hair. It’s a synthetic fiber called Kanekalon that has the look and feel of hair and is used for braids. Whenever I look at the picture, I feel sorry for the little girl. Her fine, thin hair, aside from the coiled bang is supplemented, enhanced. I wonder what my mother was thinking when she decided to put that thing in my hair. Maybe she thought I was insecure. Or maybe the onus was on her, a pressure to conform, the need for her daughter to look like the other little Black girls.
My mother would often put extensions in my hair although I can’t remember ever asking for it. For her, is was assumed that I needed it and my own hair wasn’t enough. Mine wasn’t as coarse or tightly coiled as my mom or my younger sister. It definitely wasn’t as full and thick either. Naturally, the density of my hair has always been sparse and fine, with a looser curl pattern. It’s smooth and easy to manipulate, characteristics that would be considered “good hair”. It’s a term I’d hear often from family members and, I’m ashamed to admit, took some pride in. But it’s a self-defeating term, rife with internalized racism, the implication being that proximity to whiteness is “good” while being closer to blackness is “bad”.
By the time I was in fifth grade, I was doing my own hair. Because of this, I rarely, if ever wore any extensions on my head unless I made a request that resulted in a full head of dookie braids. When I didn’t have braids for months at a time, I worked with what I had. I would brush my straightened hair into a teeny weeny bun, and then pull two thin strands down on each side of my crown that would hang over my forehead. It wasn’t surprising that my friends started calling me “roach”. I looked like I had antennae sprouting from my head.
When I was sixteen, I started asking my mother to give me a full-head weave. I would be getting for free what her friends and clients had to pay at least $75 dollars for. It was her side hustle and I was her only non-paying customer. I knew I needed to take advantage of my mother’s skills and in doing so, I walked around with a head of full, straight, long hair. The only people I was fooling were my Mexican and White friends. Sometimes I’d wear a fake ponytail during those times in between weaves, or when my mother couldn’t be bothered to sit down for two to three hours and do my hair. From then on, my fine strands hardly made a full-on public appearance.
I could pretend. I could look like Beyonce from the “Independent Women” video with the 1970’s feathered bangs. I could look like Diana Ross with wild, shoulder-length curls. I felt pretty, but at the same time on precipice of being caught. An underlying and profound sense of unease hung over me. When it came time for me to get a new weave, which was usually every three months, I would get anxious. I knew that I was inconveniencing my mom. I knew that she would be rather doing something else rather than sitting for two hours sewing wefts of human hair onto horizontal cornrows and trying to satisfy my detailed and specific requests that usually only made sense inside my head.
I hated it too. Hated that I depended on it so much. Hated that I couldn’t just wake up and style my own hair. Hated how, everyday, I had to straighten the small section that was left out, constantly damaging it so that it would cover the “tracks”. The dependency sat heavily on my soul. Once, while I was still in college, I was running to catch the bus to my part-time telemarketing job. I was wearing a ponytail. I’d made it onto the bus before it left the stop and as I sat in my seat trying to catch my breath, the coolness of the air conditioning felt oddly pronounced on the top of my head. I reached my hand up only to grab my little bun, exposed for the world to see. As soon as I got to the mall where I worked, I nearly ran inside the beauty supply and quickly bought a $10-dollar drawstring ponytail making me late for work.
I came to the conclusion that the best way to make the most of what I was born with was to cut it off. Once inside the beauty school, I told the eager student that I wanted a pixie cut. It was my first time in an actual salon since my mom had done my hair my entire life and I felt out of place. They were warm and welcoming and confirmed what I already knew: that a short cut would compliment both my hair texture and face. The young student’s hand was so light, so delicate that she treated my head as if it were something fragile she didn’t want to break. Sitting in the student’s chair, I felt like I was in a spa being pampered.
There was this sense of renewal washing over me as she cut into my hair. Watching the soft tufts float to the floor, I imagined how I would look. Would I like it? Would I feel naked? Would I run back to my mom and beg her to take me to the Korean man so we can get some kinky curly because I have no hair? Sitting in that chair, feeling lighter and lighter by the second, but I still held onto the fear. The fear that I wouldn’t be pretty enough. That people will look at me and laugh.
When she was done, she smiled at me in the mirror pleased with her work. I looked and saw someone else. Someone who was done pretending. A young beautiful Black woman with a small oval face with high cheekbones, a face that most people assumed was straight African instead of African-American. Her large brown eyes were prominent along with her large forehead. She looked even more petite, her slender frame congruent with her small head which was no longer obscured by the wildness of an over-the-top weave.
I walked out of the beauty school that day with a strange new feeling and a tapered pixie. My head felt cool in the 80-something degree heat. It was unusual and exciting. I was finally out in the open with nothing but my own hair on my head. On the bus ride home, I looked for reactions. I waited for someone to give me a disparaging look. Instead, nobody really paid me any mind.