by Lily Jenkins
Runestone, volume 9
by Lily Jenkins
Runestone, volume 9
It doesn’t occur to me until I’m eight that I’m ugly.
October 2008. The texturizer chemical treatment my mother put in my hair at the start of last year “to save her some stress” has now worn off. Or really, it just grew out. Today, I’m wearing two puff balls and a patterned headband, the way Mom usually sends me to school.
But on the jungle gym, the boy across from me frowns before he leans down to whisper to two other kids, “The new girl so ugly. Look at her hair.”
In the third grade, I learn there is something wrong, unformed, childish, and sloppy about me. And it grows from my roots.
Around here, at this age, it is no longer acceptable for a girl to wear “puff balls”, the coily twin pig tails usually worn at the crown of the head. You must now “get your hair did” on the regular. My family moved to a small town in New Jersey in 2008 and it was like forcing the wrong piece into a puzzle. It’s funny that the place I now consider my hometown is where women loudly remarked in the Dollar General that my mom needed to “get them kids to the SALON” or where my older sister, Chloe, was mocked in the locker room for having “greasy, nappy” hair.
I wish I could say most of those comments were from non-black people. But they weren’t. In a town that was at least forty-percent black from my guess-timation, most of the negativity was from other black folks, especially the kids. The boy who called me ugly shared a similar texture to me. If any white kids didn’t like me and my siblings, they found other taunts. (Of course, my parents were branded as “niggers” and “monkeys” by white neighbors, but Mom and Dad were able to shield us children from the ugliest of it all.)
Even my grandmother, who wore her real, thin-as-paper, silvery, relaxed strands under dozens and dozens of wigs like Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek, always had something to say.
A visit would start out with: “Lily won’t stop talking back to me. Why even bring her?” (To which I would mutter that I hated her.)
She’d add a touch of: “Chloe sure is having trouble making friends. What’s wrong with her?:”
Then: “Ivy is so skinny! Almost too skinny.”
And maybe: “You know, I’ve never seen the girls wear skirts. Are you sure they aren’t…lesbians?”
And eventually: “Oh my! Another acne flare-up?”
Finally, she’d rake her eyes over our heads – our curly, poofy hair in puffs, in pigtails, in braids, sometimes moisturized and neat, occasionally frizzy from a lazy Saturday. And she’d turn to Mom with condescension blanketed in concern and go: “Will you ever get these kids’ hair done?”
Back in the eighties, Grandma, or Graham Cracker (on good days), often seemed to forget she had a daughter. Mom made her own toast at age three. She did her own laundry at age eight. And Mom looked after her own hair with the same struggling simplicity she looked after her daughters’.
Black girls are at the mercy of their mother’s skill for the first few years. Mine, with fragile waves to her shoulders, hair so breakable she couldn’t iron it – she had little to offer her children in terms of hair care besides moisturize, aggressively comb, hair-tie, headband, repeat. Occasionally she would get inspired and do a few bantu knots, but then she’d complain about her arthritis.
I didn’t have a close aunt or cousin who went to cosmetology school, either. Hell, we barely had family living nearby. So that wasn’t really an option.
By the time we’re in Paulsboro, Mom can barely afford her own wigs from the beauty supply. At some point we can’t even afford the basics – beds, hot water. It no longer was a question of why Mom wouldn’t spend money on hair care. We were using the cheap Pink hair lotion in those early years and it fucking sucked. That brand is so useless you’d be better off with nothing.
When I went to school, I saw girls with relaxed hair or with long box braids, some even with pink or blue extensions. They were mature and pretty and cool.
Me and my sisters were wild things.
In sixth grade, Shawn Pullman, who teased me for my unibrow but passed me a note that he liked me at recess, locks eyes with me during our history test.
“What?” I mouth, raising a caterpillar-eyebrow.
He turns to Briana, my sometime-friend, and says loud enough for me to hear, “Her hair looks like shit, doesn’t it?”
Briana giggles nervously and avoids my eyes.
I sigh, raising my hand to tell my teacher in private that for the third time, Shawn is making fun of the eight chunky braids Mom gave me. By age twelve, these incidents hurt in a very dull way.
