My natural hair is nothing new to me, so when a woman at work asked me how long I’ve been wearing my hair like this, I thought she meant my ponytail. “I just did this today,” I responded as I rang up her iced latte. As if this style could ever last more than one day on me. Each morning that I wear my hair into a slicked back ponytail involves a spray bottle, a brush, a toothbrush for my baby hairs, four different products, and a scarf. It is never a last-minute decision.
“No, no,” she attempted to clarify. “I meant the curls. They’re so pretty.” Her eyes glazed over the way that most white women’s eyes do when their mouths are moving but their minds are navigating the fastest way to get their fingers in my hair. Luckily, the counter separated us. The customer behind her in line began to clear their throat. She gathered her things, not before recommending a product that worked great for girls with “hair like ours.” A single, dark blonde 2C curl, which must have found its way from her messy ponytail, rested on her sunglasses.
I loved having long, straightened hair when I was growing up, but I had to eventually face the fact that most of it was damaged. Like, so damaged that I couldn’t even tell what my curl type was. I fooled myself into thinking I just had loose, 3A curls. (I didn’t.) When I moved to Los Angeles for university at 18, my first act of adulthood was chopping off all of my heat damage at the now-closed Devachan Salon location in Culver City. That cut, and the three years that have passed since then, have completely changed my relationship with my hair- but mostly the past years have shown me the three comments I hate hearing about my hair.
“Your hair is so pretty in (insert style here) but I love when you wear it big.”
Honorable mention goes to “You should try (insert product here)!”
Any compliment that ends in “but” is one that I am hesitant to express gratitude for, because I’m never sure if it’s actually a compliment. I don’t mind sharing style suggestions with friends, but I am usually over it when a stranger suggests one style over another, as if they know my life, my hair, or my bank account.
*anytime I slightly change my hair* “I barely even recognized you!” or “You look just like (Black girl who has a similar hairstyle)!”
There’s no better way to make me feel forgettable than this one. It pretty much says that you only ever recognize my hair, not me as a person. Is that why people can never tell Black girls apart?
“But why can’t I touch your hair?”
Anytime I hear this, it’s from a person who is disappointed that they are not allowed to invade my personal space and pet my hair like it's a dog’s fur. Once in Alabama, an old white woman dug her fingers in my scalp as we waited for the lone elevator in the hotel. Another time in London, a white twenty-something man (who was already beginning to lose his hair) followed me from one pub to another because he was angry that I wouldn’t allow him to touch my hair.
There is something about natural hair -- the unfamiliarity of it, maybe? -- that, in one way or another, causes people to view Black girls as undeserving of personal space or safety. Somehow, I become your professor and classroom all in one, tasked with the burden of teaching you all that goes into maintaining hair like mine, purely to satisfy your curiosity as your mind wonders whether or not my hair is real in the first place. I’m sure the woman at the counter didn’t mean much by her small talk about my hair, but our short-lived conversation reminded me so much of the things I’m tired of hearing, namely other people’s opinions or suggestions on what to do with what grows out of my head.