Act One: Innocence
Young Irie was born with a head of hair as lush as a cue ball. In other words, she was balder than an eagle. When her hair finally grew, it did so in little tufts that were tightly coiled and undeniably nappy.
Not that her parents would call it “nappy.” For them, there was no such thing as “good hair”, the term commonly given to straight or wavy hair at the time, because that would mean its opposite – kinky, cottony coils – was bad. And such beauty could never be bad in their eyes. As though to reinforce this, her parents styled their own kinks and coils into dreadlocks or afros, and they would do the same for her. Most commonly, little Irie’s hair would be formed into neat afro puffs that would become more wild and unwieldy as the day grew on. This was fine by Irie. She didn’t think too much about her hair, except for those days her mother would braid it into cornrows that were so tight she couldn’t grin for two whole days.
As Irie grew older, she learned that even though her parents didn’t demarcate straight hair from kinky hair, others did. She heard the kids on the school bus talking about “BBs”, which, as she would learn, were the pen-spring kinks that gathered at the nape of one’s neck and resembled buck shot. She learned that you didn’t want BBs – of which she had plenty – but what you did want was hair that was smooth, straight, and long.
From Naomi Campbell to Angela Bassett to Sade, the beautiful Black women Irie saw on screens large and small appeared to have long, flowing tresses. And those who didn’t have long hair, like Halle Berry and Toni Braxton, had hair that was straight and shiny, and that lay perfectly down.
Irie watched as many of the Black girls she knew underwent transformations that left them with smooth, straightened hair. She learned that many were getting their hair pressed with a hot comb. One day, Irie decided that even if her hair couldn’t be smooth and long, at least it could be straight.
Act Two: Masks
There is no fear like the sizzle of a hot comb making its way through your hair and toward an ear, Irie thought. She sat stone still in a kitchen chair in her little mobile home as her mother parted her hair into sections and transformed each afro puff into hair that hung semi-straight. Semi, because it would never quite lie down or behave as it was supposed to. More often, it would stand at attention in a fluffy pompadour. It was fine. It was better than the puffs.
She was in fifth grade. In another two years, she would trade the hot comb for a relaxer and feel the same skin-searing fear every time the hairdresser slathered the cream onto her hair. The very first time, she would almost cry out. The cream didn’t burn, not yet. But as she looked in the mirror, her afro covered in chemicals, she would think, “This is a mask.”
Irie would wear the mask of straight hair for a few more years before deciding, somewhere around tenth grade, that she was tired of hiding her hair. She would stop getting the relaxers and run her fingertips over the new curls sprouting at her roots. She would spend hours on dial up internet searching NaturallyCurly.com message boards to learn what the hell she was supposed to do with this kinky hair. Salons that catered toward Black women with unprocessed hair would be few and far between for another decade, and though her mother was a natural hair advocate, she only knew how to care for low-maintenance styles like short afros, dreadlocks, and children’s afro puffs.
Irie would learn how to trim and style her own hair. But, even when the perm grew out, she would continue to wear a mask of sorts, manipulating her kinks with braid-outs and twist-outs so that it would appear less kinky – less nappy. She feared how the world would view her, naps and all.
Act Three: Awakening
They say when a woman cuts her hair, watch out – she’s about to change her life.
In 2017, I did both.
I had always wanted to try having a short haircut, but fear stopped me every time. Would I appear too masculine? Would I look pretty? Would people like it? Would my hair look too nappy?
At some point, I realized the only thing holding me back from cutting my hair was fear of others’ perceptions. More than 15 years after my last relaxer, I decided it was time to shed the mask. For good this time.
I drove to a barber shop early one Saturday morning. I sat in the car for a good long while, considering whether I should turn around and drive back home. After taking a deep breath, I opened the car door and walked in.
“I want a haircut.”
I wanted more than that. I wanted to do something just because I wanted to do it. I wanted to stop defining myself according to white beauty standards. I wanted to expand my vision of femininity and to stop crafting an image I thought would be palatable to the male gaze. I wanted to stop trying to appear palatable at all. I was tired of thinking about what other people were thinking of me – of trying to mitigate their biases by appearing cute, nonthreatening, and never too Black.
I would realize all this only after the hair was gone, of course. With it went those fears and those many, many masks. They were replaced with affirmations that seemed to broadcast themselves to the world: I am Black Black and I like it that way. I wear my hair how I want, not how I think you want. I am so confident in myself and my beauty that I will flout conventional standards and wear my hair in its short, kinky, nappy glory.
Eventually, I allowed my hair to grow longer, but I kept the same “I do what I want” vibe. I wear it kinky. I wear it straight. I wear it wavy. I wear it in braids. I wear it in twists. I wear it in its natural black-brown. I paint it with honey-gold highlights. I have worn so many different hairstyles that people at church have come up to me to introduce themselves thinking I’m a different person and my own mother has had to do a double-take to recognize me when scrolling through my photos on Facebook.
There has been no grand plan in all of these hairstyles– simply a grand desire: to have fun. To experiment. To love my hair. To love myself. And to be myself – free of the masks.