When I was a little girl, I wore my hair in two braids. When it was loose from the braids it formed a huge, woolly, semicircle "halo" around my face like those portraits of medieval saints.
I wasn't a fan of the halo. In fact, I would spend hours in the mirror trying to figure out how to get "it" to lay down flat like my classmate, Eliza Mains's hair. Eliza had clear, green eyes and a chin-length, poker-straight, blond, blunt-cut that she was fond of tucking behind her ears. I was fascinated by how every single strand of her golden hair moved independently from the other. A flick of her hand would send all of that "blond-ness" cascading from one side of her head to the other like a waterfall. I would practice flicking my braids from one side to the other (sometimes whacking myself in the face in the process). But my braids were too thick to tuck behind my ears, and I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried, make them cascade like a waterfall.
So I switched tactics. I began to search everywhere for people to admire who had hair like mine. I wanted to see singers, models and actresses - FAMOUS people, who had the "woolly halo" too. The message I got from TV was that I was nice-looking enough to be acceptable, but my hair...
My hair was another matter entirely. My hair wasn't silky or long. You could NOT run your fingers through it — my hair didn't SWING. In fact, whether I "fluffed" my hair to make it bigger or patted it down to make it smaller, it pretty much stayed put all day (picture cotton candy).
* * *
It was a 20-minute bus ride down Shattuck Avenue to the Ashby BART station. Thirty minutes later, clutching my shoulder bag with both hands, I stepped off the train in Oakland. As I bounced down the stairs to the "Mac Arthur Blvd" exit, I stopped on a landing to make sure I still had everything; my house key, my dog-eared copy of "The Good Earth" and the crisp, new $50.00 bill that my mother had given me for this occasion. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that all three were safe in the zippered, side compartment.
The sign for the "SaHAIRa" salon was so small that I missed it twice as I walked up and down the block.
2922, 2928...? Where's 2926?
When I finally found it, It was 5-minutes past my appointment time. I rushed in breathlessly and interrupted the small, blond woman at the receptionist desk.
"I'm here for a relaxer!"
Immediately I was engulfed by the sharp, acrid smell of ammonia. It felt like my sinuses were being singed.
What is that smell?!?
I looked around and saw that the woman at the station next to me was getting white goo painted on to the roots of her hair.
I gasped audibly and covered my nose with my hand.
The receptionist eyed me suspiciously and held up a finger while she finished her call.
"You have an appointment?" She said finally.
"Um, yeah. Dana Alexander made an appointment for me?"
I said it like a question. I was nervous. Dana had told me the relaxer might hurt a little at first, but it would make my hair lay down straight. The week before while we were "hanging out" at my house, she told me that when I walked out of SaHAIRa, my hair would swing "like a White girls".
"You know how they turn their heads and their hair comes swinging over the sides of their faces?" She said. She parted her lips sexily and turned her head from left to right in slow motion.
I nodded, fascinated. We had been dancing around my bedroom with t-shirts on our heads mimicking Lindsay Wagner, The Bionic Woman.
"That's how your hair will be when you walk out! Girl! You'll be swingin'!!"
She walked dramatically over to the window, my Florida oranges t-shirt hanging from the back of her head, swinging from side to side between her shoulder blades.
"I can't wait!" I realized that I had been holding my breath.
It's too good to be true! I can finally have the hair that I've always wanted?! Why doesn't everyone get relaxers?
"But..." I ventured.
"But what?" She took her t-shirt off and ruffled her hair with her free hand. She looked irritated that there was a "but."
"But Dana, how come your hair doesn't do that?"
She is irritated!
Dana was short and curvy and her nut-brown eyes were the exact same color as her skin. She was infamous in the ninth grade for her quick temper. I, on the other hand, was not infamous (or famous) for anything. In fact, most people didn't know my name at all. I was pretty much only known as "the skinny girl with the afro."
("Who are you talking about? Laura? Who's that?!? Oh, you mean that skinny girl with the afro??")
"You know -- swing?" I looked at her pleadingly. My voice was barely audible.
She looked angry for a moment, then her face softened. She turned to face my mirror and patted her short, brown, stiff, helmet-like hair back into a mushroom shape.
"Aw girl, it only gets like this when I wait too long to get a touch up. It will be swingin' again as soon as I get my allowance next week!"
"Miss? Is it under Laura Cathcart?"
I snapped back to reality and found my smile.
"Follow me please," she smiled at me and walked me to a small closet in the back of the salon. She took my standard blue, North Face down jacket and hung it on a hook and handed me a slick, black cape to fasten around my shoulders.
"Virgin perm," she said with a knowing look to the young Black woman who'd come over to us.
The woman smiled and looked me up and down. She had startling blue contacts which gave her eyes a "science fiction-ey" glow. Her hair was up in a sculpted, finger-waved bun. She smelled like the cosmetics counter at JC Penney.
