Is black hair ever really “just hair”?
Black hair is tangled in broader conversations about beauty, dominant beauty ideals, womanhood, culture, identity, liberation (or lack thereof), self-awareness, class. Each hairstyle comes with an assumed political connotation to match. Intentionality is assigned whether we assigned the intentions or not; our hair reflects society’s projections.
Here’s what that feels like: Straighten your hair for longer than it takes for mid-summer humidity to revert it, and you’re manacled in the depths of self-hate and mental fragility. Champion your natural texture, whatever that may be, over pin-straight locks, and that’s symbolic of throwing off the shackles of oppression — your flat iron/chemical relaxer/fear of bodies of water playing the main antagonists. Decide to do whatever it is you want with it? That intrepid defiance is even more political than the aforementioned.
But black hair does not exist in the binary of straight to coiled/kinky/curled. Black women have long chronicled the diversity and richness of culture around their hair. Some women choose to straighten it, some wear it in their natural texture, others opt for protective styles that range from braids to weaves, cornrows to hair threading. Anyone who knows a black woman with a penchant for frequent change knows that the secret is in her hairstyle.
About three months ago, I traded in the convenience of successional weaves and straightening for the high maintenance of my natural curls. No matter what, people will see this as a political act, and that’s fine. Like so many other women of color, my decision to embrace my natural hair was driven by a number of factors. Yet what it boiled down to is the fact that, while yes, weaves and straightening were generally convenient for my busy lifestyle, there is absolutely nothing wrong with my natural hair, and there is nothing inconvenient about taking care of it.
And so, armed with a mirror, a wide-toothed comb, the guidance of a slew of natural hair experts and a bottle of As I Am Coconut CoWash, I went forth.
How often do you wash your hair and when?
I only washed my hair once a week when it was straight. Black hair is delicate, but it also gets dry. Now that I’m wearing it curly, I’ve been co-washing it (washing it with conditioner, or no-lather shampoo) every two to three days. Everything is different in terms of how I care for it, and I’ve realized through this journey that it takes a village. I’ve experimented with curly hair salons, I’ve crowd-sourced tips and tricks not just from my curly-haired friends, but from the internet. That’s what’s fun about it: It’s like getting to know another extension of myself. I’m also learning that no two hair days are the same. It has a mind of its own and it depends on so many variables. I can only embrace it.
What’s your hair approach in the shower? What products do you use?
I just found a no-fog, suction-cup mirror on Amazon for my shower because I was creating a river in my bathroom every time I tried to do my hair. I kept sticking my head out to look at my medicine cabinet mirror so I could see what I was doing. I know it sounds crazy.
Yessenia Reyes, my stylist at Foster Glorioso Salon, said curly hair should be completely saturated when putting product in. I get it soaking wet, then shampoo with a product that doesn’t lather. I really like As I Am Coconut Cowash. I follow that with conditioner; I’m obsessed with SheaMoisture’s Superfruit Complex 10-in-1 Renewal System. I can visibly see the difference in my hair when I use it. You can’t overdo moisture with black hair. One day I left it in for 10 minutes. Another time, I left it in for multiple loads of laundry.
I’ve also been playing around with Mielle White Peony Leave-In Conditioner, a product that my friend Nicole Chapoteau (who has been wearing her hair curly for decades) swears by. Then, I add a bit of Kinky-Curly Knot Today leave-in conditioner.
I do all of this while adding more water simultaneously to create what Yessenia and a million black hair blogs call “creating slip” — making sure my hair is saturated and smooth.
Finally, it’s styling time. Right now I’m using Eco Styling Gel. Almost every Bermudian I know uses this, and I was surprised when Yessenia recommended it to me as well. I work that through my hair from root to tip, making sure each strand is coated, still adding water, stretching and smoothing my hair as I go. Apparently that helps to elongate the curls and fight frizz. After that, I flip my head over and style it toward my face, then I slowly come up and try to hide the heat-processed or straightened pieces under the curls. Finally, I add in Ouidad Wave Create Texture Taffy. It helps revitalize the curls. Some people might do a twist-out in the front or wrap their hairs around sponge-y straws, but I’m lazy. I use my fingers and the taffy.
A stylist recently said that this process of learning what works for my hair is like chemistry. I’m going to have to mix up a lot of hair cocktails to figure out the one that works best.