At least elementary school graduation is in a month. It’s kind of a big deal here. Mom’s already discussed the possibility of getting my hair done in cornrows for the special occasion while she has the money. It’s been a decent year. My four sisters are all healthy, no one has needed a hospital trip, and the Paternal Unit has been getting steady hours at his truck driving job.
So the salon visit does indeed happen. The young woman who does my hair is named something like Amber or Ashley or maybe she just reminds me of my distant cousin Ashley up north, who also does hair and is very sweet.
She’s more careful with my scalp than my mother. When I flinch, she just mumbles, “Tenderheaded”, like a doctor performing a procedure and gently moves on. She gives me advice about going into junior high and listens to the speech I’ve been asked to give at the ceremony. She tells me about her baby cousins and her pet dog. She works so fast that I don’t have time to complain about my butt falling asleep. When she is done, I shyly thank her three times while staring at the magical transformation – she has made my hair, my frizzy, crazy hair into an elaborate cornrowed style with a twist at the crown.
At the ceremony, with my blue patterned dress on and borrowed pink lipstick, I feel like the “Nubian princess” my parents always call me, though I still am not sure exactly what that means.
Driving to school, Mom would crank up the alternative station Philly 104.5, and we would belt out “We Are Young” by the band fun. and Janelle Monae. The hit single became my anthem from 2011 onward, and I’d sing, “carry me home tonight”, long after Mom stopped driving me to school.
On my phone, during a dull winter break in the eighth grade, I find a picture of the fun. band members, and then one of Janelle Monae – red lipstick, menswear, and her natural hair coiled on top of her head. Instantly, I’m in love with her style, especially her pompadour. She doesn’t look like the women in my family or the girls around me.
There’s an article solely about her style, about her being a leader of the natural hair movement. A movement? Apparently, other black people like me were rebels for wearing their hair texture as is. Me and my family were revolutionaries for being ourselves? The idea is equal parts ridiculous and flattering.
That day, I felt for once like I wasn’t a freak. I was being myself and that took guts. Celebrities like Solange Knowles were showing off their afros and making what was called “awkward, wild, ugly, or unkept” the “new” beautiful.
I began to take matters into my own hands and out of my mother’s. I built a growing fascination with forums like BlackGirlLongHair and CurlyNikki. I bookmarked countless tutorials on the family computer. I tried and failed quickly at cornrowing my own hair. I did a wash-and-go, where you immediately scrunch product into your hair after washing and wear it as is, supposedly giving yourself peak curl definition – that also failed miserably. But I started braiding my own hair every night before bed and sleeping in a silk scarf. I drank water like it was my job to keep my locks hydrated. I quit using a comb out of fear of damaging my hair further and relied on “finger combing” out tangles.
Did you know that hair like mine is categorized as coily (if you want to get technical) and curly (if you’re liberal with the term)? I used to say kinky but, everyone’s minds go to handcuffs and spanking when you say that. Or at least it did in high school.
And coily hair (in most cases) grows “out” before it gets to a length where the weight of it is pulled down, so the natural oil at the roots doesn’t slide down the hair. I grew up hearing the straight-haired girls in my class complaining about needing to wash their hair almost every day, before it got too oily. The opposite problem happens to black hair. Without those natural oils, “afro hair” gets dried out quicker, so conditioning, along with using creams and lotions, keeps the hair healthy and strong. Therefore, often, a curly-haired person will need to wash their hair less than a straight-haired person.
(I tried to explain this phenomenon to an inquiring white boy in tenth grade, but he got confused and creepily joked, “What about your other hair?” so I had to curse him out.)
So next time, kids, just don’t stick your hand in your black friend’s hair. It’s “Ew, greasy” for a reason.
I started spending each Friday coating my hands in olive oil and massaging my scalp, dragging
my hands through my curls while laying upside-down with my head hanging off the couch to stimulate growth. I got good at braid-outs, applying just the right tension to unravel voluminous waves or faux-crimped hair the next day. Some days I picked out my hair like a 70’s girl. Other
days, I clipped my growing hair into a “fro-hawk” and pinned flowers along the sides.