"What's your name, Sugar?"
"Laura," I said. I was trying not to stare at her eyes, so I fixed my gaze on the bun on top of her head. The bun was silky and dark black like Indian or Asian hair. The rest of her coarse, stiff, finger-waved hair was a reddish brown.
"All right, Miss Laura," she sing-songed, tilting her gaze to capture my eyes with hers.
"Have a seat," she guided to me to her station.
The thick, white paste she painted on to my roots with a brush seared my scalp like wildfire.
I yelped and turned around, looking for a blow torch or some other fire-producing device.
Oh HELL NO! This sh*# HURTS!
She held my shoulder firmly with her left hand while she continued to paint with her right.
"Shhhh, shhh. It just hurts for a minute, 'cause your head isn't to it. Jus' let me finish. I'll be real quick, I promise."
My silky, swingy, hair hit my shoulders and bounced as I walked to the bus stop the next morning. But I winced in pain as the breeze hit the oozy, green mess that was my scalp. I had never before felt the wind on my scalp (it had always been protected by my halo). I didn't like it at all. It felt like something was missing.
Two weeks later, when the pus finally formed into a solid scab (which pulled my scalp tight like a skull cap) my hair stopped swinging and formed into a dry, brittle, mushroom-shaped helmet like Dana's.
Three week's later, chunks of my crisped, tortured scalp fell like ash onto the shoulders of whatever sweater or t-shirt I was wearing. Crazily enough, I went back to SaHairA two more times for "touch-ups" before talking my friend Emily into giving me a home Jeri Curl ON TOP of my relaxer (the smell it left in her downstairs bathroom got her into so much trouble that I was afraid to go back to her house for months). Finally, I cut off my hair and started from scratch. By the time I was in my 20's, I was no longer chasing that straight, swingy, White girl hair -- I had my sights set on something more realistic. I had decided that I couldn't want White girl hair, it wasn't becoming of a strong, Black woman like me.
Instead, I determined that I needed (and frankly, deserved) silky, curly "mixed girl" hair. I turned my covetous eye away from TV stars like, Farrah Fawcett and Lisa Whechel and toward bi-racial actresses like, Jennifer Beals, Halle Berry and Troy Beyer. I spent hours tried to "will" my hair in to looking like Alex Owen's perfect curls in Flashdance. After each failed attempt, I became more and more discouraged. One hairdresser tried a "texturizer," another a Keratin treatment. As each one failed to yield the results I was hoping for, I tried really hard not to hate my stiff, dry, over-processed hair. The truth was, processed or not, I was bitter about the hair that grew out of my head. In my later 20's and early 30's, I wore it up all the time because it was tolerable that way, and I could disguise it to look more like that hair I wished I were born with.
Who knew the Brazilian Blow-out was the very thing I'd been waiting for? The moment I stepped out of Maria's salon-chair (after she'd preformed her Brazilian "magic" on my hair), I knew that I had found my answer. It was like the sun suddenly burst through the clouds and shone brightly on my head for the first time ever. Never mind that I was already 46-years old. It could never be too late to have the perfect hair. I was dazzled by this new hair of mine. With the Brazilian, my hair SWUNG back and forth when I walked! The Brazilian Blowout gave my hair weight. It fell over my shoulders and fanned out across my back.
My hair had never been past my shoulders before, y'all!
Now, suddenly it grew like a weed, long and healthy down past my bra strap. Friends that hadn't seen me in while would eye me suspiciously before asking,
"Is that ALL yours?"
Each time, I could hardly contain my giddiness, "YES!"
I could blow dry it myself and get it silky straight. I could use a curling iron and my curls looked loose and natural. It was finally the hair I DESERVED. I no longer hated the hair that grew out of my head. I got it trimmed every 5-weeks to keep its shape and it kept growing back healthier and stronger. I LOVED my hair. I knew that I had earned this hair. I had waited all of my life for this hair.
Scottie, who loved me BB (before Brazilian) loved my new and improved hair. He would run his fingers through it and it would cascade back in to place. I loved my hair after a work out. I loved my hair in a high, swingy pony when I played tennis! I loved my hair on vacation! It would get a slight "tropical" wave, but still stayed long and silky. I couldn't WAIT to get to my roots done every three months. Each time was like magic, I came out with longer, stronger hair. I loved my hairdresser. I LOVED my Brazilian Blow out.
Three years ago, I was packing boxes in my closet after the kids had gone to sleep (to move into our current home) when I saw the bald spot. I was kneeling down between two mirrored walls, putting some shoes in a box, when I glimpsed something skin-colored on the back of my head.
What the F#@# is that....???
I ran into the bathroom and got a hand mirror and held it up. I bit my lip to keep from crying out when I saw it up close. There it was, this exposed, quarter-sized spot of pale scalp on my left side. I hurriedly covered it with my hair, but it wouldn't spread evenly.
