I’ve always had a gang of hair. Like, a GANG of hair. There’s actually a very old video of my mother trying to tame my hair as a toddler, and two thirds of the screen was nothin’ but ‘fro.
My mother wasn’t having it, though. Born in the era of straightening combs on the stove, she was good for waking me up at the crack of dawn and burning the hell out of me trying to straighten my hair. I don’t even think I knew what my hair looked like without a handful of grease and a whole morning’s worth of heat in it… because we started doing this routine when I was approximately 4 years of age.
Say what you will about that – especially since it was a couple of decades ago – but I grew up believing that I was supposed to have straight hair, and this suffering was how I was supposed to get it. If ever my kitchen (you know what the kitchen is) was even remotely curly, my Mom was quick on the draw. “Um, what’s goin’ on with your natural? Come here, let me hit those naps real quick.” I never thought twice about it. That was Mom, for crying out loud. I pretty much worshipped the ground she walked on – always well dressed, properly put together, never a hair out of place – surely, she knew what she was talkin’ about.
I, much like most of the little Black girls in my area, grew up coveting straight hair. Considering how difficult this was to maintain for girls like me with the most all-the-way-live-kinks and coils, this also made us resent anything that got in the way of us ruining that straight hair. Gym class was almost always indoors, and forget about getting us in any kind of swimming pool.
Eventually, all that hair pressing left my hair pretty lifeless. Horribly split ends, breaking off like nobody’s business.. I actually remember people clowning me about it. I didn’t really know any better. I just knew I needed to have straight hair, and I was succumbing to what I needed in order to get it.
It got worse once I entered high school. After having moved to my new neighborhood where all the hair was not only straight, but blond and long.. my mother and I dug all throughout the city to find a hairdresser who could help me at least accomplish the long and straight part. As a high schooler, I was in the salon weekly, spending $40 for a wash/rinse/press… and $80 once a month for my relaxer. Two hundred dollars a month to acquire this look that I had coveted since I was four years old.
Needless to say, I grew up prioritizing an inordinate amount of time strictly to straight hair. Never knew (or considered) why I did, why I needed to… never asked any questions. Just fell in line.
Hindsight is most certainly 20/20, though.
I started gaining weight somewhere around the fourth grade. I can’t help but wonder why no one was equally “quick on the draw” checking me about my weight instead of my hair. I wonder why I never prioritized an “inordinate amount of time strictly to” my physical and emotional fitness instead of… hair. I wonder why a more fit physique wasn’t “coveted” the same way straight hair was coveted. It just seemed like I wanted those things that seemed easiest to acquire – just spend your morning getting burned by the stove and you, too, can have straight hair just like “the rest of society.”I guess “being fit and healthy” wasn’t that easy to achieve.
When you grow up putting such a high priority on hair, it means that at some point, you start cutting things out to protect that priority. I can recall taking an F for a semester of PE because I wasn’t getting in any pool. (After an uber expensive hair treatment? No thanks.) I can recall walking the “one mile speed test” because I didn’t want to sweat… and I was out there for almost 18 minutes to do it. In college, I took a geography class that required not only hiking but kayaking… and I gave my professor hell the entire time, complaining that I “was going to have to take out a student loan to keep up my hair if he was going to have us out with Mother Nature every other darn day.” I dealt with it in order to get my “A,” but that was about it.
When I first started working out – as in, complete newbie status – I can remember stopping on the elliptical the moment I felt liquid on my forehead. I was literally allergic to sweat. It wasn’t until one night I happened to be at the gym the same time as The Cleaner was on, accidentally stayed on the elliptical the entire episode, jumped on the scale and saw that I lost a pound of water weight that I literally said “Man, f– this hair.” That was the end of that for me. Every night, I was wearing my sweaty shirt as a badge of honor.“Yes, that’s right, I broke it dowwwwwwwwwn on that there machine! I’m that chick!” I’ve been over it, since.
I listen to conversations that other women have about their hair, and I always keep quiet… though more often than not, I’m the one they want to hear from. Not because I’m anybody special, but because the assumption is that this is a hurdle I’ve encountered before. I don’t really have any popular or easy answers for them, which is why I usually keep quiet. I could say, “Why is straight hair such a big deal to y’all, anyway?” but that’d only be met with laughter and “Um, anyways…” and I’d rather not get extra indignant and say “What if you swapped your hair with your body in your list of priorities? This wouldn’t even be an issue then, would it? You’d be doing what you gotta do to make your hair work without interfering with your gym routine… not just doing what you can at the gym to feel like you did something, and protecting your hair investment.” That’d certainly ruin the mood. Instead, I just shrug my shoulders. Everyone has their “come to fitness” moment at different points of their lives.. I don’t know that a social gathering is the proper place to try to evoke someone’s moment without their consent.
In my mind, my priorities have shifted. They’ve shifted to the point where I find it hard to understand the logic anymore. If I’m going to devote my every sunrise to something, it’s going to be my health. If I’m going to go the extra mile for anything, it’s going to be my body. I’ve even decided to be a little vain about it. If I experience pain on a regular basis or a regular burn… it’ll be because I’m workin’ hard on getting my abs cut right or building my fit booty. To me, if I let my priorities switch back to what they were, then I’m going to start gaining weight. I don’t want that.
Somewhere along the line, too many of us have grown to prioritize something as minor league as our hair over the major league issues, like health. It’s considered unnecessary vanity if I take pride in my abs or my legs (I’m showing off, and deserving of the catty conversation behind my back), but my hair better be on point or… I’m deserving of the catty conversation behind my back. You’re clowned for having “bad hair,” and – not saying you should be clowned for a “bad body” – praised for staying on top of your hair and not having a strand out of place. Hour long conversations can be had about hair products that are healthy for our hair.. “but what’s healthy for our bodies?” Silence.
Maybe I’m just hella skeptical… and I can accept that. But there’s a serious problem with the fact that we can figure out a thousand ways to keep our hair in tip top shape – some of us sitting with mayonnaise, avocado, egg, kool-aid and dill pickle mixtures on our heads because we heard it’ll make it “grow” – but no one’s willing to give healthy living a shot, trying different things to keep our bodies in tip top shape. Something is very wrong when it makes sense to allow something like hair to get in the way of our pursuit of health.
The wild thing about it, really, is that I don’t have any answers. For me, I haven’t put a flat iron to my head in almost ten months. My loved ones don’t even bother asking me to do otherwise. Folks know when it’s me running in the neighborhood because there’s usually about a foot worth of ‘fro bouncing behind me. If I have somewhere to go, I even occasionally jazz it up and put something in my hair. I spend too much time being active to want to sit around protecting a hairstyle. I just prefer to focus my efforts on my body.. and the more I do that, the more I find that others focus their attentions there, too. “For get her hair, did you see her body? Dang!” I’m OK with that. I put in the work, I shifted my priorities there.. that’s what I want… even if I’m rockin’ an attention-grabber like below.