What’s your daily routine and how long does it take? Do you do something different for special occasions?
The process I described above, “wash and go,” actually takes me some time — I want to say about 30-45 minutes, and then I have to wait for it to dry or sit under a hooded dryer. If I want to be super cute I will diffuse it a bit, which adds another 15-20 minutes. I thought this process would be quick and easy, but it takes at least an hour from start to finish.
If I’m trying to do something quick and easy, I’ll put my hair in a slick bun, which still takes me longer than when my hair is straight. I use the same “wash and go” system, but instead of working gel all through my curls, I target the front and the hair left out of the pony tail. I’ve spent more money on bobby pins in the past few months than I have in my entire life.
I love dramatic hair, so sometimes I’ll add clip-in extensions in a natural texture from Indique Hair in Soho. When I walked into their shop I was so confused about which texture and type of hair to choose, but they were really helpful and gave me tons of tips and tricks. I got their “Organic Curly.” My friend Tiffany Reid, who always changes her hair and is good at it, helped me make the hair into clips. In addition to adding drama, they help disguise the straightened bits in the front and add some length.
Lacy Redway, a legendary hairstylist, also pointed me into the direction of Boho Exotic Studio. They can customize extensions for each person, which is pretty major. Lacy made me a set of clip-ins that were incredible, and now I’m experimenting with a coarser texture close to my own hair from Boho. I can’t wait to experiment.
How often do you get it cut?
I’m not overly emotional about the length of my hair. I’ve always been more interested in its health. I get my hair cut whenever I clearly need to, or when a stylist says my ends don’t look good. That’s another thing that’s different with curly hair: The shape of your cut matters so much more than it does when it’s straight. When I decided to wear my hair curly, I had to do something similar to “The Big Chop,” which was my first actual cut in a while, versus trims here and there. Yessenia had to cut it into a shape, but we both think it’s already grown out a bit.
Do you dye, highlight, treat it?
No dye, no highlights.
Have you gone through a bunch of hair phases or had the same hair your whole life?
I wouldn’t call them phases but I have had a couple hair changes. I had bangs when I worked at W Magazine. I can’t believe anyone let me do that. I went through a period where I really liked my hair in corn rows, too. It reminded me of growing up in Bermuda, where we got our hair braided once a week in the summer. I still love to wear my hair like this. I had pageant hair for a little while: blown-straight and then curled. It was very much a look. Other than that, the majority of the time, my hair was always straight.
When do you hate your hair?
I hate when it’s damaged.
When do you love it?
I love my hair the most when I’m swimming and it has a little bit of salt water and it’s doing whatever the hell it wants, wild and free in all its glory.
What’s the most tragic hair-related decision you’ve ever made?
When I was in high school I had — obviously — a Lil’ Kim obsession. I would often wear a lime green wig to school and functions. One year, I went a step further. I asked my mom if I could dye my hair blonde and get highlights like Lil’ Kim. She distinctly told me not to, but I did it anyways. It was a disaster. I left the salon devastated. I hated it so much, but more than anything, I hated that she was right. I had to tell her what happened and she took me to get it fixed.
Who first taught you how to do your hair?
Have you ever cried over it?
Have you ever stopped a stranger with great hair and asked them what they did to it?
I stop a lot of girls with curly hair and ask them what they use. I keep a running list. On set the other day, a stylist recommended Aunt Jackie hair products and Creme of Nature Argan Oil Mousse. Just recently I stopped a girl who likes a brand called Blueberry Bliss. I’m constantly sourcing.
How has your hair texture changed as you’ve gotten older?
I have so many gray hairs that no one really knows about, and the gray hairs are so much coarser. But everyone in my family who has gone gray looks great, so I’m welcoming it.
What does your hair dresser tell you to do that you ignore?
My friend Yusef Williams used to do my hair, and he told me ages ago to stop straightening it. I wish I listened to him then. He was also the one who told me to stop CHEMICALLY straightening it, which I did, so I have to him to thank for the fact that most of my hair is curly and healthy.
What’s the most private thing you’ve ever told your hair dresser?
A woman and her hair dresser have a really unique relationship. A hair dresser has the power to ruin your life. So what I tell my hairdresser is not something I would tell the internet.