Last month I received an email inquiring about booking me for an event. Before I could even responded, I called the shop that braids my hair and made an appointment for the Saturday before the event. After speaking with the organizer, I was thrilled to accept the offer, and called my mother to tell her the good news. After telling me how proud she was of me, my mother immediately asked, “What are you going to do with you hair? Don’t get up on that panel embarrassing me.” We laughed; then I told her I had already booked a hair appointment.
As much as it amused me to hear my mother’s response, I know she was only half joking. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how important hair is to Black women. The experience of learning to nurture, manage, style and love our hair is unquestionably one of the most universal experiences of Black womanhood.
Sitting at the stove having your hair pressed (and ears burned) the night before Easter is a rite of passage for many little Black girls. A few months ago when #BlackSalonProblems was trending on Twitter, Black women who’d never met and probably never will, bonded over memes that told all we’re willing to endure for perfect braids, laid edges and flawless weaves. We cement the fact that the health and appearance of our hair is of paramount importance by spending an estimated half billion dollars annually on grooming and growing it. But for as beautiful as the kinship of our shared experiences with our manes can be, the near obsession some of us have with our hair often devolves into misogynoir as we impose the penalty of public humiliation on Black women and girls who dare violate the unspoken rule that dictates, if nothing else, our hair should always look its best.
Such was the case when gymnast Gabby Douglas became the fodder for some Black Twitter users who questioned — once again — why her hair wasn’t groomed to their standards during the Olympic Games in Rio. Despite her historic performance in 2012 at the London games, and her continued success in Rio, Douglas is almost as famous for the photos of her with frazzled hair than she is for being one of the most prolific athletes of our time. Perhaps even more disheartening is the fact that when the initial uproar over her hair started in 2012, Douglas was just 16-years-old. Much like the preposterous “Comb Her Hair” petition started about then two-year-old Blue Ivy, the comments about Douglas’ hair only serve to reinforce unreasonable and unfair standards for Black women and girls, no matter how young and vulnerable they were.
In a world where Black women and girls continue to defy the odds, accomplishing what they tell us we’re not smart enough, powerful enough or worthy enough to do, our hair cannot continue to define us. Douglas’ body is always in service, performing at a level few can even comprehend. Her recoiled edges tell the story of her determination. Her frazzled ponytail sings of her dedication. Her hair, disheveled but perfect, is the receipt for the #BlackGirlMagic she summoned and spent for glory.
So as we proudly claim the triumphs of other Black women as our own, let us also treat them with the care we wish for ourselves. We can’t declare Naomi Campbell as definitive proof that “Black don’t crack” in one breath only to turn around and make memes showing her hair is damaged in another. Pam Oliver, a Black woman reporting from the sidelines of the NFL, was holding her own in a male-dominated field, and yet she wasn’t deserving of a pardon on a bad hair day. Black women are fiercely loyal to Black stylists because hair school curriculums continue to omit lessons on caring for our hair, and as such, we usually only trust other Black hands that learned to groom our hair from personal experience. Yet we don’t understand that TV producers don’t take into account that their stylists may not know how to best take care of Black hair, and because of this, Black women are forced to make due, lest they be labeled angry and difficult to work with.
When our twist-out doesn’t turn out like the girl’s in the tutorials despite using $40 worth of products and following the instructions to the letter, most of us don’t have to go before cameras and perform. When our new growth is nearly as long as the braids attached to it, most of us won’t have a microphone shoved in our faces while being bombarded with questions. When we just don’t have the energy to wash, comb and style our hair, so we convince ourselves our weave will last another week, most of us won’t be seen before millions of people. When our daughters somehow develop Hulk like strength and we don’t have the patience or energy to comb and braid their hair before an outing, so we decide to let that bush or afro puff be for the sake of sanity and peace, the paparazzi won’t be snapping pictures of our babies to sell to tabloids.
Our hair—inspirational, beautiful and legendary—may identify us, but we cannot let it define who we are.