When I started high school, my hair became a talking point, a centerpiece. It grew like wildfire and it was seemingly invincible. It was the most beautiful part of me and the first thing I would get compliments on. I loved this so much I would completely change my look every day. Sometimes this required staying up conditioning my hair or getting up early to braid an intricate pattern.
“You need to chill with that.” My mom would cluck her tongue as she watched this insanity.
But I needed this. Finally, I was not ugly or unkept. I was beautiful.
I didn’t really feel the whole “movement” shift until hundreds of girls and women in my tiny town started wearing their hair in the afro puffs and pig tails and out and free and curly/kinky/coily, the styles that were deemed weird in the 2000s. I felt like we were all finally on the same wavelength, high on the same drug of self-love.
In the bathroom between classes, I’d adjust my hair into what my family called my “messy-white-girl-bun”. One day, a couple upperclassmen glanced at me and said, “Is that your real hair?”
“Uh, yeah?” Didn’t it look like my real hair?
“Damn, it’s long enough to bun?”
My curls were shoulder-length when stretched, but in the black community, this is very much I prized thing for some people: when your hair, natural or relaxed, can maintain a certain length. To me, this was not a goal. It was just me. I told the girls I just took good care of it.
“Nah, you just have good hair.”
Good hair? God, I hate those words.
Who started this idea, where hair that is “manageable”, “loosely textured”, and/or “long”, is the good kind? At the root, it’s tied into conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards. Hair that is short (especially due to poor care), or too “nappy”, is considered unattractive.
I had my father’s tight coils, not my mother’s cloud-like waves. When I was a kid, I was called “nappy”. When I was a teenager, I was beautiful. Little had changed, except a variation in hairstyles and how I took care of it.
I didn’t like this otherness, or the acceptance that black hair could only look and feel healthy if you won the genetic lottery, while others were meant to struggle with breakage, growth, and dryness. I didn’t like that my hair was now pretty for its length. But somehow, I went from the girl with “big hair” to the girl with “good hair”, and I felt some inexplicable bitterness over what was meant to be a compliment.
For years, I tried to shake off the term “good hair”.
At 18, I succeed by bleaching my afro blonde. Nervous, recovering from a traumatic year, and exhausted from my awkward stumble into adulthood, I let my hair become the most important and interesting thing about me. From honey gold to near-white, I experimented with varying shades and nuances of curly blondness. At university, I cultivated a flowery femininity in my clothing style because it made me feel girlish and lovely. It made me recognizable in a room without me having to put much effort at all in. I was a monster feeding on validation.
My sisters back home would call me “ramen noodles” because my texture did loosen slightly from the chemical processing, but I didn’t care. I would tell other people that it was “still super healthy”.
I never went to the salon for touchups. I know, I know. Hair sacrilege. But salon visits and manicures and all that stuff have always been foreign things to me, stuff that well-off or glamorous people do. Deep down, I still felt like a wild thing.
I lost everything the day I burned off my edges.
Sophomore year of college, I called my mother upset, telling her I would not be coming home this weekend, and therefore, Chloe would not be touching up my roots in a few days, as she usually did, so I would be doing it myself right now because ‘I didn’t need anybody and everyone sucked’.
“You’re bleaching your hair while calling me?” my mother repeated, incredulous.
I sniffed. “Yes.”
The incident that had caused my mild hysteria had nothing to do with my home or my hair, but rather some petty drama that had gone down in some on-campus club. I sobbed through my tale while dragging my hands mercilessly through my stiff, crispy strands. The smell of bleach in my little shoebox of a bedroom was starting to make me dizzy and I fought back tears from both the fumes and my frustration.
“Lil, it’s going to work out,” Mom consoled me through the phone.
“Alright, we love you. It’s been almost an hour, though, and I should start dinner. Are you done your hair, yet, by the way? You shouldn’t leave chemicals on too long.”
I spat back a goodbye and raced to the bathroom, flinging off my used shower cap.
In the tub, it didn’t feel like my hair was soaking up the water at all. So many ramen noodles slid down the drain.
In the bathroom mirror, I combed out as much of my yellow hair as I could to assess my work. At first, I didn’t see it. But something made me turn back around and press my nose to the glass.
