"I just prefer women with straight hair."
I paused at my then-boyfriend’s words, shocked. I felt a churning of emotions within. Could this actually be happening? I was silent for a while. I had a decision to make there and then: break-up with him or begin a lengthy (mostly likely to turn emotionally hysterical) argument. After all, Stanley’s (that's not his real name) statement proved that he could never fully accept me and the ever-blossoming puff of hair on my head.
I was 20 years old at that time and in my first relationship. I tried to let it go, but true to my nature, I let snarky comments spill out any time our conversations were even remotely related to hair. For days I was tormented by flashing images of his ex and her long, straightened hair -- flipping her annoying tresses back and forth in slow motion and giggling like the daintiest of ladies. Did he like her more? I mean, he’s into that, isn’t he? Did her hair make her prettier that ME? Holy crap, he still loves her! Oh, the insecurities of the young. Bless his heart for sensing my discomfort because he finally took me aside and elaborated with a brief explanation that I still remember:
"Baby, it’s just that I’ve always been with girls who have straight hair. It’s just a style that I’m very accustomed to. But I love you and your hair. I don’t want you to change it and I would never want you to feel like you have to."
Damn right. There was no way in hell I would have changed my hair anyway. So I accepted his explanation. And why not? I was in a happy, stable relationship and wasn’t going to throw it all away over my own friggin’ hair. Bear in mind that save for a brief year when my mother tried to tame the curls with a relaxer, I’ve always had my natural hair. I never saw it as an issue until I moved to the US from Nigeria and was introduced to a completely different culture and mindset about hair. At first, I wasn’t one to worry too much about haircare, but I live in New Mexico for goodness sake, and it grew hard for me to ignore my hair’s dehydration and slow growth. I was (and still am, I suppose) sensitive to anything concerning my hair in all its splayed out, dry glory.
Over the years, Stanley never once batted an eyelid at my hair adventures. Some days he would walk in on me surrounded by a gaggle of gossiping girls, each holding onto one of my hair extensions. Other times, he would walk in on me tangled in spools of yarn, attempting yet another new hairstyle. Stanley had grown up surrounded by women with hair like mine -- sisters, aunts and friends who invested just as much time and energy into their own hair as I did mine. He didn't give it much thought. It was just a normal thing to him, you know?
My second relationship was different.
I remember the first time I let William (not his real name either) wash my hair. He had insisted that he be the one to do it, and I figured, why not? We already showered together just about every day (yes, folks, we were THAT couple). At first, he seemed fascinated by the soft ringlets my hair would shape into when wet and by how much my hair could shrink when dry. He would offer, every now and then, to help finger-pick my hair -- and sometimes I would catch him simply staring as I tended to the mane. Would I say there was a bit of exotification? A white man with full access to the texture and behavior of a black woman’s hair? Absolutely not. At that time, he was simply my boyfriend who wanted me to share more of myself with him. Had I been as devoted to my nails as I was to my hair, that man would have asked what color I’d prefer him to paint my toenails with.
Did it bring us closer? It sure did. I was sharing yet another intimate part of my body.
I loved bedtime with him. Just for the cuddles. You know the kind of cuddling where two bodies seem to melt into one another? Gears meshing perfectly? That kind of cuddling. However, my hair sometimes felt like a third wheel, that awkward friend that never quite gets the hint of being unwelcome. I sometimes forget how intrusive my hair can be. You know, you start off cuddling and, hey, why not go further? But, wait, now there are strands of my hair in your mouth. I don’t even know how they lodged themselves in-between your teeth. How does that even happen? Sometimes, I would wake up to find that my guy had tucked my hair underneath my head because it had interrupted his sleep. So I would just tied my hair up (it looked kind of like a pineapple), but other times, I left my hair out and swept it to the side as I rested my head on my side of the bed.
With both exes, they got used to the occasional Afro-slap in the face. As well the random strand or two that popped up in their meals and the mysterious miniature hair tuft that always appeared stuck in the carpet even after I was sure it got vacuumed up. It was normal for them to see me throw a tantrum because I felt that my hair wasn’t presentable enough to step out in public with them. They knew to come bearing gifts of food and massages while I was in the fifth hour of putting in extensions. The deep conditions, the bantu knots, the twist-outs, the head-wraps, the yarn braids, the kinky twists, the oil-stained pillow covers; my exes grew familiar with all my routines. And I loved them for it.