The Truth About Dreadlocks

I had natural dreads for five long, mildly gross years. They were a literal pain, but I actually kind of miss them.
Publish date:
July 9, 2013
How-To, hippies, hairstyles, shampoos, backcombing, dreadlocks, Nature's Gate, dreads

It always drives me up the wall when people say elitist crap like “Dreadlocks aren’t a hairstyle, they’re a lifestyle.” Because what they’re really saying is, “If you’re going to have the same counter-culture hairstyle as me, you better fall in line to my personal idea of how that defines you as a person,” probably because they are some bastard having an identity crisis. Go listen to 280 hours of Ani DiFranco and drink some cheap wine, then get back to me.

FACT: dreadlocks are a lifestyle--the same way having a weave, wearing makeup, straightening your hair or wearing clothes most of the time is a lifestyle. You take time out of your day to deal with them; make concessions to ensure the continuation of aforementioned activities. Having dreadlocks doesn’t mean you have to learn how to play djembe, read T.C. Boyle or go to Thailand over spring break, only to come back insisting to everyone how they need to “Just like, go. Somewhere. Like with your trust fund or whatever.”

It’s a "lifestyle" in that your stupid hair dictates how you live your life sometimes.

I know, because I speak from a place of experience. I had natural dreadlocks for five long, mildly gross years. They were a pain in my neck (literally), but I still miss them, despite the obvious drawbacks to having pounds of matted hair attached to your head.

I’m of Scottish/Irish/Swiss/Gypsy ancestry; we either have the cornsilk hair that shimmers like gold in the summer and slips like water out of every updo--or the staticky, fine, frizzy velcro-y mess that I am blessed with. Thanks, Dad! Stellar genes!

I grew up with very short hair because it tangled so easily. My three sisters all had the cornsilk hair, and I was always jealous, twisting and fighting when the late-night hair-butchering sessions exclusively targeted me (not to say they didn’t get theirs: bangs that go from ear to ear).

Later, when I was a confused young person my freshman year of college, I naturally settled in with the soymilk-swilling, hand-drum-playing vegetarians. My hair had always been short, but I decided to let it grow so I would match my new friends in all their clean-cheek, shiny-hair glory.

Only problem: I never really learned how to take care of my hair type, so it quickly became a snarled mess. I would blowdry while ripping away at it with a brush. I was left with an impossible, knotted, bushy mass that could not be subdued.

No problem, because having a snarled mass of hair can totally work, turns out!

When I first thought about dreading my hair, a lot of people said, “Why would you do that? You’re not black!” My issue with this: it’s pretty small-minded to think that matted hair belongs only to people of African descent. I recognize that dreadlocks have been incredibly important culturally to people of African descent, but they have also been important (and not important, yet ubiquitous) to many other cultures worldwide, for centuries. I dreaded my hair out of practicality, and because I thought it could be beautiful.

I was always surprised when people would tell me matter-of-factly, pointing at the coiled mass piled on top of my head, that my hair would attract bees, from all the honey in it. It’s a common misconception that using honey, vaseline, beeswax or whatever gross condiment is the way to start dreads. Nope. You don’t need any goop to get your hair to rope up--just a lot of work backcombing and separating, and time.

I spent at least a day separating my hair into finger-sized hunks, rolling it and twisting it, encouraging the process of my hair matting up. I stopped using conditioner, and just used a good clarifying shampoo--Nature’s Gate Tea Tree shampoo is my ultimate favourite.

After a few months of a messy, horrible excuse for a hairstyle, in which I mostly covered it, I had soft, pretty, well-formed dreads. Win!

I was also told repeatedly to “Go take a shower!” which I generally need to do. Not washing your hair doesn’t make it dread, but washing your hair does turn into a big production once you’ve got a big sponge atop your head.

Living in a dry climate, in a cabin without plumbing, I washed mine only every few weeks (that's a lie; it was like once a month), and they would take so long to dry, and were so heavy my neck hurt the next day.

Having dreads impeded my ability to wear normal hats in the winter. The temperature being -40F for a good part of the year, I was stuck in enormous, dowdy hand-knit hats. Currently, it’s 85F at 10pm; if I had dreadlocks right about now, I’d be softly weeping into my head sweater.

Even though my dreadlocks limited what kind of styles I could do, and sometimes became a hairy hell-octopus, strangling my bed-friends at night, I miss them. I miss my hair always looking good, and the incredible volume; how low-maintenance having dreadlocks was.

I don’t think I’ll ever let my hair dread up again, not only because I can’t commit to hair for that long, but I also don’t think I would deal as well with the jackass comments.

Have you ever considered dreads? Have them? Do they just remind you of the painful early '90s? Probably the grossest thing I found after a party was a single dreadlock, true story...