by Kimberly Garrett Brown
It’s only hair, an older African-American woman once told me when I complained about my son’s mohawk. He had shaved his head at church camp because it earned his team an extra 50 points in their scavenger hunt. His older brother called to get permission before they did it. I agreed, but once he came home, I worried what people would think of me as a mother. This led to the conversation with the older woman. She admired his hair when she noticed him in the shoe department at Marshall Fields. I interjected that I wanted him to get it shaved so it looked more “normal”.
“It’s only hair. He’ll change it when he’s ready,” she said.
It was easy to accept my son’s hair choice at the time. But years later when I decided to wear my natural hair instead of a relaxer, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional baggage attached to the texture of my hair. And yet as I think back over my natural hair journey, I realize it was about so much more than hair.
A hair stylist once told me women color and/or cut their hair after major life changes because they don’t feel like the same person. They want the outside to reflect the change they feel on the inside.
After my oldest son’s death, I wanted a visible sign of my broken heart. I thought about cutting off all my hair. I shared this with a new stylist.
“I hope it’s not because of some guy,” he said.
“Sort of. I lost my oldest son last month,” I replied.
He offered his condolences and suggested that I wait before I made such an extreme change.
I knew he was right, but I needed to do something. Not just because I didn’t feel like the same person, but because it was hard enough to get out of the bed and get dressed. I didn’t have the energy to worry about my hair. I decided to have my hair braided with extensions. They were different than the way I normally wore my hair and required minimal daily maintenance.
As an African-American woman living in a predominately white community, wearing braids was paramount to taking a stand of sorts about my ethnicity, but over the years — thanks to Bo Derek — they were more accepted.
Braids felt like the right decision. I didn’t look the same as I did before my son’s death, and I had a hair style that required very little effort. Braids became a part of how I saw myself. They fit my new normal.
I wore braids for the next 15 months, but then they began to feel tedious. I no longer wanted to spend an entire day at the salon while the braids were taken down and my own hair washed, trimmed and rebraided. I couldn’t stand one more night were my head hurt from the braids feeling as if they are pulling on my brain. And I worried about my slowly disappearing hairline. So, I took them down one final time and decided to wear my hair in its natural form.
The first few months felt like an emotional rollercoaster. Some days I loved the way I looked. Other days my hair made me feel unsure of myself. It seemed as if a well-kept secret had been let out of the bag — hey ya’ll, I’m black. And while my walnut colored skin makes it clear that I am of African descent, wearing natural hair seemed to unleash centuries of the negativity and condemnation over black hair. When I looked in the mirror negative words raced through my mind. Instead of seeing an African-American woman who embraced her natural beauty, I saw a nappy-headed girl who felt ugly and unloved.
As a child, my hair wasn’t celebrated or admired. It was treated like burden. My earliest memories of getting it washed were of my parents fighting with one another as my father held me up to the sink while my mother tried to not get water in my ears. Apparently, I was afraid of water clogging my ears and not being able to hear. My mother was often frustrated by the process and angry. I assumed, like most children, it was my fault. The process didn’t get better as I got older. By then I was expected to sit still as my mother yanked and pulled to untangle my thick, tight curls — or as it was more frequently characterized — nappy hair.
While it may sound cliché, there really were distinctions between good and bad hair in my family. Good hair was easier to manage, grew longer and looked “pretty”. Some family member once commented that my sister had “good” hair. They may not have specifically said I had “bad” hair, but I understood the insinuation. When I shared this with my mother, she respond by saying all hair was bad because you have to wash it. I have always appreciated her attempt to make me feel better, but I knew the texture of hair made me less attractive to a lot of people. And, though I’m sure my family would deny it, the people who had “good” hair were admired and treated better. Getting a relaxer made my hair easier to manage and more like “good” hair. Embracing that look quieted some of the negative messages I received as a child
Returning to my natural hair unleashed those long-buried insecurities. The straightness of my hair had determined my value. It meant acceptance. People seemed to see me as competent and put together. I received compliments about my “pretty” hair. It became a part of my identity. Straight hair made me feel safe. It hid a deep fear that at the core I was not okay. My natural hair made me feel as exposed and raw on the outside as I felt on the inside.
Words can not begin to describe the anguish and sorrow felt in every cell of my body when my son died. Every thing I did or didn’t do emphasized his absence. I longed to hear his voice and to give him a hug. I wanted to tell him how much I love him one more time. I felt guilt and shame for the times I reacted out of anger or felt frustrated with him. I questioned my decisions and chastised myself for my mistakes. As his mother, I felt I bore some of the responsibility for his despair and depression. I wondered if things would have been different if I had been a better mother. These feelings were multiplied when I saw parents whose adult children his age were thriving in their lives. I quickly labeled them as the “good” parents, and assumed that they see me as a “bad” parent, judging me as harshly as I judged myself.
It may be a stretch to draw a parallel between having good hair or bad hair and being a good parent or bad parent. And yet, many of our actions in both cases are done with the assumption that our strength and weaknesses are confirmed by appearances. That’s why we spend so much money on outwardly things like what we wear, what we drive or where we live. Our hair is an extension of that. It’s an outward expression of how we see ourselves and how we want to be perceived. Similarly, our children’s successes or failures become a commentary on our effectiveness as parents. But things are not always as they appear.
I may have looked more “put together” with relaxed hair, but I didn’t truly accept myself. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to manage appearances — and I’m not just talking about my hair. It was so important that people saw me as this woman who had her proverbial shit together whether or not I actually did. But since the loss of my son, none of that matters. I know now it’s more important to be authentic. So many of us believe we have to bear the burden of our hurts, fear and insecurities alone. We put on a “good” face to give the appearance that everything is okay. But sharing our fears and insecurities gives others permission to share theirs.
Wearing my natural hair has become part of my journey to be more authentic. That’s not to say relaxed hair is unauthentic. As the older woman said years ago, it’s only hair. The texture of our hair doesn’t define us. The process of accepting myself with natural hair has helped me navigate my grief journey. When my hair doesn’t want to cooperate, I let it do what it wants to do which is the same way I handle my grief. If I need to cry, I cry. If I feel sad, I allow myself to be sad. If I don’t want to do anything, I don’t do it. And most importantly, I give myself grace. As a result, I am walking more confidently in my new normal.