My hair is thinner and grassier in this spot! How did I not notice this before?!
I went carefully through the rest of my hair and found two more smaller bald patches and discovered that all the hair on top of my head was thinner than the hair on the sides and in the back. I sank to the floor of the bathroom and held my head in my hands. I allowed the tears to fall directly on to my bare feet, which were curled beneath me. I wanted to hide my thinning hair. I went back in to my closet and found the box with my hats and pulled out a baseball cap and jammed it on over my ears. I felt slightly better just knowing that the ugliness was covered up.
"We'll just do a scalp biopsy okay? I'm sure it's just the stress of moving."
Dr. Pearl moved like a geisha around the exam room on her tiny, graceful feet. I thought I felt faint, so I focused my eyes on the ever-present strand of pearls that she wore around her neck.
"Yes, just to check for things like female pattern baldness, alopecia, etc," her voice drifted off.
"But like I said, it's probably just stress. All the same, better hold off on that Brazilian Blow-out for the time being."
I felt as though my heart stopped beating in my chest. I pulled air in through my nose with terrific effort.
"But if it's stress, what does the Brazilian have to do with it?"
"Maybe nothing," she said matter of factly. "But just in case it does, like I said. Better not do it anymore."
Whoa! Not do it anymore or hold off for the time being??
"For now," I corrected her. "Right?"
She tilted her head to the side as she looked at me. "I'm suggesting no more — ever. It can't be good for your hair. Why take a chance?"
I left her office with a promise of lab results in two weeks and heart heavy with grief.
My Brazilian! I have to say goodbye to my Brazilian?!?
The two weeks seemed to take two months to go by. I knew it was bad news when she refused to give me the results over the phone when I called her. Dr. Pearl sat me down in her office when I arrived and looked at my chart silently before speaking.
"Do your parents have thinning hair? Any baldness?"
I felt the floor rushing up toward me. I closed my eyes for a second to steady myself before looking at her.
Oh my God. I'm going bald...
"What does it say, Dr. Pearl?"
"I'm very surprised," she said. "I really thought it was stress. But apparently your hair is thinning in a pattern."
My eyes filled with hot, instant tears. I pictured myself with a two-inch wide center part and wispy, thin hair like all of the women that I'd seen on the Internet (of course, I had been Googling "female thinning hair" obsessively since I first found the bald spot).
"What does that mean? What do I do?"
"We have lots of things we can do," she said in a comforting voice as she walked over to me. She put her hand on my shoulder and placed her index finger under my chin. "Hey," she said. "Don't worry, we'll get your hair back."
"But no Brazilian?" I said timidly.
"No Brazilian!" her voice scaled up. "I'm putting you on a strict regimen and treatment plan."
My natural hair felt like it was struggling to break free of my scalp, like it was pushing the Brazilian off of my head. Day after I day, I took my supplements and month after month, each time I saw Maria, she cut off more and more of the Brazilian. When I regarded my woolly, tightly curled roots, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of defeat.
Okay halo hair. I guess you win...
But Dr. Pearl was right, I did everything she said to do and my hair started to fill in again. After a few months, the bald spots were harder and harder to see. But that wasn't all. Soon, another amazing thing started happening. I started to get mad compliments. Suddenly it seemed as though everywhere I went, people were excited to talk to me about my hair.
"I really LOVE your hair like this!"
I regarded each of these compliments with suspicion. It seemed to me that people felt sorry for me and thought they SHOULD say something about my hair, so they feigned enthusiasm for my natural hair to make me feel better.
One day a friend of mine sat me down and looked me in the eye and said,
"I just have to tell you, this is SO much better than your straight hair. Really. It looks healthy and youthful. This is the right shape for your face. I really love it, Laura. I'm really, really glad you stopped the Brazilian."
After that sincere compliment, suddenly I could hear all of the other compliments differently. I would spend hours in front of the mirror trying to convince myself that it was true.
This is your best hair ever.
Scottie loves my hair. But he doesn't "diss" the Brazilian ("I really like your hair both ways").
Scottie loves to bury his face in my curls. He strokes my "halo" away from my face when I'm laying on his chest while we're watching TV. It's an automatic, loving gesture. He loves the spring of my hair. He loves the way my hair looks on vacation, full, vibrant curls. He loves the way I can wear it to the side or have full bangs.
"Your hair looks great, Hon."
I created a hair vision board with women who had hair like mine; curly, natural halos.
Everything helps. Every compliment helps. Every "good" hair day helps. But the truth is that regardless of what I wanted or thought I deserved, this is my hair. And I really am so grateful that Dr. Pearl was able to retard the thinning and allow this thick, woolly-ness to grow out of my head again. And I think I've finally accepted the fact that the hair I was born with is a gift.
Only lately, have I been able to look at myself in the mirror and think, "All right now, girl. Your hair is looking good."