How To Be a Plain Girl

A black woman’s hair biography.

 

Lolly Bowean | Longreads | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,414 words)

 

Prologue

Every black woman has a hair story. This is mine.

Good hair means curls and waves
Bad hair means you look like a slave
— India.Arie, “I Am Not My Hair”

1.

I had never even met John P., but there I was, on a bus in East Knoxville, riding to meet him where he lived in a troubled public housing complex called Lonsdale.

I should have been at school, sitting in homeroom with the rest of the freshmen. But instead, at 13, I had decided to cut class and take a journey across a town I wasn’t even vaguely familiar with, to meet a man I didn’t know.

John P. was my classmate Kayla’s uncle, and in the neighborhood and at our school, he was known to have “gifted hands.”

He didn’t have the proper credentials to work in a professional salon, so instead he would accept women into his ground level apartment. It was there that he would slather their scalps with white creams that smelled like drain cleaner and lye, then cut and curl their hair for about a third of the price at a real beauty parlor.

My family had only been living in this small southern town for a few months, but in that short time I had come to vividly understand that the way I wore my hair was not only “not cool”; for many, it was unacceptable.

And so, even though I wasn’t the rebellious type of teen who would normally skip school, I broke the rules for the very first time so that I could go get my hair done.

Without permission — in fact, in direct defiance of my family’s wishes — I headed to see John P. I was determined to get a Jheri curl — a slimy hairstyle popularized by Michael Jackson and Prince.

2.

Financial empires have been built on the strands of black women’s hair.

According to Nielsen Reports, black women spend $7.5 billion a year on cosmetics and hair care. The first black millionaire was Madame C.J. Walker, a stylish woman who in the early 1900s earned her wealth by selling metal combs to black women for straightening their tight curls.

Images of Walker show her with her hair parted in the middle, slicked down on the top and curled under like a mushroom around her smooth, brown sugar-colored face. Her products boasted a portrait of herself with her glossy, straightened hair cascading down her shoulders, extending past the picture’s frame. She represented the ideal of black beauty and pride.

But the politics of black hair goes far beyond the cosmetics aisle and statistics. In hair, black women have established an almost secret, complicated caste system. Hair, it seems, dictates not just how we view ourselves, but also how we see each other and how we think other people view and rank us.

At one point, hair and how it was styled was evaluated to determine what kinds of jobs black women could secure and where we could work. Black women with straightened hair were — and many of us suspect, still are — more likely to get well-paid professional positions. They were more likely to get placed in front desk jobs, while black women with shorter and curlier hair were pushed to the kitchen, assigned to cleaning staffs and relegated to other menial positions.

In general, black women with long, straight hair were celebrated as more beautiful, and the first black fashion models all had straight hair that mimicked the hair of white women.

Usually it only takes a few moments after meeting before we start swapping stories about our best and worst hair experiences. Our hair is a biography.

In essence, the types of jobs we worked and the types of men we attracted were all grounded in what we did with our hair. The politics of black hair were first dictated by white America — in the choices white people made about which blacks would get which jobs and which ones would be welcomed into elite circles. But then the idea became embedded in black culture; it became a self-policed way of life. African-Americans slapped the label “bad” on hair that was tightly curled and passed that judgmental viewpoint down for generations.

Black women, when we’re alone together, bond over the meticulous rituals and the varied ingredients we use to whip our hair into shape. Usually it only takes a few moments after meeting before we start swapping stories about our best and worst hair experiences. Our hair is a biography.

It’s also an intimacy. When we allow someone to touch our hair, it’s a gesture of trust.

3.

First black women learned how to straighten their hair using heated metal. Then chemicals were introduced that would permanently transform the curly, coarse hair into brittle, dry, but straightened strands.

By the time I was a teenager, the Jheri curl was the rage. M.C. Hammer used it to transform his Afro into a bed of gel-covered curls and so did all the popular black women in music videos.

Getting a real Jheri curl — which was invented by a white chemist named Jheri Redding — cost hundreds of dollars. But then Comer Cottrell — a black man — figured out a way to duplicate the product and package it in a box kit that cost less than $10.

