It’s Hairy: A Journey of Self-love and New Growth
About the Series: “It’s Hairy”
Hair is one of those things that’s always, well, there, whether we like it or not. It grows, it shifts in color and texture, it pops up in places we don’t really mind for. But more importantly, it tells a story about who we are, whether previous childhood memories about it pave a complicated journey or current feelings towards our follicles say a lot more than just a hair style. It’s Hairy was created to encompass these complex stories for several identities: Black, trans, Middle Eastern, nonbinary, lesbian, and more. Each piece, written by the people who personally go through these hair journeys, tells a story of how hair is always about more than hair, where hair acts as a lens for diverse narratives, revealing that no hair journey is the same.
I was barely two years old the first time my mother put a relaxer in my hair.
Full sentences couldn’t even form out of my mouth before I experienced the chemical creams lathered from my scalp to my ends. As I grew older, trips to the hair store every couple of months became a part of an unsaid ritual.
As I glided through the aisles past the combs, kanekalon hair packages and ample amounts of gels, I finally arrived at the coveted row of relaxers. I pushed through all the endless brands looking for the specific one I’d been using basically since birth. Titled perfectly so—Just For Me—I’d see that pretty brown girl with hair I so desperately wanted smiling on the front of the box. I’d grab it and meet my mother at the cashier. I was once again ready to perm my hair.
I never understood how that little girl looked so happy on the box after she’d just had her hair relaxed. I, on the other hand, had a love/hate relationship with the creams inside.
My mother never understood the level of tender-headed I was. The detangling felt like a lifetime, but nothing was worse than having to sit still for 20 to 30 minutes as the chemicals made my hair manageable. I recall times where I’d just sit and cry because the cream was burning my head, but I couldn’t rinse yet because the time wasn’t up. All the pain at the time seemed worth it being that my hair was now straight, pretty and workable. Every memory I have from my childhood shows me with my pretty straight hair.
One time in elementary school I was on week six or seven of my perm. My natural curly hair was shining through that day. I remember it like it was yesterday. My mother put my semi-curly hair in two pigtails. She wrapped them with ribbons and for a moment I recall feeling so beautiful. At school, a little white girl came up to me and said, “Your hair is so weird. Why isn’t it straight like mine?” She continued to giggle and point at my hair like it was a hysterical joke that I’d never understand.
I ran home and begged, “Mommy, I think it’s time to perm my hair.”
Stuck in Middle School
As I got older and middle school came, I still permed my hair regularly, but I also began exploring the world of half-wigs, braids and sew-ins.
My real hair hid in the shadows, so there was no room for criticism.
Compliments varied weekly from my sweet, yet clueless friends. “I love your hair! How does it grow so fast?”
It was a secret I felt like I had to keep. I so desperately wanted to have ‘normal’ hair, so I’d never let the other kids know that it wasn’t my own. I grew up in a predominantly white area where I was always the only black kid in my class. This helped—and ultimately hurt me—in the long run. I could make statements like, “Yeah, my hair just grows really fast,” because no one questioned that I wasn’t like that Barbie in commercials where you push a button and her hair grows.
My go-to hairstyle was also my biggest stressor: the slicked back ponytail hair extension. This was an easy style for my mother to do on mornings we’d rush to school. But, once at school I’d always have a bit of anxiety looming around the headpiece.
I’d wonder frantically, “Did mom put it on tight enough? What if I jump too much during P.E. and it falls off? Can anyone tell it’s fake?”
I was able to hide behind the many different hairstyles I had. But, I always had a fear that if my classmates knew my real hair that they wouldn’t approve of it, or even more frighteningly, me.
The Better Years
High school began and I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t lie to my friends. If I was wearing a weave they’d know because it’s no big deal, right? My hair is no big deal, yet I still held on to that relaxer for comfort.
I remember walking into school with my fresh new sew-in, thanks to Tekayla, and I was nervous as to how I’d be received. As I began to get endless compliments on how pretty my hair was I’d make sure to interject, jokingly, how it’s a weave. Everyone would giggle and agree that my “weave” was pretty. Laughing about it made it easier for me to take. But on the inside, I still solemnly wished I could call this “pretty” hair on my head mine.
Box Braids were my true savior these years of school because of the dual-sport and theater magnet life I lived. These were a crowd-favorite and everyone made sure to gush about this new style, always telling me, “I love your hair in braids.”
