It all started when I struggled to find a new hairdresser in Brooklyn. All I wanted was a weave whisperer who wouldn’t charge me the equivalent of half a month’s rent to do my hair. It quickly became apparent that this was a Sisyphean quest.
I either had to pay hundreds of dollars for a weave installation or go cheap and risk coming away with something terrible that would need to be redone anyway. Plus, I wouldn’t just have to pay to get the weave done, I’d need to buy the hair and the price of “virgin weave” is too damn high. As I sat down and calculated the absurd cost, I realized that if I wasn’t careful, the upkeep of my hair could contribute to my financial downfall. OK that’s hyperbole, but it wouldn’t be the most fiscally prudent decision I’d ever made and I’m trying to make sensible decisions about money.
The obvious solution would be for me to wear my own hair, but that’d be time consuming and would require effort on my part. I'm lazy when it comes to my beauty routine. Threading, waxing, combing and exfoliating all feel like hard labor. And any time I do something beauty-related for myself, it always ends up looking tragic.
I seriously considered cutting all my hair off, but then I remembered the shape of my skull. Finally, I decided to just get my hair braided. The last time I wore braids was 10 years ago. Now I have braids so long I have to be mindful when I’m on the toilet. But I'm enjoying swinging them. Sometimes I pretend I’m Solange and own all the items in her enviable closet. During these moments I’m technically a single degree away from Beyoncé and all is well in my world.
Normally when you change your hairstyle, only people within your immediate circle comment on it. However I’m a black woman. Our choices cannot be pried apart from politics, scrutiny and a bizarre level of intrigue.
Some choose to use our hair as a barometer for our character, level of “blackness,” self-esteem and ideological positions. Each of the myriad of hairstyles we could choose comes with its own stereotype. Based solely on your hair choice, you can be artificially placed within a community or team. Women who are far from monolithic are lumped into “team natural” or “team relaxed.” Those with natural hair are assumed to be deep, earthy, and “conscious.” If your hair is relaxed, at worst you’re a self-hating victim of the pervasive impact of Eurocentric beauty ideals and at best you’re ignorant and unwilling to embrace who you “truly are.”
I’ve always held that just because a woman’s hair is natural doesn’t mean she’s deep, and just because she’s relaxed doesn’t mean she’s vapid. What I do with my hair shouldn’t affect how I’m treated or perceived, but unfortunately it does.
I remember having conversations when I wore long weaves and people would be surprised when I quoted bell hooks or Machiavelli. I was once told, “You really don’t look like how you think and speak. Your look is so deceptive.”
Apparently black women with weaves don’t read voraciously and certainly shouldn’t be able to have nuanced, informed opinions about the world around them. Furthermore they should be pleased when they receive backhanded compliments from myopic people.
Now I have braids; however, my character hasn't undergone any paradigm shifts. The new style is merely a reflection of my practical needs. But what’s interesting to me is that I’ve unwittingly purchased a passport into a new world, and migrated into a community where the members are bound by hair.
Black women with natural hair smile broadly at me and seem more open to conversation. I’m regularly asked what I use to maintain my hair and about my natural hair journey. Unfortunately I know barely anything about hair care. I can’t tell you about the merits of castor oil over coconut oil. The only reason my braids still look presentable is because my sister regularly reminds me to brush them. Interestingly, I can’t remember the last time I received a disapproving glare from a woman with natural hair or a condescending lecture on why it’s time for me to go natural.
I’ve had elderly men give me a thumbs-up and point to my hair while nodding their heads with approval. I'm more likely to be referred to as "my sister." I’ve been asked if my hair is a “statement” and been told it’s “bang on trend.”
I’ve had the “I prefer you with braids” comment and the “Is everything OK? Where’s your weave?” talk. People in both camps don’t understand that their opinion of my hair doesn’t matter and I certainly didn’t call a referendum on it.
To infer things about a woman’s character solely using her hair is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy. My hair (or the hair I purchase) isn’t my method of dealing with an existential crisis. It’s never been an expression or extension of my sense of self. I have not granted it the power to affirm or negate who I am.
Due to the complex history of black hair, I understand that for some black women how they wear their hair is a way to actively push back against the expectations western society places on us. I respect and applaud their decision. For others, this isn’t the case.
For many it’s just a hairstyle and similar to wearing a garment, it’s an expression of a preference in that moment. They put it on and take it off. Their hair changes, but the woman remains the same. In such instances what they choose to do with their hair isn’t indicative of their substance as a person or ideological leanings.
In an ideal world everyone would grasp that what’s in a woman’s head matters far more than what is on it. Sadly we’re a long way away from being in an ideal world.
Will I braid again? Certainly! Will I weave again? Yes. Will either change me as a woman? Absolutely not.