Photography Writing

Histories | Herstories | Hairstories

“Why don’t you actually try going natural?”

I am natural. I have not touched the creamy crack in nearly eight months. I have hacked off pathetic lengths of relaxed hair, and the limp leftovers are reverting back in a bizarre exercise of rebellion.

“No, I mean, like, no extensions, no nothing, just your own hair.”

Because…it’s hard.

“Why not go on YouTube and try looking for inspiration?”

I mean, I would, but I do not want to be one of those…“naturalistas”: addicted to YouTube videos, scouring Amazon for unrefined raw virgin oils and butters, somehow always managing to find a way to bring the topic of hair into conversation…

…but I cannot explain this to him. I don’t want to sound like a snob once my thoughts transcend the tightrope between private musings and actual words that I can be judged by.

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“Hmm, you’ve got a bald spot, right here–” she lifts a clump of freshly relaxed, dark brown silkiness and touches a spot in the centre of my tender scalp. “–It looks like some kind of alopecia.” My eyes grow wide in terror. I am looking at her through the mirror but she is frowning down at my hair, brushing it aside to get a closer look at the antagonising patch. I came to get my hair relaxed and I’m leaving with a diagnosis of alopecia. Brilliant. I will be bald within a few months, I just know it.

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I have a ballet skirt. It is made of a powdery pink Lycra, but I do not do ballet anymore so I wear it on my head, like a crown. I dance circles around the living room to make the fabric sail out behind my head, and I run my fingers through the silky folds pretending it is shiny, blonde, and straight.

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Why is my hair not growing? I am natural now, so it is meant to grow.

It has sat in crochet braids for two months because everything to do with my hair is a tedious chore. I hack impatiently at the knots at the back of my head, and bring a fistful of brown synthetic hair into my lap and look at it. In the centre of its offending mass lies a dusty brown plait of my own hair.

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“You could not pay me enough money to be a hairdresser!” My mother says this as she tugs a comb through my coarse hair. “Having to do other people’s hair day in, day out – kai! That would be torture!” Whenever she starts each braid, the tension on my scalp sends a flutter of butterflies skittering through my belly, itching the inside of my stomach and causing me to wriggle in my seat. She plaits silently until the end, taking a lit match to the synthetic hair and melting the blunt edge. She lets the bubbling plastic drop carelessly and it sizzles against my cheek.

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“It looks like you’ve got a bald spot right there.”

He taps the fine edge of my hairline and I draw back defensively.

“No, my hair’s just really fine, like, if you look, there’s hair there, it’s just that when it’s freshly done it lies really flat and it’s kinda brown as well, so, you know, it just looks like that…”

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Heavy curling irons rest in an oven; an intimidating pyramid of black cast-iron that sits on a faux-marble dressing table next to the mirror I am in front of. The hairdresser takes an iron in her hand and spins it around her fingers, like a gunslinger in a saloon. It clicks and clacks, and when clamped tightly, it turns my wiry hair into sleek tresses, which she styles with layers of gel into a top bun. A side-fringe cascades across my forehead and right eye. Like magic. I tell my mother that I want a cast-iron black pyramid to work magic on my hair. She says she will see how much it costs.

Afterwards, we will go to the cinema. I will not remember what we watch, but I will sneak out of the screen and casually hang around the foyer. I will imagine that this is not a special occasion, but my actual life – the kind of life that matches this kind of hair.

Two days later I will be doing triple-jump during a PE lesson at school. I will spend half the lesson trying to get sand out of my hair, and I will be late to the next class, defeated. I will have to wash my hair that night, and my new life will not even last a week.

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A week before my wedding I take out my weave and wash my hair. My hair mats into thick, impenetrable wads and I pull at it until the wads lie in battered piles next to the sink. The back of my head is stinging, tender and grotesque. I lie face down on my bed and cry into my pillow. A thought creeps in between the bitter sobs: relaxer and weave will cover a multitude of sins.

