i’m still traumatized from the ceramic flat iron event of 2014 when i damaged my hair in a straightening incident gone bad. so you can imagine my excitement when i realized my hair had grown long enough for two strand twists. a pat on the back and a few shea moisture products should have been enough to celebrate my accomplishment, but noooo i decided box braids were the perfect turn up to salute a 1.5 inch twa.
like most black women, i grew up getting braids; in fact, i have lots of memories from childhood and early adolescence picking out $.99 packs of hair and spending hours at a cousin’s/family friend’s/aunt’s home getting my hair braided. time-consuming and painful, the results were usually “worth” it — women learn early that beauty requires the sacrifice of comfort. however, as i became older and developed greater agency over my body, i decided both long hair and extensions weren’t my jam, choosing to rock short hair (even a caesar cut in 10th grade). by my early 20s, i went natural and changed my entire beauty paradigm. so i thought.
pain has no real memory, and my freedom from perms, weaves and beauty salons made me think all was well in these box braid streets. in fact, my first set of braids in early december weren’t too tight, only requiring a few pain pills and lasted for about a month. i thought, “ok, that wasn’t so bad, now it’s time for round two…”
you know that moment when you’re weighing pain versus beauty? “just how much pain is worth ensuring my relaxer/sew-in/braids are on fleek?” i had that feeling while my scalp was being yanked from my head during my second set of braids. finally, in a moment of weakness, i admitted to the stylist that she was braiding my hair too tight. it came out like a whimper, the voice of a woman shamed by not being strong enough to sustain the pain required for a good hairdo. the look on the stylist’s face was one of sheer disappointment as she reminded me that my hair was thick, short and giving her a hard time — all synonyms for “nappy.”
daily doses of tylenol 3 and several sleepless nights later, i mustered the courage to peek at my scalp and realized it was filled with sores. i wish i could tell you that i immediately snatched the braids out and treated my aching scalp, but that would be a lie. i wish i could tell you that self-care was more important in the 48 hours after i noticed the sores than a cute hairstyle, but that too would be a lie.
the reality is i tortured myself in the name of beauty, ignoring all my body’s signs that it was in distress. black women are like addicts, our relationship with our hair can be abusive and toxic, but it can also make us feel so, so good. however, a few high moments aren’t enough for me to deny this very important lesson: black scalps matter.
check out “dreaming ourselves dark and deep: black beauty” in bell hooks’ sisters of the yam for more on black women’s relationship with our hair.