Beauty is never skin deep. There is always a deeper meaning and several undertones to the delicate colours, textures and paints used to recreate a face. Far from being a superficial means of perfection, the world of hair and beauty is complex and internal. This collection of poetry, pictures and prose looks at the world of my hair.
We are currently in a time when black hair no longer has to be pressed bolt straight in order to be considered beautiful. Black is now beautiful and many women black and otherwise have made this realization. The weave is no longer only for the tightly curled tresses of darker women, and skin lighteners and bronzers are no longer used by one ethnicity alone. Lines are blurring and the hairdressers have become a place to create, re – create and try to understand the changes. The hair, nails and make up only account for one level of the change, beneath, inside the minds and hearts of these women there are further issues, stories and experiences. The changes in look are usually reflections of the change. I have used my own experiences to bring the multi-faceted nature to your attention. Pay attention.
Wrap me up in more than heat
Drench me in more than relaxer
Let it all be taken away
Catch every little tight curl
(It’s tingling now)
Lather it on thick and fast
Start from the back and bring it forward
Neither of us really know what we should be doing
You are really only me on the other side of the brush
(It’s burning now)
My earliest recollection of the hairdressers was from when I was about 6 years old. My mum used to take me to have my hair plaited in medium sized, short braids. I used to go with this short but extremely thick little afro and no matter how much conditioner they lathered on, when it came to blow drying my hair it always really hurt. I remember burning up in the chair because I was so petrified. My body temperature rose not only because of the fear but also because of the heat from the hairdryer.
The ladies from the salons were rarely ever nice and constantly tugged and pulled at my hair. I knew that at the end of the trip my hair would be pretty and neat but all the pain I had to go through was my first taste of “Beauty is pain”.
When I got old enough to start blow drying and washing my own hair (which was around 11) I was relieved that I could at last control the amount of pain I needed to go through to get my hair straighter. A few hours after the blow dry it always fizzled up again and made me wonder why I bother to try and get it straighter anyway.
Everyone has a hairstyle they were remembered for at school and with me it was the curly cotton plaits I used to have. My mum would take my afro and wrap it in black cotton, then fold the straight tightly would sections of afro into cute little twirls. For a while I thought it was cute but as I got older and the puppy fat piled it became less of a treat for me to have my hair plaited. Because my hair was so short there was little else my mum could do and I remember many times sitting at the knee of my mother crying wondering why my hair had to be so short. Of course she explained that I was beautiful and my hair looked good either way.
I was at the age where I was comparing my understanding of beauty to those around me. I went to a multi-cultural school and had both white and Asian friends whose hair was much longer and silky. Even the black friends I did have were largely from the Caribbean Islands and therefore had hair that was much straighter or at least longer than mine. That’s the innocence of a young mind isn’t it, to want to be like those around you. Although I did not realise it at the time but the way I viewed my hair had a large impact on the way I viewed myself and the scripting in regards to self-image that I would feed myself during my childhood years. My hair was a cause of frustration and only when I hit preteen did that start to change.
As soon as I hit my teen years my hormones flared I was a bit rebellious and took to wearing grunge fashion and loving rock music. I had spent my whole childhood wishing that I could have lovely hair like the other girls and that had not worked. Moving into secondary school I decided to take a different approach. I was now part of the “relaxer is bad for your hair camp” and revelled in my afro and my ability to be different. Even though I wore braids during secondary school they were the basic shoulder length, straight ones, now I experimented. I went through nearly every single colour in the shops, tried different curls, and varied the length I plaited to. My secondary school years were almost like my golden natural hair years and I loved it!
There were odd hormonal moments when I felt insecure and even tried to texturize my hair but that was a disaster and more trouble than it was worth. By and large I grew comfortable in my natural hair skin and worked with my hair to show that.
On going to the salon
I started going to the hairdressers by myself last year. I grew tired of natural hair and wanted to experiment with weave. I had cut my hair the year before due to botched attempts at home relaxing and took the scissors to my hair myself to start again. I had told my friends about my plan to re relax and was directed to a salon one of my friends had grown to know and trust. I remember the day clearly because so much happened on my visit that drastically changed the way I viewed women, hair salons and beauty. It was a relatively warm day and I had woken up early in the morning to get to the salon for 9am. My hair was tied in a leopard print scarf and I was really nervous.
I had explained that I was really nervous and scared that my hair would break so the owner of the salon reassured me and took on the task of relaxing my hair herself. The thing about doing something when you have had previous bad experiences is that you now fear the same thing will happen again. As she applied the relaxer, even before it started burning I kept informing the lady of every new sensation I felt. I remember looking in the mirror and praying to God to save me from any freak reaction that would result in all my hair falling out and me turning bold. As it happened I did not come out bold and the silky texture of my hair had me dazzled.
I had to wait a week before I could go back and have the weave put in. When I returned it was a completely different experience. I came in the afternoon so there were many more people there and I saw that unlike the completely personal service I was treated to last time, on this occasion I would be passed from stylist to stylist as they worked on my hair like some sort of supply chain. One lady to plait my hair, another to sow in the weave and yet another to cut and style. I had heard that having different people do your hair was not good because then no one person is getting to know what your hair does and does not like, but I was on a budget so beggars cannot be choosers. It was whilst I was part of this weird hair chain that I heard some of the most inspiration stories ever.