At that price, the style was accessible to everyone. Applying the kit required experience, but it was easy to find someone who knew how to do it.

In Knoxville, the thinking was, why keep kinky hair when you could have a curl? There was no pride in having natural hair; in fact, it seemed more like a vow of poverty and a devotion to ugliness.

In Knoxville, I learned that chemically straightened hair was considered more beautiful, more acceptable. No one said that directly. But every single day in school and during social encounters, I would get questioned and picked on because my hair was kinky — what they called nappy.

4.

For as long as I can remember, there has always been an intense focus on my hair.

I was barely in the first grade when my mother and her friends began to express anxiety because it seemed my hair wouldn’t grow. I was a twin, the only girlchild, and my brothers had more hair than me. When we sat in a group, it was difficult for strangers to tell us apart.

“I thought she was a boy,” I heard over and over from neighbors and adult family friends, which freaked my mother out. She adorned me with earrings and ribbons; but for the critical, that wasn’t enough.

Distressed, my mother bribed her cousin Cathy to come visit with me for a session. I can still remember hearing my mother pleading with Cathy on the phone to take the hour-long ride from Brooklyn to our house in Queens.

When I first met Cathy, she reminded me of a wild bird. She wore tight clothes and bright purple lipstick and was completely disheveled. She wore her own hair cut short and dyed red, but she hadn’t taken any time to properly style it. I was a child and I could tell that. She was the type of woman who was too street to hold an actual job and who couldn’t manage to make it to appointments on time.

But Cathy was known to have a “growing hand.” Women would pay her good money to come and simply braid or twist their hair, placing all their faith in the rumor that, when she had finished, their hair would magically emit from their heads and flow freely, like she had turned on a faucet.

If your hair didn’t grow after the first session with Cathy, you tried two more times. If she couldn’t get your hair to grow after working it three times — well, then there was something wrong with you, was the thinking.

She came flustered to our house, like a hurricane, sweating and rushed, yet determined. I sat on the floor between her legs and bit my bottom lip as she combed and applied oil and pulled and twisted my hair.

These days, I don’t know if I believe in the mythical powers said to be possessed by women like Cathy. But after she tugged the few strands of hair I had into tiny box braids, laid close to my scalp, my hair did indeed grow into a wild Afro bush, soft like cotton.

To this day, my mother still credits Cathy as the reason I have so much hair and the reason it seems to grow so quickly. Sometimes she’ll look at me with prideful admiration: “Boy it took work to get your hair to grow, but look at it,” she’ll say. “Cathy got your hair to growing, thank God.”

Once the hair growth switch was flipped on, it never went back off. My mother would pull my hair into two plaits or sometimes into an Afro puff that looked like a fluffy rabbit’s tail on top of my head.

Eventually, I started to wear my hair in thin cornrows, braided close to my scalp in circular patterns and embellished with colorful beads at the ends. My mother didn’t trust anyone in our East Elmhurst neighborhood to do my hair. So that meant nearly every two weeks someone had to chauffeur me to a neighborhood about 45 minutes away so that I could get my hair styled by a close family friend named Neat.

On those Saturdays, I would pack a book and a snack in a bag and wave goodbye to my brothers and all the kids on the block as I ducked into a car and got whisked away. It was like going on an exotic excursion, and I’d dress for the occasion, putting on my favorite velvet skirt, knee socks and Mary Jane shoes. That way, when I got back home, my outfit lived up to my hairstyle.

Nearly every time I got home, my aunt would photograph me smiling brightly and posing with my chin on my shoulder to emphasize my fabulous braids. Without fail, my Big Mama would call Neat and tell her what a fantastic job she did styling my hair. She’d thank her for sending a package of extra beads to apply, in case the ones decorating my hair slipped out during the week.

5.

When I was about nine, my mother had a huge falling out with her cousin Flossie — because of my hair. And they didn’t speak again for months.

Flossie had invited me over to go to church with her and her daughter. I was dropped off on a Saturday night and expected to spend the night and go to church in the morning. I thought I would spend the evening playing with her daughter, Cherry, and watching television.

