Maybe I am my hair,who knows

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  • If i had 50 cents for everytime my hair taught me some shockingly profound lesson I wouldn’t be rich by now, but would probably have enough money to take myself out to some place nice for a good dinner (true story). Over the years the journey that my hair has been on and thoughtfully taken me along with has been one worthy of writing home about. From its humble beginings (that i have only been told of by my mother) as long,silky, dark strands that came straight from the womb and demanded attention without asking for it,to its early nappy days of being held up in ‘puffs’ and being plaited by the hands of a woman who will foerever remain engrained in my mind as the torturer. I spent these earlier days of my childhood with the folks from down under (the Australians) to whom my kinky, afro hair was a spectacle and became quite accustomed to the frequent requests to feel my hair which would almost always herald the subsequent amazed replies like “it’s so soft” or “it feels so different”. Up until then i was unaware that there was anything different about my hair other than the fact that it wasn’t flowy enough for my liking. I spent alot of my play time fixated on putting something on my head (anything from mother’s pantihoes,to jerseys,to bath towels) to compensate for its apparent lack and would take great joy in being able to flick back my makeshift hair like most of my playmates. When i was 7 years old i had my hair relaxed for the first time ever. Hardly even aware of what “getting relaxed” even meant, all i knew was that by the time the whole thing would be over i would look exactly like the pretty black girl on the cover of the beautiful beginings, dark and lovely relaxer box.This was enough incentive to fuel my i’m going to have ‘relaxed’ hair excitment. For my seven year old mind and restless body the process of getting to the desirable end was far too long and involving (30 minutes in and i was ready to go play). The process however dragged out far beyond my tolerance level and it was then that i was first introduced to a painful, secret mantra that every woman knows : “you must suffer to be beautiful”. As if the drag of having someone do only heaven knows what on your head with cold,creamy white stuff that necessitated the use of gloves and you were forbidden to touch wasn’t enough, there was a period of just sitting around and waiting (sheer punishment for a child of that age) there was a grueling wash and repeated shampooing session that felt like it would never end.Finally, when all of what seemed like an eternity had ALMOST come to an end there came the crowing act of all torture, the most awful,dreaded and excruciating part of all the relaxing process….detangling. At this point i sat on the verge of inflicting grievous bodily harm on both myself and my ever so slow and thorough hairdresser who so happened to be my mother.
  • However, like with all heroic tales of overcoming insurmountable odds, the finished line was reached and the hero in the story (que me) came out of it alive with bragging rights. The bragging rights in this particular instance was my brand new, silky black hair that for the first time ever flowed in the wind like it did for my friends with the “other hair” as i would refer to it. I did look like the little girl on the relaxer box and that was the beginning of my ‘dark ages’, the incredibly long phase of identifying beauty with that of another person’s perception of it. Beauty at that early age was inherently associated with an ideal that was depicted to me and never generated from a personally constructed ideal of it. Sure enough mummy said i was beautiful (all the time) and i got a kick out of the frequent compliments from admiring friends and well meaning aunties but what truly made me feel like i had arrived and believe in my being beautiful was the inside affirmation that i looked like the girl on the relaxer box…pretty.
  • Fast forward the journey to the years past 2000. I had outgrown the days of mother being my hairdresser and grown to be able to trust other people’s hands with my head, though this was more an outcome of circumstance than anything else. I had fallen in love with braids and they soon became my signature look well into my years as a university student. I experimented with a couple of hairstyles, some that worked, some that i wish there was no visual evidence of (darn those photos). After years of relaxing, from the time of my first relaxer, and braiding and accumulated damage to my otherwise rich and strong inherited hair i came to the uneasy decision to cut it all off and start over. Of course this also came about as a spontaneous idea to make a lasting statement after a bad breakup and a series of new beginnings (ladies you know) but for whatever my reasons were i went through with it. That was the first time a scissors had touched my hair for anything more than trimming split ends and to my surprise, at the ‘ripe’ age of 24 i saw myself for who i was (physically that  is) and only then did i begin to construct a personalized definition of beauty. The experience was scary but hugely liberating.
  • The responses i received from my first big chop (as we naturals like to refer to it) ranged from the comical and ridiculous to the enlightening and uplifting and to the worst end of the spectrum,  the down right hurtful and mean. Some of my personally most memorable are the following: the grounds keeper who i’d pass every morning on my way to campus with whom i would have the most intellectual conversations who gasped in disbelief the first time he saw me with my cropped crowning glory and asked “what happened lolo? You cut all the beautiful off”. My mother whose first reaction to seeing me was to smile broadly and remark “my beautiful African child” and lastly my outspoken, opinionated neighbor Lerato who commented on the new look by saying “you know for us women hair can either make or break you, you’ve kind of done a bit of both Fenji”.