The great thing I found is that although the service may seem impersonal, the stylists treated the customers like friends. They shared their stories and asked for customer’s advice and opinions. A number of the women working in the salon were young, had come to England from other countries with the hope of creating better lives for themselves and their loved ones and were working for meagre wages to be providers. Coming to the salon was a place where they could be around similar women with struggles like their own and feel understood. Whilst getting my hair done I found that I was encouraged to work harder and comforted in the knowledge that it was not only me who was finding life hard.
I had come to the salon not just for a new look but also for a boost in confidence and want of change. Messy, unkempt hair can leave a woman feeling at the extreme unlovable and more realistically self-conscious. Both of these issues were addressed as I listened to how my stylist was working extra hours to send money to the Caribbean to contribute towards her family’s living. Even though she was only making enough in the shop to support herself and her son, I admired her self-control and sacrifice to save money so that she could reach out to her family members.
I have come here with my lips tightly shut and hair wild
Bound tightly under this scarf it is a code only some people will understand
I refuse to tell you my story because you will not understand
Instead I’ll just be here soaking up you and you soaking up me – synergy
Being around you helps me make sense of things
Through words unsaid and faces read I know you know. Knowing.
I can only try to move away from and erase the past by (pass me the hair grease) pressing
Looking through the mirror into myself and curling and twirling the memories of a darker yesterday.
The sun has burnt away many tones and hardened and snapped the layers (I can smell burning, stop there please)
– She presses in
I remember how I came in with hair snapped and too harsh to mould into something desirable and easy on the eye
Something that would be acceptable and make room for me in places I frequently dream about.
I gaze into my eyes and blot out the scuffed surroundings: hair scattered around the floor, hair knotted in combs, dust everywhere
– I still feel beautiful here.
Other women talk around me and I sit and listen
I do not let them know what I have to say
I listen and am strengthened by their stories
My hair is built higher and thicker, cornrows plaited in tighter
Tracks sown in closer, cutting and pulling
(Could you not pull so much please)
I reach up to comfort my scalp but inwardly feel satisfied with the closeness of the hair to my head.
Built higher and stronger, listening.
Nothing of the coarse hair I came with shows now
A glorious mountain of explosive colours, textures that are not mine but have grown on me
I feel like a Queen.
And Queens still have broken hearts don’t they?
I wrote the above poems three years ago. Since then a a lot has happened. Far from the scared timid, insecure girl praying for God to keep the hair on her head, I am now confident – brazen even. I went on to relax and weave my hair for about a year – and loved it. The bone straight hair introduced me to a new me. I saw that as strange as it may sound but the new hair gave me a new vibe. A different vibe. I grew from a girl to a woman. Sexier, sleeker, sweet mouthed, adventurous. I came into me. Some people did not like it. They thought I was being a ‘sell out’. Parting from my Nubian roots and letting the world of relaxers and bum length weaves take over. That’s not true. I was simply experimenting with me.
I soon got bored of long and cut my hair into a pixie cut. The hairdressers I did that was at my gum – that was another experience altogether! She sold leather jackets, bags and accessories and I loved going there. It was perfect. I could gym, sauna, feel good inside then go to her to get my hair right so I looked good outside. I will always remember buying my only 2 leather jackets from there. I have them until today and I love them. They remind me of my spur of the moment decision to have the pixie cut. In fact to give you the back story, I had gone to the salon to put in a weave, saw my hairdresser’s pixie style – loved it. Saw it in magazines – loved it…so I decided it was the hairstyle for me. I absolutely loved it! I was now another me. My face showed a lot more and because the centre of my interactions. Having the short hair gave me time to take in my own beauty and see all that was right with me. I saw that I did not need hair to look good but that having good hair made me feel good. I grew to understand that hair was and is about perception. That thought thrilled me – I wanted to play and experiment with that perception. I wanted to show that I could break the mould and that no matter my hair – I could do things narrow minded people would judge and say that because of the way I looked, I couldn’t.
The rebellion thinking led me to enter a beauty pageant – Miss Southern Africa UK with my hair in the afro centric afro kinky twist. I deliberately took out my weave and had my hair plaited up to show that African standards of beauty did not have to conform to Western stereotypes. I was confident that the judges would see me with my twists and not discriminate. Sure enough – I won! I look back at the pictures now – my hair the perfect ornament to my traditional material dress. The journey had just begun! I went on to do photo shoots and book covers with braids. Host fashion shows and be invited to talk at events – all the while challenging conventional beauty standards.
Since then I have gone back to my afro. Cut it several times. I have been dyeing my hair bronze for the past year and I am loving it. I am loving the growth that I experience internally each time I take a new hair adventure. At the moment I am focusing on getting to know my hair. Keeping it out of plaits to understand what works and what does not. I want to handle it with care and kiss and lather it with all the moisture, protein and attention it needs. Welcome along for a beautiful ride xx