But instead, Flossie decided she would straighten my thick, bushy hair. It took hours for her to wash and dry it and finally fry it straight with a hot metal comb that had been heated on the open flames of her gas stove. While I sat in the chair, shaking slightly, I could hear my hair sizzling as she pulled the hot comb through it. I could feel the heat against my scalp and got burned on my ear each time that I jumped.

“Sit still,” she kept telling me harshly. But it was hard not to fidget as the heat got closer and closer to my skin.

Flossie straightened my kinky hair twice that night before wrapping my head carefully with a silk scarf so that the fragile strands wouldn’t fall out of place. She rubbed cocoa butter on my burned ears and neck.

Women would pay her good money to come and simply braid or twist their hair, placing all their faith in the rumor that, when she had finished, their hair would magically emit from their heads and flow freely, like she had turned on a faucet.

The next morning, as I ate breakfast, she ran the hot comb through my hair again — to make sure not even one strand had a curl pattern.

When my mother came to pick me up, she was livid. She yelled at Flossie that she had already styled my hair the way she wanted and that she didn’t want my hair “fried.” They fussed back and forth, yelling names and expletives.

“My child won’t be bald-headed like yours,” I can still remember my mother telling her.

As we stormed off, my mother became convinced that the only reason Flossie invited me over was so that she could “get in” my hair. She mumbled to herself angrily.

When we were alone, my mother scolded me with the mantra nearly all black girls hear over and over: “Don’t you ever let anyone play in your hair,” she told me.


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I had heard it before.

In school, there were many tempting moments. I would watch white girls flip their ponytails from shoulder to shoulder as they turned their heads and I’d notice them wrap their silky hair around their fingers. At times they would strip off the rubber bands and freely toss their hair toward their faces and then back to their shoulders.

I wanted to pull my barrettes off too, fluff up my soft, thick hair, which sprayed outward like the petals on a sunflower, and show it off. But I had learned better. It took so much effort to comb and style my hair — once it was “done,” it was my job to work to preserve the original style. That meant not sweating too much, not touching it, and definitely not getting it wet.

I should have protested when Flossie started messing with my hair. But she was an adult, my mother’s cousin, so I thought she was the authority.

6.

Flossie was nowhere around on the day I went to see John P. I made that decision all on my own.

When I got to Lonsdale, nervousness gripped my body. I was in a blighted housing complex that I didn’t know my way around, new faces surrounded me, and I was carrying my entire life’s savings in cash. Anyone who looked at me knew I didn’t belong. Not only did I look lost — but my hair gave me away.

Eventually I found John P.’s apartment. Standing at the screen door, he welcomed me inside. The chemicals were set up on the cluttered kitchen table and he had an empty chair waiting for me in the middle of the room.

I sat down and immediately noticed the apartment smelled faintly of urine. It was infested with cockroaches. They trickled up and down the walls; it looked like sap streaming down a freshly cut maple tree. He didn’t even attempt to kill them. The sink was full of dirty dishes and the floor was stained and covered with crumbs and debris.

I was bothered and uneasy as I sat there, but my desire for the curl held me captive like a prisoner seated at a court hearing: powerless.

Before I could think too much on it, John started slathering the white chemical onto my head. With a cigarette in one hand, he combed through it in sections while making small talk about my hair being virginal and explaining how much he’d have to work to get the curl “to take.”

“You haven’t been scratching?” he asked me. And I assured him that I hadn’t been scratching my itchy scalp — a move that could cause the mixture of hair texturizers to burn.

As the funky chemicals seeped into my hair, he pulled the dishes out of the sink and prepared a place to rinse the chemicals out. After the first rinse, he had to apply another chemical formula and then strand-by-strand set the hair on plastic rollers.

After he finished that stage, we sat listening to the radio. I kept an eye on the clock; I had to get home before the schoolday ended.

It was quiet and still when a strange man barged through the door and confronted John. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that he must have been John’s boyfriend or lover.

