Thursday, April 25, 2013

Locks of [Unrequited] Love: The Myth Of "Good" Hair

Shakeeda navigates my hair with her pointer finger, skimming the asymmetrical hairline and coaxing a snarl into submission. I study the African-themed border on the golden wall, trying not to flinch.

“I’m sorry. It’s a mess,” I say, leaning back to fix my neck into the crevice of the basin. Apologies have been a standard part of my salon regimen for almost 18 years now, ever since baby curls gave way to a chaotic mass of corkscrews that perpetually threaten to become dreadlocks.

“Girl, I’ve seen some things,” Shakeeda says, maneuvering her cumbersome body to the other side of the sink. “This is not a mess.”

Her words, like the nimble hands massaging shampoo into foam, are comforting. I grew up the frizzy black sheep in a family of Indian women with silky hair cascading down their backs. My cousins and aunts are oblivious to split ends and humidity and buying extra strong hair ties -- weddings and baby showers are like a cheesy L’OrĂ©al commercial, every hair toss more mesmerizing than the one before.

My mother is no exception and spent most of my middle school evenings forcing me toward a patio chair with a blue bottle of Parachute coconut oil and unprecedented faith. The next morning I would scrub my head until the hot water ran out, worried that the pungent aftermath of her childhood Indian hair remedy would scare away Science class suitors.

Now, in my favorite Harlem salon, Shakeeda does a final rinse, drapes a black apron over my shoulders, and leads me to the workstation. I look at our reflection in the mirror, taking in her pleasant face; a large, flat nose fixed firmly between high cheekbones. Her hair, I deduce, is a weave, fixed tightly at the root. It falls in perfect, jet-black rivets to her round shoulders with no trace of defiance.

“You need a trim,” she says, examining my hair between her thumb and forefinger. “How long has it been?”

“About four months -- since October,” I say, proudly. I’ve been known to wait a year. Or two.

“October! October!” She throws her hands up. “You will come in every two months from now on. We’re not letting this happen again.”

I’ve already bestowed the woman with rare and complete trust, so I agree to almost everything she says. I will not wash my hair every day. I will go to the beauty supplies shop on 125th street, across from the H&M, and buy the entire line of Cream of Nature products. And I will not relax my hair.

I will not relax my hair.

It took me eight years to not relax my hair. Our family hairdresser in Florida insisted on the chemical straightening treatment when I was in seventh grade, determined to run a hairbrush from root to tip without bristles breaking off the handle. She would do it for a special price, she told my mom, a flat rate of $350. I quickly agreed – disheartened by catching her despair via dramatic eye roll in the mirror when I would come in for a haircut.

At the time I was prone to masking my eyelids with Maybelline eyeshadow to match my favorite baby blue shirt. I had the seventh-grade version of a boyfriend, who I would chat with on instant messenger until ten o’clock. My best friend from the neighborhood had straight blonde hair. And my second best friend -- straight, dirty-blonde hair.

The first time I got my hair relaxed, it took six hours and half of the second Harry Potter book. People in the salon came to watch as Anita blow-dried my hair straight out until it stood on end like a lions mane, my tanned face a small oval in the center. My scalp tingled for days as if someone had rubbed acetone on an open wound. But it looked so damn good.

I wore it out, styled and long, to every class that month, including gym. I kept Herbal Essences hairspray in my backpack to spritz on extra floral scent. I felt like shouting down the halls: “Hey look at me, it’s the middle of a Florida summer and I still got this”. To top it off, my 13-year-old boyfriend was effusively supportive. “You look good,” he would mumble under his breath.

“You relaxed this?” Shakeeda shrieks when I recall the story that Friday evening. She holds up a wet spiral near my ear for emphasis. “This is great hair. People pay money for this.”

“People always tell me that,” I say. “Nobody would actually pay money for this.”

I’m about to launch into a rant comparing good to bad curls, but I bite my tongue. The last few years have been like a 12-step program in the battle of Ankita versus her hair, and I refuse to go back to a time when I preferred Britney Spears to Erykah Badu.

I had become a born-again hair virgin during my last year in college, days after my friend got drunk and compared my chemically damaged hair to a brillo pad. My friend Lynsey, who had recently liberated her own hair from weaves, gave me the final push I needed – forwarding me natural hair blogs and remedies involving honey and silk pillows. I was so chaste with my hair then that I all but gave up the straightening iron, blow drier and expensive serums.

Not everyone was impressed by my revolution. My family was visibly disturbed when I showed up to a wedding reception with my natural curls. “Did you even brush them?” My aunt asked in a hushed whisper as I got ready to hit the dance floor. I forced a smile, telling myself I was representing a whole generation of hair oppression, and proceeded to release my locks from a gasping butterfly clip.

Now, in solemn respect, I swallow the complaints, and ask my new fairy godmother for more hair advice.

“You know your hair feels it when you don’t show it love,” Shakeeda says as she shears the tendrils on either side of my eyes. “It’s only good to you if you’re going to reciprocate.”

I stop to consider this idea of my hair as a needy lover, and it’s clear that I haven’t had the best relationship. My last year before moving to New York was spent living in a backpack in northern India, away from the reaches of my affluent relatives. I slept and worked without air conditioning in 118 degrees, only aware of my physical appearance when my students would point it out in English class.

 “Ankita ma’am has very bunchy hairs,” 12-year-old Kajal would say, mapping out her subject and object.

“No, no,” I would say in response. “Hair is the same whether it is singular or plural.”

By the end of the year half my hair had fallen out from bucket baths, chlorinated water and a horrifying lice epidemic in our classroom. I wore my hair in a braid so often, I didn’t realize that the ends had frayed, or that there was a knot at the base of my neck so convoluted that it would eventually have to be cut out with scissors.

When I showed up in New York to attend Columbia University days after, I was quickly shamed into a haircut. I chose carefully– skipping the Upper West Side windows with Sarah Jessica Parker photos, and settling in a chair after Google searching Turning Heads Salon, rated best for “ethnic hair care” in Time Out magazine.

And that’s how I ended up in the slow, steady hands of Shakeeda, who doesn’t mind that it’s almost 7 p.m. and we’ve just started to blow-dry my hair for tomorrow’s job interview.

“You know, if you really love your hair, you would wear it natural tomorrow,” she says with a wink.

“I’m not there yet,” I tell her. Maybe soon.

Note: This essay was written back in March 2012. Just had to clarify so my employers don't think I'm interviewing for jobs. 

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