by Erickka Sy Savane
"N. A. P. P. Y.” said my grandmother to her friend, as she struggled to get a comb through my hair. The woman, who like my grandmother was so light that she could almost pass for white, chuckled and nodded in agreement. Sensing that something was fishy, six-year-old me spelled the letters back. N. A. P. P. Y. Wait a minute! She just called my hair nappy! And that is how I discovered I had BAD HAIR.
I couldn’t wait to tell my mother who tried her best to assure me that my hair wasn’t that bad, and not to worry because in a couple of years we would relax it. I waited on that relaxer like kids wait for Christmas. When the day finally came at ten years old life changed overnight. Free of naps, I felt beautiful, alive, ready for the world! However, a few weeks later I realized that one relaxer did not a whole life make. I would have to get it done again, and again, and again. Whenever my new growth would come in. New growth being a fancy way of saying, my nappy ass edges! Man how I HATED those edges. The first time I knew they were different was when I was hanging with my cousins who had beautiful edges or ‘baby hair’ as it was called. When they told me all they used was Crisco grease to get them to look so pretty I ran home like my ass was on fire! But man, I must have used half a can of grease with no result. It wasn’t until later that I found out that they had good hair, of course. Their dad had Indian in him and, well, you know the rest…
By high school I started doing my own relaxers and decided it was time to finally deal with those edges. If I could just get them to chill… So I relaxed them three times in one week. Now once every 5-6 weeks was the rule, so this was akin to MURDER, which is exactly what happened. Instead of beautifully straight edges they became overprocessed and I was left with a patch of burned up weeds. Damn. So I took a razor and shaved them to the middle of my head and everything was fine. Until a few days later when that nappy hair started growing back and I was faced with another problem: INGROWN HAIRS! Ahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!! I had no choice but to keep shaving them,
and walked around for months like an old man with a bumpy receding hairline.
Finally, the most popular girl at school sat me down for a heart-to-heart. “Hey, can I talk to you for a
The liberation I felt was immediate! With my edges locked up I felt free. I was unstoppable. Sure enough, I booked three national commercials that year, including one for Pantene and GAP, where I got to shake my hair like the good haired girls! But as great as it was, after some years I longed to comb my hair again, to brush it, to feel it. It was time to unlock, but damn, those edges. Having tasted
freedom, there was no way I was going back to a relaxer. Soooo I cut my locks and went au naturel, a look that would allow me to make the edges irrelevant and still work in the commercial TV realm. Or so I thought. What I hadn’t anticipated was the change of tide and the emergence of the super good haired girl. I’m talkingprofessional good hair, not your high school prom queen. These girls didn’t model because they were beautiful and happened to have good hair, they modelled because they had good hair. Walk into an audition room and good hair was coming out of the walls! It had me up late nights twisting, gelling, conditioning, doing whatever I could to if not beat it, at least imitate it. But no matter how hard I tried, I’d go to a casting and see all that curly, wavy, bouncy, luxurious, silky, long, larger-than-life hair. And my heart would sink. I felt like an imposter trying to sneak in somewhere that I didn’t belong. I was drowning. Work declined and so did my bank account. Now now, we had a problem. But like an addict, I knew I couldn’t handle it on my own, bad hair was controlling my life. So I did something that I should have done a long time ago, called for help.
Sidra was first because, well, she’s bald, so there had to be a story. Did she shave her head to escape bad hair? She explained that she cut her hair because she’d been wearing hair extensions of every kind for so long that she no longer knew who she was. Shaving her head was a way to reintroduce herself to herself. That was twelve years ago and she couldn’t be happier. When it comes to bad hair she says that she never bought into it because she believes there’s nothing stronger and sexier than a black woman with nappy hair. Hmm. If naps are so sexy, why didn’t she keep them? Next I called Debi, a relaxer girl. Was she running from bad hair? Debi said that her hair’s not relaxed and she gets it straightened at the salon every few weeks because it’s easier than wearing it natural. When it comes to good and bad hair she says she never entertained the conversation because in her mind black hair is black hair. A black girl who didn’t grow up obsessing over hair texture? Humph. It was time to speak to Ta-ning, a bestie I’ve known for six years and never seen without a wig. She HAD to be hiding bad hair. Ta-ning shared that growing up her mom wore a different wig everyday so she sees wigs as accessories. In fact, she and her mom have zillions. And, yes, she does have nappy hair, but she’s never been ashamed of it because with light skin and green eyes she could always count on her nappy hair to let people know that she’s black. Nappy and happy?! Was it possible? But I was inclined to believe her because her mom looks white and has really good hair, so she never had a reason to hide it under a wig. Maybe they really do love wigs!
I honestly don’t know what I was looking for next, but I knew I had to talk to a good haired girl because so far nothing was as it seemed. I got in touch with Blakelee, a light-skinned Southern belle who I was convinced grew up privileged. Funny enough, Blakelee said that the only time her hair texture was discussed was when she went to black salons and hairdressers would make comments. In her family, everyone had curly hair so it wasn’t a big deal. But she had to know that people viewed her differently? At school, kids would sometimes tease her about being half-white (which she’s not) but that was about it. Today, she’s trying not to continue straightening her hair because she wants to bring back her natural curl. The bone-straight look, she feels, doesn’t capture her feisty personality. So the good haired girl is trying to bring back some kink because she wants some edge?! This was CRAZY. My whole life had revolved around the belief that my nappy hair somehow made me inferior. It was something not only enforced by my grandmother, but countless people that I’d met along the way who seemed to share a disdain for nappy hair. One friend even told me to pick the right mate so that my kids wouldn’t have “carpet-textured hair…” This inferiority complex is something that I had accepted as my lot in life so to hear that it could have been different- that like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, good hair was mine all along- left me feeling sad, really sad. Man, what I could have done with my life. Like Brando, “I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody.” But the fight was not over. And I could see clearly what I needed to do. The multigenerational inheritance of the Good and Bad Hair obsession would stop with me. Period.
By Erickka Sy Savané