“Motherfucker, what the fuck,” the man said, his throaty voice pounding with authority. John, a tall and slim man with feminine gestures, dipped his shoulders downward, folding at the waist as if to protect his body. Before he could squeeze his frame into a tight ball, the man grabbed him by the neck, pushed him against the wall, and began punching him viciously in the face.

In a high-pitched voice, John pleaded for him to stop and tried to pull away. He didn’t hit back.

Under normal circumstances, I probably would have winced or ducked or maybe even rushed out into the living room and eventually outside. But I was frozen; I just sat there and watched, my mouth open with shock and my scalp burning. My head was on fire.

John peeled out of the corner and tried to get away from the man, rapidly dashing around the kitchen table and me. The man was following after him, like they were two children playing a game of tag, when he finally noticed me sitting there. He spat some curse words at John, then rushed out the door.

I was bothered and uneasy as I sat there, but my desire for the curl held me captive like a prisoner seated at a court hearing: powerless.

When his abuser had finally left, John’s hands were shaking and he could hardly hide that he was rattled. His lip was busted and his neck bruised. But, as if nothing had happened, he came over and began to release the nasty rollers from my hair.

“You burning, baby?”

I nodded.

“It’ll be OK. Almost done.”

It probably took another hour for the entire process to end. I stood with my head in the sink as John stood next to me, shampooing and rinsing and shampooing and rinsing some more.

The cool water provided some relief, but my scalp was still tender and sore. When he finished, I pushed my crumpled cash into John’s hands and ran to get back home.

I didn’t even have time to really look at it.

7.

On the long bus ride home, I prepared myself for the fight I would have with my mother once she saw my hair. In my head, I practiced how I would tell her that I’m old enough to make my own decisions and how I would respond to her protests.

I knew she would be angry and that I’d get punished; but for me, it seemed worth it. I imagined myself as someone else with my curl: Janet Jackson or Ola Ray, the gorgeous girlfriend from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. When I finally got to see myself in the mirror, it was just me: chubby cheeks, deep brown skin, thick full lips, with a greasy, dark bush on my head.

I was sitting on the couch when my mother got home. She fumbled around in the kitchen for a few minutes and then walked into the living room.

I tried not to make eye contact, but I could feel her eyes on me. Eventually, our eyes met, and for a few minutes we just stared at each other.

A look of sadness settled over her face. She didn’t yell or scream.

“Why would you do that to yourself?” she asked me.

“I think it looks nice,” I responded, which I realize now didn’t really answer the question.

“You had such beautiful hair,” she said calmly. “Why would you do that? You want to look like everyone else? You want to look like… one of those… plain girls?”

She hadn’t said much, but her words penetrated.

“Yes, mom!” I yelled back at her. “I want to look normal!”

I leaped from the couch and stomped past her. I rushed to my bedroom and closed the door. She didn’t follow me. Or say a word about it afterward.

At the time, I thought it was just my mother being her usual prudish self, discouraging my quest to be cool and popular. Because I fled before she could issue any punishment or voice any protest, I thought I had won.

It’s only now that I understand the expression on her face was one of disgusted defeat. How overcome she must have felt, to have spent so much time telling me that I was beautiful with my natural hair, my natural features — only to have her affirmations dismissed.

I think when she saw my hair, it wasn’t the style she disliked. Instead she saw it as the manifestation of self-hate that she had so doggedly tried to beat back.

In our house, black was beautiful. But the world was communicating a contrary message that she couldn’t protect me from.

Girls with nappy hair didn’t get asked to prom; they didn’t have boyfriends. They didn’t get invited to cotillions and they didn’t get to sit with the popular kids in the cafeteria. Girls with nappy hair didn’t get to work the register at McDonald’s; they were relegated to flipping burgers.

At the time, I thought she didn’t understand. And I didn’t have the language to explain it to her.

It wasn’t until later that I realized I was the one who didn’t understand.

When I debuted my new hair at school, it was anticlimactic. The kids looked, observed, but offered not one compliment. I didn’t become popular. I didn’t become embraced.

I was one of them. That was nothing special.