  • The years ensuing my decision to cut my hair were and remain some of the most interesting  years of my life. I watched my hair grow into an afro that resembled the one i had as a kid that en sighted the fascination of the Aussies and struggled my way through maintaining its beauty. I noticed that as much as i claimed to have fully embraced and loved my newly found natural beauty (and no doubt i genuinely did) I wouldn’t want to stick with it for long. By the time it was long enough to braid i began to braid my hair again and fell right back into the vicious cycle of changing hairdos, keeping up appearances and putting in alot of work all in the name of matching up to a perceived ideal of beauty. Even if i didn’t want to admit it to myself, i still hadn’t entirely let go of my childhood association with pretty and the girl on the relaxer box. Needless to say, all the confusion led to a lack of focus, and a lack of focus led to me falling off the wagon in a big way. My afro began to go through some, um, challenges and the suggestion to relax my hair again became one that i gradually grew to entertain. I’ll never forget how someone’s thoughtless comment in reference to my afro about how “it just doesn’t look right” resonated with me for the longest time and to my own embarrassment fueled my thinking towards starting over with the relaxing. Eventually i succumbed to the temptation and vividly recall the sinking feeling of regret seconds after i was done with the first wash. I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, not again :(.
  • Sure enough i didn’t look half bad but what upset me was the fact that i knew that yet again i was subscribing to someone else’s ideal of beauty and not my own. I had lost sight of my own which i honestly once possessed but i guess simply didn’t guard well enough. I have since grown out my relaxed hair a bit and subsequently cut it all off again ( i missed my fro way too much), dyed my hair once, and have painstakingly rebuilt my broken wall of self perceived beauty. I could go on forever (really, i could) but let’s wrap this thing up shall we. Here are the lessons i’ve picked up from my bumpy, tossy, turney, back and forth ride with my hair. I think these are widely relevant so to the brothers, read on just a little bit longer before you deem this one a waste of a read:
  • 1. Patience is key. Just as the hair you want is not going to miraculously become that overnight and you will always have to wait it out a bit, nothing worth having comes easy (except maybe winning the lotto). Wait, work consistently and eventually you’ll reap.
  • 2. Change is inevitable, get used to it. I have thankfully stopped beating myself up about all the changes i have let my hair go through and don’t think it’s because i’m indecisive but rather because change is as much a part of the human experience as breathing. When you possess a healthy outlook on change and what it is meant to do, you do yourself a world of good.
  • 3.Let go! I realized that one of the reasons why it was so hard to come to the decision to cut my hair the first time was because there was so much of myself that i associated with my long hair that i simply wasn’t ready to let go of. When i finally convinced myself that nothing material lasts forever and i need to learn to be just as ready to let go of as i am to receive i was able to focus my attention on the things that really, truly matter like my self image perception and the freedom that that would eventually bring me. “Life and death are temporary, freedom is forever”.
  • 4. Let things be. I’ve learnt that sometimes my hair will actually dictate what i need to do to it like cut it or braid it, or even relax it and as a result I’ve had to loosen my grip on “owning” it. It has taught me that ownership doesn’t always translate to control. This is particularly relevant to the ownership of things that have the capacity to think for themselves. Of course my hair isn’t human, though i sometimes feel as though it has a mind of its own, but i’m talking about stuff like parents with their children, people with businesses, friendships that you’re nurturing, pets that you’re keeping, relationships that you’re building, decisions that you’re making, the list is endless. Side note: i am aware that that list may not  really make coherent sense in the context of what i’m trying to put across, but stay with me. Ownership may be a strong word but i think what i’m  really referring to here is anything that you have a certain level of control over. You need to to learn to give those things the space to sprout out on their own at some all important point. Sure they are “yours” but you aren’t God. Leave a little room to honour the spontaneity of life, i guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised.
  • 5. Beauty is in the heart and mind of the beheld. The same applies with so many other things. Forget that whole in the eye of the beholder tip, the beholder is entitled to his/her own opinion. What matters fundamentally is what YOU think about it. For all sorts of other things you may value in life, the sooner you begin to establish your own,personal definitions and reasons for your perspective on them the better. That way, anyone else’s opinion of them will always be secondary. I have learnt that by completely stopping the whole trying to find a definition for life mission and instead creating a definition for myself life suddenly became so much more amazing. Try it, i promise it works. 🙂
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6 responses »

  1. This is indeed profound, thanks for sharing! The part that stood out for me was that “beauty lies in the eye of the beheld not the beholder..”. It just reminded me of one of the artists and poets India Arie on her song Video where she says “I’m not the average girl from the video, and I can’t be like a supermodel but I’ve learned to love myself UNCONDITIONALLY because I am a QUEEN..” She goes on to say that “a lady aint what she wears but what she knows”. Indeed our worth lies with us, not with any external factors! Thanks once more

    • Oh absolutely sir, you can’t imagine the extent of it. Fortunately enough, things get clearer with time and you reach a point where it doesn’t matter as much anymore. Takes a while, but it comes around

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