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“It looks like a turd!” says a stupid boy. He is fat and pink, with his brown hair cut into curtains that only highlight the pink pudginess of his face. He is talking about the solitary plait that curls from my crown down into the centre of my forehead. I like the plait, and I like the way it curls at the end. It reminds me of this nursery rhyme I read in a book I was given:

“There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead, when she was good she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid.”

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I always like my hair a couple of weeks after a trip to the hairdressers, when re-growth begins to come through and adds a bit of volume to the roots. Secondary school dreams of thick straight hair died when I left the hairdressers for the first time with hair that clung to my skull to reveal its angular edges.

I stop relaxing my hair because it is breaking, and my hair is thin anyway.

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Apparently, I look like Hellraiser. I spend hours plaiting and twisting my hair into bantu knots, I come to school and some white girl tells me I look like Hellraiser. I tell her that this is African tradition, this is my culture and my heritage. She looks at me sideways, shrugs and turns away.

The older black girls in my school also find reasons to look at me sideways, like the time I try to cut my own fringe and it stands out from my head like a Nazi salute. Each time I see them I am sure they’re whispering about my hair.

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I twist a couple strands of hair around my fingers, hold them up to the light and squint. I try to catch sight of myself in window reflections as I stand up, get off the train and walk along the tube platform. Two nights ago, I used two packs of platinum blonde dye and left the weave tracks soaked in the mixture overnight, but when I unwrapped the foil-packaged ombré experiment, the hair looked even darker than when I started.

Climbing the stairs towards the exit, I spot two girls in the crowd in front with perfectly ombréd weaves – that’s what I want to be looking like. I make it to street level and bump into another ombréd beauty taunting me with 24 inches of perfection. I cross the street and watch another bobbing head of ombré walk past.

We all look the same.

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I sit turning the box of kiddie relaxer around and around in my small hands, letting the chemicals gently roast my skin, as I imagine that my hair is restrained with pretty pastel-coloured plastic hair ties, like the adorable girls on the front of the box. I mirror their toothy smiles and crinkled eyes; the excitement of possibility. I pray to God for it to turn out right so that I can bounce into school tomorrow, the halo of fuzz around my head gone, and my hair in a ponytail that swishes from side-to-side as I walk. Like Jessica’s does. Like everyone else’s does.

But it does not work. My hair briefly hangs in tight wet waves once the relaxer is washed out, and for a split second I have Mel-B-dreams of Spice-Girl-coolness. But once my hair dries it is back to its bristles, no sign that anything had ever tried to tame it.

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I sit down at the computer and begin to search. Cute, pro-kink blog names pop up in various windows. I drum my fingers on the space bar, trying to locate a starting point. I pull strands of hair from brushes and combs and begin testing: porosity, density, width, curl pattern…

…and in half an hour my lower lids are lined with angry tears. I defiantly re-read the pages stored in my tabs, and I re-check all my tests but I can’t deny it: my hair has the nappiest curl pattern, the finest width, the thinnest density, and the most porous surface. It is brittle, uneven, and dry. I cry…

…for about a minute. A fresh document page loads on the screen and I type decidedly in a thick, black, solid sans-serif:

“THE I-WILL-LOVE-MY-HAIR PLAN”:

“Each day I should…”

“Each week I must…”

“Every two weeks I will…”

“Once a month I will…”

“I will…I will…I will…”

I print the page and paste it above my desk. “I will…I will…I will...” marches through my head. I walk to the bathroom, flick on the light and stand in the doorway, breathless and hesitant for some reason. Looking in the bathroom mirror, I pull gently at a nappy-no-pattern curl and watch it snap back. A lopsided smile gently presses the corners of my mouth and I think:

God doesn’t make mistakes.

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First published (in extracts) in Pop’Africana ‘The Way We Plait’.

Thanks to Morning Star Salon (193 London Road, Croydon, CR0 2RJ) for allowing me to photograph.

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