8.

Each morning as I got ready for school, I tried to feel excited about my curl. Only a couple of days had passed when I noticed that my hair was coming out in clumps.

It was frightening and scary and I couldn’t comprehend what exactly was happening. All I knew was that when I combed it, it was bundling up in the comb, and that wads of it were ending up in the sink.

Having so viciously disobeyed my mother, I had no one to go to for help.

I only knew one thing to do: I decided to stop combing my hair. I’d apply the greasy activator and oily sprays and move the hair around a little with my fingers.

I think when she saw my hair, it wasn’t the style she disliked. Instead she saw it as the manifestation of self-hate that she had so doggedly tried to beat back.

It was a mess, but since no one said anything about it, I figured the trick was working.

About a week later, we were getting ready for our usual Friday night family outing to the movies. We were all dressed in our casual best and about to head out.

“You need to comb your hair,” my mother told me.

I disappeared into the bathroom, pushed my hair around with my fingers and emerged. My mother looked me over and, unhappy, repeated herself: “You need to comb your hair,” she said again.

I went into the bathroom, closed the door, and came back out moments later.

This same routine occurred three to four times — my mother insisting I needed to comb my knotty, matted, curled hair out and me swearing I had done it already.

Frustrated, and with my stepfather and brothers all waiting, she stepped into the bathroom with me and handed me a comb.

“Let me see,” she said. “Comb it.”

Standing in front of the mirror I looked at myself and then glanced at the comb in my hand. I looked at myself again.

“It’s coming out,” I whispered.

My mother looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“My hair… it’s all falling out,” I said, holding back the tears.

I didn’t tell her about the fight at John’s apartment — which likely led to him leaving the chemicals on for too long. I didn’t tell her about the roaches or the filth. I didn’t tell her how I regretted going to a place that looked and felt troubling.

I just let the tears stream down my face.

She grabbed the comb and ran it through a portion of my hair. It came out in clumps, tangled in the teeth of the comb, the long, heavy strands falling to the floor.

“Do you want to stay home tonight?” she asked, giving me a chance to make a decision. “Or do you want me to fix it, the way I know how to fix it?”

I knew what she meant.

“Fix it.”

Without any hesitation, she pulled out the clippers and shaved off all my hair.

9.

For the next three years, as my hair grew back, I would apply many different chemicals to change its texture. I joined the tribe of young women who carried curling irons in our purses and gave in to the urge to fry my hair several times a day. I bought hair relaxer kits in bulk and massaged my scalp daily with a coconut-scented balm called “SuperGro.”

I never tried to get a curl again and I never returned to John’s place. My mother barely addressed my hair during this period. I didn’t ask her for help or advice, and she didn’t offer any.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I felt confident enough to wear my hair in its natural state without any chemicals.

The work of straightening my hair and keeping it curled had become exhausting. I felt like I was desperately trying to look like someone else, and failing.

I wouldn’t leave my dorm room in the morning until having worked for at least a full hour on my hair. And by the time I’d arrive to my first or second class, the curls would have fallen flat and my straightened hair would lie limp across my head. My face would shine because of all the hair oil rushing from my scalp.

Right around the time I graduated, I divorced myself from combs and brushes altogether and adopted the Bob Marley loc style I still wear today. This hair is supposed to represent freedom — but even now I find myself obsessing over its length and texture and how it looks.

There are times when I think of changing it.

But not to fit in with a crowd, bow to social pressure, or “look plain,” as my mother would call it.

I finally only want to look more like me.

Epilogue

Every black woman has a hair story that shapes her identity and, in many ways, defines how she sees herself. Each conclusion is different. Each evolution is personal.

I am not my hair.
I am not my skin.
am the soul that lives within.
— India.Arie, “I Am Not My Hair”

* * *

Names in this essay have been changed.

Lolly Bowean is a staff writer at the Chicago Tribune and a 2017 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She has written for Lenny Letter, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. She has organized and taught workshops for the Poynter Institute for Journalism. She lives on the South Side of Chicago.

Editor: Dana Snitzky