As a Black Woman, Doing My Hair Has Been Helping Me Cope
"As I do this, I remind myself that every kind of hair, every version of my hair, is good hair"
Being a Black Canadian has been extra tough these past few weeks. This summer was supposed to be one of relaxation for me. Having defended my Ph.D. in organizational behaviour in April, and with a start date of October for my new job, I had earned a break. With the space to take a real, extended vacation for the first time in my life, I was supposed to be at outdoor markets in the South of France, at coffee shops in Berlin watching a variety of individuals sporting hipster moustaches walk by, and exploring Oslo. For once, I was supposed to have time for myself. To be relieved of extra labour. I was not supposed to be having conversations with friends on Instagram about why the black square they posted was problematic, explaining how we could live in a city without policing as we now know it, getting requests from total strangers on how they can “do better” and speaking on TV about things we should already know the answer to: the fact that Black lives matter.
The mental exhaustion and emotional toll on Black people right now is enormous. We already carry around an extra burden, that of being Black in a society that is not built to support us. And faced with painful reminders and heavier trauma than most people, we carry an especially large burden right now. Which is why “self-care Sunday”—as illustrated by Issa and Molly on Insecure—has never been more important us. Taking a break from people’s newfound “wokeness” and awareness of our humanity has been imperative for me. And as a means of self-preservation and much needed self-love—I have turned to my hair.
As a child, before natural hair and hair care was en vogue, my mother would section my hair into tidy parts, braided and held in place with plastic bobbles. As I grew older, the sections were replaced with neat cornrows that my mother did each Sunday. The comb tamed tangles and knots as my mother’s hands worked deftly through my hair and the hair of my sisters. As I aged, my hair texture shifted from the Shirley Temple ringlets of my baby years, my curls growing thicker and tighter with time and the early stirrings of puberty.
My relationship with my hair became more fraught in high-school. That is when I learned from the media that my hair wasn’t “good hair.” The thick wavy hair of my half-East Indian mother—that was good hair. That was hair that could casually go from the shower to a ponytail. That was hair that could have bangs or could be easily smoothed into a bun. And so I began using relaxers and texturizers to smooth down my wiry coils. That is until I’d had enough. In 2007, I did what is known as “the big chop,” ridding myself of chemically processed strands and returning, quite literally, to my roots. I vowed to never again put chemicals in my hair. I wore my hair in a braid out most days—braiding my hair on Sundays and removing the braids Monday morning, my afro well defined by the plaits. When I entered the workforce as a lawyer, I switched between the afro and low ponytails, with the occasional extensions. Last summer, working in Corporate Canada, I styled my two-strand Marley twists into a tall bun, a bulbous crown atop my head.
I notice that my mental health is often reflected in the state of my hair. When I am taking care of myself physically and mentally, my hair thrives. I’m co-washing frequently, I’m mixing it up with different styles. And when I suffer, my hair suffers: It gets thrown up into a lazy bun or hidden under wide brimmed hats. When I hide, my hair hides.
And it’s safe to say that right now, I’m suffering. So, as an act of self-care, I am taking this time to reconnect with my hair. I’m taking this time to care for my Black body, with my hair the crown atop it. (And FYI, I’m not alone in using beauty rituals as self-care right now. In a June 15 Instagram post, author Ijeoma Oluo introduced herself to new followers, telling them that makeup is “part of [her] self-care and self-expression.” And Alison Hill—the owner of Hill Studio in Toronto—has been offering restorative and mental health workshops for Black women, first in her studio pre-pandemic and now online through Zoom. They consistently sell out).
For me, my self-care means that I’ve invested in Black-owned hair products, made for us, by us. Every Sunday, I work the softening leave-in conditioner, oil and creams from Melanin Haircare, Aunt Jackie’s and Toronto-based CurlShoppe into each strand, making sure that no curl is left behind, that they all get the attention they deserve. I’ve taught myself to do the cornrows that my mother did each Sunday in an act of love. My cornrows may not be as neat or as straight as my mom’s, but as I braid I see my mother’s and grandmother’s hands reflected in my own in the mirror—the same shape: square palms with medium, tapered fingers.
I’ve made a detailed spreadsheet of my hair regime plans for the summer, bringing some much-needed order into all of the chaos of my world. First up: two strand twists, with daily misting and oiling. Next: an experiment with crochet faux locs in “Iced Latte” from a Black, female-owned business, Boho Locs. I’m finally trying this style for the first time after years of wanting to but being too lazy to learn. I have the time and the will now.
I’ve bought packages of crochet hair in a variety of colours and textures. Last week, I wore a 4B afro pattern in a dark brown. After the locs, I’ll switch to a coily 3C pack in a copper colour. I’ll switch up my hair when it suits or when my mood changes, leaving in one style for a week and another for a month. I find joy in seeing my hair thrive, delight in its moisture and its sheen, marvel at the mix of textures all over my scalp; a mix that used to frustrate me. I follow natural-hair Instagram accounts and YouTube channels, so that my feed has beautiful Black hairstyles peppered amongst the activism and pictures of babies. I rejoice in the creativity and beauty of Blackness, as shown through the myriad of hairstyles that we can achieve. I research up-dos that I can style on medium faux locs, planning on wearing these during my first two months on the new job, doing it “for the culture” as I ramp back into full-time work. Refusing to succumb to white conceptions of “acceptable hair,” and showing that Black hair, in all its forms, is “work appropriate.”
As I do this, I remind myself that every kind of hair, every version of my hair is good hair—whether it be relaxed, curly, locced, fluffy or buzzed. My hair is the culmination of the genes of my ancestors, the genes that make me, well, me. I remind myself that this care, this time spent, is not indulgent but necessary. That it is OK and encouraged to take the time for one’s health, to nourish your soul in whatever form you may need.