To and ‘Fro

It seems weird that, of all the things I have to do before I hike the PCT in a few weeks, doing something with my hair is one of my top priorities. I’ve been pretty broke too lazy to actually do something with it all winter – stuffing it into a Buff whenever it got out of hand – but when I’m potentially not going to have access to someone who even knows that black hair is different from white hair for five months of my life1, now’s the time to figure out how I’m going to deal.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with my hair since I was a child. My hair is pretty coarse – not as coarse as some black folks’ hair, but coarse nonetheless – and because letting that flag fly wasn’t a thing you could do to your child in the late 80s/early 90s without some serious assumptions being made, my hair has been forcibly combed/oiled/chemically straightened into “acceptability” since before I can remember. My mom did it, my aunts did it, most of the women in my life did it, that was considered “natural”, at the time. Even if the latter process usually left lye burns on my scalp2, that was the price we paid to be considered acceptable. Pretty.

And, I mean, a lot of you saw the role models that were set up for girls in the 90s – beautiful white women with long straight hair, or with sensuous, loose not-quite-curls. Sure, there were the four “black” shows I remember – The Cosby Show, Living Single, In Living Color, and Martin – but even though each of those shows displayed a range of common black hairstyles3, that wasn’t what I was bombarded with as a child or what I thought was cool. Those were just the styles from the odd here-and-there shows that no one else I knew watched, and, already being at something of a disadvantage when it came to my wealthier private-school peers4, they weren’t styles I was particularly interested in emulating.

It wasn’t until college that I ever thought to question that, ever saw the natural state of my hair as anything other than an annoyance, unpretty5. In a burst of collegiate clear-sightedness (tinged with rebelliousness?), I cut my hair to within a half inch of my scalp – no pictures remain of that time, mostly because I’m pretty sure I forced my friends to delete them immediately after they took them. It grew into a pretty great afro – one that my friends still talk about with affection – but as soon as I got a fellowship to study in India, I straightened it. Better to be seen as ethnically ambiguous (or even as an American-Indian with scandalously short hair) than to be constantly bombarded with not-ill-meaning questions about whether or not I had been pregnant or had shot anyone or loved rap music6.

And then my hair grew and grew and grew – and I continued to use chemicals to straighten and straighten and straighten. More than one friend confessed that they were happy to see I’d abandoned the afro for good, that I was “living up to my [beauty] potential” by burning the everliving hell out of my scalp/roots/hair every eight weeks or so. And as my hair grew longer and longer – and I moved to the Front Range, where the lack of humidity meant a different kind of chemical – the treatments got more and more expensive, to the point where I actually considered paying more than I was paying in rent to straighten my hair, even though it would still only last for eight weeks.

That was the point where I said “enough”. No more straightening. No more trying to live up to the beauty standards that I’d lived with for my entire life. Just me, natural me, from here–at least, for now.

I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been difficult. It takes a lot of time/money/energy to maintain long, natural hair, so I ended up chopping most of it off again. College on repeat. I had a cute little bob that was basically an afro, and then it grew and was too much for me to handle, and then a cut went horribly awry, and I’ve just spent the last few months hating what I see when I look at my hair in a mirror. I’ve been planning to get it cut for a while now, but my impending departure for the PCT has kind of complicated what I’m looking for.

On the Colorado Trail, I basically just covered my hair with a Buff all day every day – it kept the twigs/leaves/dirt out, prevented snagging, and just generally made me more “acceptable”, just like when I was a kid. For the PCT, I’ve thought of shaving my head, but I’m not sure I’m that brave, for one7. I’ll already be different enough as a brown girl on the trail; plus, there’s not enough time between now and then to get a layer of hair between me and the all-powerful sun that’d roast my scalp if I gave it half a chance. But I’m also not sure how I feel about just shaping what I’ve got to sport a proper afro, large and hot and out there, unequivocally identifying me as black in spaces which have an as-yet not-seemingly-extensively-tested reaction to blackness. Which is, of course, not to mention said general attraction twigs/leaves/dirt have to such a style. It doesn’t seem practical, and I don’t just want to cover up with a Buff again – even though, despite my protestations, it might be a necessity in the desert8.

At the end of the day, it’s just hair. It doesn’t really matter, and I should do what makes it easiest to handle for the trail. But “just hair” – the straightening-or-not of it, the conformity-or-not of it – has been used to mark brown people as different, as other, as unprofessional, as less-than. Even if I were to completely conform, to straighten and somehow magically lengthen and whatnot, it wouldn’t protect me from racially-motivated anything – long, straight, beautiful, white-emulating hair didn’t protect me as a youngling from the verbally hurled abuse, the assumptions about who I was, the hyper-sexualization, and it won’t protect me now. Still, I don’t know that I get to escape respectability politics – “acceptability” politics – even on the trail.

 


 

[1] How I usually explain it: in addition to the obvious differences in the way black vs. white hair acts (think: afro vs. limp straightness), white hair tends to get more oily as time goes on. Black hair, on the other hand, tends to get drier and more brittle. So not only is it unhealthy for my hair for me to wash it every day, I also can’t use just any hair product, because 90% of it is designed with white hair in mind. I do use oil near-daily on my hair to keep it healthy at home, though, which makes lots of white people stare at me in consternation. All this is to say that I can’t just go to any hairstylist off the street – I have to find people who know how to work with/cut black hair, or I look like a hot mess.

[2] I’m not kidding. A lot of relaxers, certainly the relaxers I received as a kid, are lye-based. The stylist starts by putting a base on your head to protect your scalp from the lye, but the longer you leave the lye-infused relaxer on, the straighter it made your hair. Thus, lye burns.

[3] And omg 90s fashion

[4] I was the charity-case kid that was only there on scholarships. I credit that school with fostering the love of learning that I have today, and I am eternally grateful for my mother who, every year, fought tooth and nail to keep me there. (At least until I thought I wanted to go to Berkeley for undergrad and wanted the experience of a huge public high school to prepare me for that. Hilariously, because of my experiences at said huge high school, I decided I wanted nothing to do with Berkeley.)

[5] Yes, I did start singing the TLC song of the same name. It’s apparently 90s day in my brainpan.

[6] In India, they don’t really see much about (particularly American) black people except for what we put out in our media. You can understand about how well that goes over, because it’s usually the immensely popular stuff (gangster rap, news stories/statistics) that makes it over there – and that stuff is usually not so kind to black people generally. So yeah, I absolutely “passed” as Indian, with a fair modicum of success (certainly in relation to my white classmates). I’m not sure how I feel about that in retrospect, but at the time, honestly – after both growing up and going to school in primarily white environments, where I was very visible – it was something of a relief, not being (one of) the only brown person (people) in a given situation.

[7] Mad respect to the ladies that do, though.

[8] Brown-black hair is hot. I am, on the other hand, also considering a hat.

One thought on “To and ‘Fro

  1. schrauf99 says:

    Thanks so much for this. It’s interesting and enlightening. I can’t wait to hear more about your thoughts on race, hiking and pretty much everything as you begin your PCT adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

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