hen I was young, my mom would sit me down before school and rake my bushy hair into a ponytail. At least, that’s the way it felt.
I know now that she was a young mother and had absolutely no idea what to do with my hair. A biracial Mexican-white woman, my mom has long, flowing, naturally highlighted hair. Oil would have left her hair stringy and greasy, and she feared the same was true for my sister and me, who have an African father. That fear translated into many elementary school years with frizzy, matted hair for the two of us. We’d almost never wear our hair down because it’d make us stick out more than we already did.
I remember once riding in the back of a family friend’s car, my hair down for once, when the driver jokingly yelled out, “Her hair is so big I can’t see out of the rearview mirror.” I didn’t find it funny.
God bless my mom. She did try. In one ill-fated experiment, she even attempted to “bead my hair.” When I was 12, I had my hair straightened for the first time but couldn’t figure out how to make it “lay down” like mom’s. Later, I relaxed my hair and burnt it out.
All this, despite the fact that I have “good hair.” Let’s talk for a moment about that “good hair/bad hair” dividing line.
“Those terms are played out, and I don’t understand why we’re still using them,” Shaienne Knox tells me.
In 2016, 17-year-old Shaienne, a Mesa Ridge High junior, released her documentary short, Out of Our Heads
, produced through the Youth Documentary Academy. The film went on to win the Pikes Peak Arts Council’s 2016 award for Excellent Experimental or Documentary Film and their Young Filmmaker Award.
The film addresses the fact that, for black women, being “beautiful” often means having “white hair.” Shaienne’s film explores the ways that black hair was perceived after slavery, when black women were grappling with their newfound identities and mainstream society’s images of beauty. It looks at the lengths to which black women have gone to meet that standard — and in doing so, cross over to a higher status.
Which brings me to my own daughter, born when I was 26. Very fair-skinned, she has platinum blonde, curly hair. That’s caused confusion. When she was 18 months old, a woman commented to me how beautiful her hair was, and reached out to investigate before asking if I had dyed or permed it.
“Umm, yeah ... no.”
Another time, while shopping, an older woman approached us, intrigued by our difference in coloration. She asked me if I had adopted her.
Melissa Chapman, a biracial Mexican-American, has been working on curly heads for more than 20 years. She’s the owner of Melissa’s Hair Therapy on South Circle Drive and the winner of the Colorado Springs Business Journal
's 2016 Southeast Business Plan competition.
“The most challenging thing when working with hair is the mindset of the person,” she says. Though she may have a broad perspective on hair styling — relax, style, color, perm — Chapman says she has to get to know the personality of the person she is working with in order to build trust.
A lot of curly-haired women she’s worked with have hair-related trauma, she says, because those who styled their hair in the past didn’t know what they were doing. Chapman is forever on the hunt for moisture-technique combinations that will work for her clients. Nicole Davis, an African-American stylist at Melissa’s, adds, “It’s all about trust,” as the hair technician often finds herself in the role of counselor.
In other words, hair is a big deal. The Los Angeles Times
reported last year that in 2016 black consumers spent an estimated $2.56 billion on hair products.
As a kid I hated
my hair. No matter how many people said it was beautiful or commented, “Girl, you have good hair,” I always wished for hair like my mother’s. In a surprise for me, my own daughter, with her blonde curls, felt the same way as she grew older. She wanted black hair like mine.
Maybe it’s time to say enough is enough with the hair-shaming and look to those like Shaienne, who are redefining beauty. She says while white women’s images of beauty have long dominated the mainstream, that has begun to change and it’s time to embrace a new day by redefining “good hair.”
Good hair, she says, is “hair that you love.”