Shaking, I lifted a finger to my temple, running it along my hairline all the way to the other side. There should have been much more hair there. No, wait, I always had a weird hairline. Didn’t I?
I asked my roommate if it looked any different, but she couldn’t tell. But I could. I so could. I found a good picture on my phone of my hair pulled back, and sure enough, I’d singed off my edges. The skin even feels smoother there, like I damaged the hair follicles.
Now I wanted to die inside. I foolishly ruined the one thing that I always liked about my appearance with my messy emotions and childish impulses.
But I had a play rehearsal coming up, so I tied a bandana around my lemon head and self-induced receding hairline and pasted on a camera-ready smile.
The first few months of quarantine, I don’t think I took my sleeping scarf off once, except maybe for my dance class on Zoom. I know what it looks like – still big and blond but missing a hairline since that incident over six months ago. When I do finally reassess my hair, my parents are at the doctor’s office for Mom’s pregnancy checkup, Chloe is sleeping the day away like usual, and my younger sisters are glued to the TV screen.
That day, after a few minutes in the bathroom mirror, I come downstairs and announce, “Ta-da! I cut my hair. Don’t you like it?”
“It looks exactly the same.”
Oh. I go back upstairs and wake up Chloe, who tries to scratch my eyes out even though it’s one in the afternoon.
“I need a really big change,” I say.
It is the season for change. After the baby is born, a few weeks later, Mom finally cuts her bob into a tapered afro, saying “I’m 40 and I just had a baby. I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do!”
A week later, Chloe recruits me to shave her long black hair into a mohawk. “I think this was inevitable, after five different dye jobs.”
And me? Chloe helps me cut my hair short, then dye it bright red. For a month, my sisters say how much it suits me. But when I settle back into my makeup-free, robe-and-sweatpants look, the lighthearted insults come: “Hey, Ronald McDonald, get me some fries!” “Oh, no, it’s Sideshow Bob, run!”
In the fall of 2020, I cut my red hair into a trendy, boyish style that Ivy calls “the toughest fighter in the anime” look.
I feel badass for about two months before, to my own shock, I decide to shave it all off and start over.
Mom tells me I can pull it off. The Paternal Unit is silently critical of women wearing short hair. Chloe tells me to “think really hard, and stop being so damn impulsive”.
“It’s my hair, not the other way around.” I assure them. Or really, myself. “Hair is not me. My hair is not me and I don’t need it. I don’t know why everybody thinks I do. I’m sick of it.”
“Oh boy. Do you have a…complex about your hair?” my mother says, her mind whirling around YouTube psychology lessons.
“No.” Well, yes. “I just get sick of it.” I struggle for the words. “It – It’s too hot and so, so heavy. It requires planning. It’s always been too much trouble, too much thought, and I don’t think anyone realizes how much space it takes up in my head – how much I care about my hair.”
“You should be proud of how you look.”
“But I don’t want to crave the validation, not even from you guys. And being quarantined… I kind of had a good break from that. Right now, I don’t want hair and I don’t need it.”
When Chloe runs the blade across my scalp, destroying the Grace Jones style she’d carefully created just weeks prior, the confessions continue to pour out:
“I don’t need hair to be feminine. I don’t need to be feminine to be beautiful. I don’t need to be beautiful to be worthy of respect or love.”
And as soon as it’s over, I run to the bathroom, and skid to a stop in front of the mirror.
My eyes well up with tears.
I run my hands over a skull I never knew was a little flat on top, feeling the short buzz of hair tickle my fingertips. Just a dusting, cut so close to the head you can’t even see the curl pattern anymore. All I see is my face – my mother’s round nose, my father’s square chin, my turned-down mouth, my heavy-lidded eyes… Why did I ever think I needed anything more?
I won’t stay like this forever. I will change my hair a million times after this.
But in this moment, twenty years old and bald for the first time in my life? I see no ugliness, no beauty, no bad hair, no good hair, no struggle, no shame, no pride. I am more myself than ever before. All I see is me.
And I love her.
LILY JENKINS drew comic books and scribbled song lyrics as a child. She studied theater performance and creative writing at Stockton University, where she found a love of playwriting and creative nonfiction. She currently resides in New Jersey with her family. This is her first publication.