My hair and I have an on-again-off-again-love-hate relationship. Right now we are in a fragile state. I am a bit raw and emotional from having stayed up until after four in the morning to unbraid my hair. And my hair is fearfully aggressive like a stray cat. It’s like this every time. Once it’s time for the braids to come out, my hair and I have to navigate through all the steps of grief.
Denial: I pretend that I don’t have to take out the braids. I willfully ignore how fuzzy my roots are getting. I tell myself it’s okay to wait another week or so.
Anger: Once the unbraiding begins (usually a two-part-two-day process), I begin to resent my hair. I start wanting to do violent things to it like shave it off. Each tangle I encounter, each labored pull of the comb makes me curse my kinks and sigh with nearly defeated exasperation. I hate, hate, hate how hard my hair can be to manage—especially when it first comes out of it’s braided hibernation. That really is what the braids are, a way for me to make the beast sleep. But the price I pay is that every three months or so, the beast must be roused. And it wakes up cranky and determined to take at least one prisoner.
Bargaining: I start to dream about getting dreadlocks. Then I’d never have to put a comb to my head again. Maybe I could get a perm again. So what if the last time I got a perm the resulting chemical burn left me with a bald spot? So what if that “bald” spot has never been the same (the hair there is still shorter and more brittle)? So what if “the spot” still feels “different” when I touch it even though it has been fifteen years since “the incident” happened?
Depression: It’s pretty humbling to be three decades old and still not be in complete control of my hair in its natural and unfettered state. What will I do if I ever have a daughter? I’d be completely unqualified to help her. I begin to worry that this awkward stage (in between unbraiding and my next hair appointment) will last forever. Perhaps my hair stylist will call to tell me that she double-booked and I’ll have to wait another month. Perhaps she’ll say that her salon is closing down and she’ll never braid hair again. Maybe I should call and confirm my appointment…just in case. I double-check my calendar and start counting the days.
Acceptance: The key to this stage is a lot of conditioner…a lot. About half a bottle does it. Conditioner is like a drug to my hair. It makes it feel happy. And when my hair is doped up on conditioner, it lets me get a comb through it without any resistance. The beast becomes a kitten like I’ve hit it with a tranquilizer dart. Sadly, eventually the conditioner has to get washed out, and after that things get harder. But by then my hair and I have come to a bit of a compromise—the cornerstone of our relationship. I try to give my hair what it needs, bedtime combing out and braiding, enough “product” to keep it moist and healthy. And my hair does it’s best to act civilized in public.
Week one, we’re like reconnected friends laughing at old inside jokes. I enjoy the sensation of having my scalp tickled by the teeth of a comb. A sensation I’m deprived of when the braids are in. I get a few compliments from well-meaning friends who think the afro is cute or fun. They don’t know how much work it takes. It’s kind of like if you were violently ill to the point where you lost a few pounds and then someone tells you that you look great. Week two, the magic begins to fade. My arms are getting tired from constantly being up at my head combing and braiding every night before I go to bed. I begin to be annoyed by how much longer it takes me to get ready because of my hair. Maybe it rains, which is like relapse. What rain does to my hair is just short of abuse. My hair shrinks back in fear, cowering against my scalp, getting more and more tangled, and I have to coax the beast out of the cave all over again. By week three, I want out of the relationship, but I know I have to stick it out. If there is a week four, I am frazzled and desperate. I start rebelling. I start withholding some of the things my hair needs and wants just to feel like I have a modicum of power. But I put up with all this because as bad as it gets, I know it’s only a matter of time before I am back in my hair stylist’s chair…singing the beast a lullaby.