So I took out my trademark braids this past May. It was a long, troublesome chore, but one I was used to experiencing every eight or nine weeks for years. Decades, to be precise. I cut out most of the synthetic braids, unbraided the rest, tossed them, then went through the exhausting ritual of washing, conditioning, and readying my hair for another 6-7 hours of rebraiding. When the ritual was over, my head felt bobblehead-light from the lifted weight. After conditioning my hair, I was halfway to the phone to make an appointment to get my usual double-strand twists put back in by my braider of five years, Fatima of Livingston Street. Come to think of it, I don’t know her last name or the proper name of her salon, yet we’ve had a perfectly fine relationship over the years. No credit cards, bring your own hair, and try not to take too many bathroom breaks.
This time though, I paused. I ran my hand through my hair. It had really grown over the winter. It was always thick but now I noticed some length as well. I gripped the tight, kinky curls in both hands. I made faux Mohawks in the mirror. I could also feel my full scalp for a change. Those with braids know how creative you need to be to scratch an itchy spot: combs, pens, paper clips…Whatever it takes. I felt so…light. And I felt as if people around me could notice the change as well. I noted that I didn’t have an office to rush back to on Monday, no corporate bigwigs to appease with an approved hairstyle. I cancelled with Fatima and instead did a quick twist-out with the crappiest grease I had on hand and water. “I’m just waiting a few days,” I told anyone who asked. “I don’t want my scalp to be so sore this time. The braiders will always be there.”
I rescheduled with poor Fatima three times before I realized how much I was enjoying wearing my hair out. I felt tremendous guilt telling her I wasn’t getting my hair braided for a while. I knew I was one of her regulars and tipped well. Although she handled it professionally, I still avoid passing her salon if I can.
My natural (haired) friends supported the change. “It’s summertime. Who wants braids on their neck in August?” “Give it a try. You might really get into it!” “Men love natural hair, ” one friend added slyly. Although I’d never grouped braids in the same class as lace fronts or weaves, I figured I’d give it a try. I hadn’t had a perm for ages; now I’d go extension-free as well.
So there I was. I hadn’t had a real cut or color in more than five years. I didn’t think my hair looked too bad, but was mortified at the broad headband of white up front. This was well hidden under braids but out in the open, how much was this aging me? And more frankly, how much was it going to cost to update my style?
While I contemplated trimming my own hair to save money, I had flashbacks to my grandmother pressing my hair. I had to be around eight or so. I sat in a low, hard iron chair, hand painted white. She used a heavy old hot comb (one that I taped up and used until it became an absolute hazard in my 30s), blaming every slip and ear and neck burn on me: “You shouldn’ta moved, then!” She knew nothing about styling and simply curled my hair under every time. Curl under. Curl under. Aaand done. I’m sure in some homes somewhere this was a bonding experience: time to talk about women’s stuff, and things that bothered me, and jokes only girls found funny. In our small apartment, the hot combing was a horror. I sat stiff as an ironing board, inches away from an open flame, my grandmother blowing on a comb that was so hot it smoked. And this went on my head. Sweat ran down my arms and back. I heard the awful sizzle and smelled the unique scent of burnt hair in the air. The towel protecting my neck made me even warmer. I might nod off in the heat, or I might need Vaseline and a Band-Aid for the burn I’d get if I startled. The kitchen was the place where I might find food, or I might find torture. In the name of my hair.