My hair and I have had a tempestuous journey to meet happily in our middle age. Little gypsy G had a globe of soft frizz, a painful tangle that had to be teased out from its tips to my scalp, a traumatic, tear stained business that makes me wince even now. I was five before I saw another soul with hair like mine; I was a bit like a rare breed of sheep, and then at infant school I met the Henry sisters, Patsy and Gloria.They carefully protected me until they went off to high school and I could stand on my own two feet because I was the brightest girl in class. Along with them went my only contact with other non white children, so the pedestal I gazed at with envy, from then on, held girls with silky locks. Around then I noticed what happened when we went out in the rain. My friend’s hair got wet and stuck to their heads. Mine? It was the strangest thing, little sprinkles sat on top like it does on blades of grass, one shake and it was gone. Apart from that and the occasional person asking if they could feel it (some just grabbing a handful) and then saying it was like cotton wool, I largely ignored it, it was just perching there.
I have a photo taken in my uniform on the first day of Grammar school and must have had a haircut for that and then no more for years and years. Instead I scraped it into an elastic band and it must have grown but it has a fragile nature so some would have broken off. I put aside the painful feelings of difference, I had no idea what could be done anyway. The odd woman could be seen in my home town with afro hair and images of powerful women like Marsha Hunt, a gorgeous creature with the biggest afro, were in the media and obviously doing okay.
I met the lovely Linda, a hairdresser who became my sister-in-law, when I was eighteen and I think she saw my hair as a challenge. I will never forget the first time she chemically straightened me. My left-to-grow locks had the smelliest gunge slapped on, it was screeched through my frizz – no I guess I screeched as it was combed through my frizz and I had to sit and wait. I emerged from her huge rollers with long smooth tresses and the feeling that I had become someone else. The next day at work a lot of people did double takes. Pretty soon I had to wash it and learnt quickly that it was going to revert when I did, unless I got to grips with big fat rollers myself! Until curling tongs, hot brushes and even blow drying arrived, I endured monthly torture by chemical to straighten the roots and even then on damp days my only option was to scrape it up into a pony tail. This first round of straightening continued for a few years until one day I went into my local chemist to buy the product and discovered it was no more. I think I went into a serious depression – for an hour – about as long as I can muster. LL then came up with the idea of perming my hair. What? Back then old ladies had their hair permed and followed it by a weekly shampoo and set! Of course I was desperate enough to try it and it worked, a whole new stinky chemical slapped on my head and I came out wavy and controllable by a new curling tong that I burnt my fingers on many, many times before I learnt. It was short back then, who remembers an 80’s haircut, long on top and cropped in short? I quite liked it until one day I overheard a little person ask his dad who that man was. My heart was on a platter and my hair has never been that short again.
Linda looked after my locks until she became ill and very sadly was lost to that nasty creeping C word. She was a truly lovely lady who never lost her sense of humour through all the painful treatment she underwent. I’ll always remember when she had a mastectomy; she needed a skin graft which they took from her lower abdomen. She laughed her head off as she showed me her patch of pubic hairy chest! Bless you; I’m sure you’re up there somewhere putting rollers in heavenly hair.
After a few visits to white hairstylists, I came across Theresa, a gospel singing, carnival costumed, Trinidadian barmcake. On my first appointment she gave me my options, relaxing or a ‘curly perm’. I chose the latter and came out looking like Whitney Houston. I know you don’t believe me, but at least two people said so. I also came out with a whole pharmacopoeia of gunge to keep it curly. Strange labels like Sta Sof Fro on pots of green sloppy stuff promised I would look wonderful. The reality? Just the slightest bit of humidity caused it to liquefy on my head and I’d look like someone had poured unset jelly on my head in some kids TV show. I don’t think I kept that look for too long.
You can relax permed hair, but not the opposite Theresa has always said and I’d look longingly at the black women who came in frizzy and went out smooth. There began ten years of relaxing. It can burn if left on tender skin a few minutes too long and if you constantly relax your roots to stop the bushy look and then start having colour put on because of the white spider web that appears on your head then your hair can end up in poor condition, as dry as steel wool! Also the whole process is expensive, I’m sure that my hair has cost me enough to buy a small farm for my rare breed woolly head, and if I could reclaim the time I could have written several War and Peace size tomes.
In Nigeria I had my hair braided with beads at the ends and I felt fabulous. That is until I came home and had to go to the conservative, prestige motor dealership where I worked, and my braids didn’t! Feeling like a Rastafarian in a costume drama I took them out. Three years ago Theresa put Ghanaian braids in for me. They were exquisite, but only until Grandmother Spider spun around, I so wish I’d had them when I was young.
I can’t pinpoint what snapped in me but suspect it was something in the media, some actress or personality with natural hair that influenced me to stop for a while. I tied my mop up while the chemicalled bits grew out. Theresa knew what I was aiming for, enough natural hair to be able to chop the rest and not have it too short. The day came, in 2009; I finally faced the world Au Naturelle. I have many, many bad hair days, but a woman who doesn’t is as rare as the woman in the moon. For now we are reconciled.