I loved my hair in braids, too, because for some reason it felt like less of a lie. Meaning, my actual hair is out there hanging alongside that kanekalon just fine.
But there’s always the questions that bring me back, realizing I still am not the same as my classmates. Once again, they’d so sweetly say: “OMG! It’s not all yours? Where does it come from? How does it...stick.. To your hair? That’s so cool, I wish I could do that.”
Wish. Yours. Cool. All words I recite to myself, but not in the way my white friends exclaimed. I loved myself and yet there was a part of me I wanted to hide. A part of me I didn’t quite embrace.
But, I mean, how could I?
I’d justify my perm because it was all I’d known. I have no other bases of how my hair should look. From the beginning it was like this, so how could I ever just stop?
My best friend, who is black, decided to do the big chop and start her natural hair journey. I was secretly envious. Envious of her courage to wear her hair as it was, as it should be.
But, I couldn’t give in that easy. I remember exactly when I stopped perming my hair. Right after I graduated high school. My mother didn’t like the idea, but I persisted. Now I wasn’t ready to do the big chop or commit completely to the natural life, but it was progress nonetheless.
I hid my hair behind the full sew-in with a closure included. I never went more than a week without my hair done. It was box braids, then sew-in, then back to box braids. This was the almighty schedule I maintained all year long. As my years in community college flew by, I got to the end of that journey. I’d now nervously await my new life at Florida A&M University. A Historically Black University, population of about 85% black people. My people.
That made me even more worried. After spending most of my educational years surrounded by people that didn’t have my hair or understand it, would I be able to now be completely surrounded by understanding? Would they like me? All of me?
Arriving the first month I had a cute closure sew-in, thanks, once again, Tekayla, and I felt a sense of ease being surrounded by so many people that looked like me. Yet, as my weave expired and my bank account grew empty, I didn’t know what my next move was. It’d been two years since I’d had a perm and my natural hair was no longer that wavy straight. It was straight-up a curly ‘fro.
This wasn’t elementary school—I couldn’t hide out because my hair wasn’t done. I had to go to class; these professors will not care about a “bad” hair day.
I made these complaints to my new FAMU friend and she said, “Girl! If you don’t just wear YOUR hair! You will look good, no one is going to judge you.” And as miniscule as it seems, for some reason, that was all I needed.
I then told my parents I needed money. Not the ridiculous amount it takes to get a sew-in or box braids, but just enough to get a few conditioners and lotions. They obliged, of course, because it definitely saved them money.
That next week, I walked on campus with my freshly done twist out, nervous for what was ahead. All those middle school fears rushed back to me, but this time, they were slightly different. I wondered: Will they like my real hair? Does it look okay? Is it too short? Do I look good?
I was welcomed with warm smiles throughout campus, easing my fear. Compliments were scattered throughout the day. “I love that twist out girl! Your hair is so nice. How did you get that definition? Help me with my hair sis!”
This amount of positivity was something I never expected to get, but I so gratefully needed it. I spent so much time wondering if my hair would be enough instead of just knowing that it was.
My fears of acceptance stemmed way back to about age five. That scene playing over and over in my head as that girl asked me why my hair was “weird” and why it wasn’t straight like hers. I’ve held onto those questions for so long, putting my hair through the brunt of it all.
Now that I know better I can’t help but hurt for that little black girl running through the hair store looking for some sort of fix to her hair that she didn’t need.
If I could go back to elementary school I’d tell that girl: “My hair isn’t weird, it’s beautiful.” I’d say, “It doesn’t grow like yours, and that’s okay. Actually, it’s more than okay, it’s perfect.” I’d then smile in pure love exclaiming: “I’m glad you don’t have my hair because it’s Just. For. Me.”
I no longer question my hair, how it looks and why it isn’t straight. I now just allow my hair to EXIST. And that is more than enough.
About the Author
Aiyana Ishmael (she/her/hers) is a third year Broadcast Journalism student at Florida A&M University. There, she works as the Managing Editor for their campus magazine, Journey, and she will continue as their Editor-in-Chief for the 2019-20 school year. She loves to write and create content that highlights the diversity in black women. Her passions include fashion, sports, and fighting for equality. One day, she hopes to work in the editorial industry and break some of the current barriers that are keeping young, talented black kids out.