The Sacred Space of Detangling Hair

sisterscombingeachothershairI was shocked, pissed off when my sister pushed open the bathroom door and walked in with a friend.

Conditioner and a mix of olive oil and coconut oil covered my hands. On the side of the sink sat a ball of shed hair I had combed out.

And my hair, wet, shrunken, drenched in oil and conditioner was combed haphazardly into fat twists. Not pretty.

I didn’t mind that my sister was in the bathroom. She had seen me dishevelled. Naked. Ugly.

But she, our friend who I will call Kim, was a stranger.

And I had recently learnt that her ethnically homogeneous culture preferred Caucasian features.

Could she appreciate, see beauty in other ethnicities?

“Look. Look.” Both Kim and my sister squealed.

‘What?” I asked, tugging on a section of hair. My mind still reeled from this invasion of privacy.

She had copied my sister’s hairstyle. They both stood in front of the mirror with their heads slightly bent in my direction.

‘Cute,” I complimented.  I thought Kim would leave and I would have the opportunity to tongue-lash my sister for breaking an unwritten code.

Instead Kim planted herself on the Jacuzzi step and watched as I combed out a section of hair and twisted.

What was she thinking? Would she go back to her family and friends  and tell them that afro-textured hair is ugly, short, and weird?

I felt uncomfortable. Ashamed. And a little bit curious.

My hair care practices don’t look like the 30 second Garnier commercials. And most non-black ethnicities just don’t get the hair. They don’t understand how tiny cornrows can blossom into a big ‘fro. Or how shrunken tufts of hair can suddenly jump from shoulder length to waist length. They think it is strange that black women change their hairstyles so often.

At school, church, work, in airports, hair salons, and on street corners I am bombarded with questions about my hair.

So washing my hair is sacred. Free from curious stares, questions, judgement and sneaky hands coping a feel.

Kim stood in a sacred space. A space in which my non-black friends were not allowed.

But her invasion made me curious about this space that I am unwilling share. There is a bond/intimacy that is created when you can talk to a friend about your hair care practices and experiences,  and she gets it. This friend knows and accepts the hair.   She won’t be shocked when she sees your hair in the before, during and after stages of washing, braiding, twisting, weaving or straightening.  She is even willing to help take out your nasty braids. To have her hands covered in the oil, build-up and dandruff of your two-month-old style. Not every black girlfriend is willing to do this, but I wonder if a non-black girlfriend would ever want to become that intimate with your hair?

Blogger, Yagazie Emezi wrote a post about hair intimacy. She describes it  as“getting to the roots of your hair; touching your scalp (yay head rubs!), knowing the way the hair works and accepting the hair in whatever form.”

Yagazie is in an interracial relationship. In the blog post she talks about refusing to allow her boyfriend to see her hair when it was halfway done in braids. But as their relationship deepened she allowed him into that sacred space of hair grooming: “At a certain point of our relationship, he watched me take out my braids. He saw the nasty nature of the way hair gets after two months in braids. Clumps and all. He helped me put in braids. He washed my hair. And I insisted on head rubs just about every day.”

Hair intimacy is not limited to romantic relationships.  But what does it look like between friends of different ethnic backgrounds?

“We need your help.” my sister asked. Kim’s hairstyle had fallen apart.

My fingers touched her scalp as they intertwined the black, silky strands to form a flat twist. Gently, I pinned the twist back. Her hair is beautiful: thick and shiny.

She and my sister clapped their hands and giggled. They were pleased.

Would I let her touch my hair? Finger these delicate coily strands? Pull it back in a puff? Would she like the soft, pillowy feel of the hair?

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10 thoughts on “The Sacred Space of Detangling Hair

  1. i Hear you Esther. I as a black woman was comfortable rocking a fro in front of my 4 sisters and brother. Even in front of my dad! But those were the only 2 males that had ever seen me stripped down, bare, vulnerable and “natural”. Even as my husband and I started living together it took me years to warm up to him seeing “all of me”. the good, the bad, at my best look and my worst . Having those “bad hair days” or simply doing my nightly routine as i wrapped my hair and went off to bed. But today i feel set free! my beautiful natural hair is something i do not hide. i walk into my job and into groccerie stores with so much confidence. Look upon me and get a good stare. This is the real me and i love my hair! Once embarrassed to have anyone ever see how i looked without the added hair, the flat irons, the braids, and curls. i felt like a new woman, a new person. I felt like i accepted myself and that everyone else did not have a choice but to accept the same :).

    • Hi Jassmen,

      Thanks for your comment. How would you feel about having your non-white girlfriend see you washing, detangling and styling your hair? Would you be okay with that?

  2. i wouldn’t mind and i say that as the woman i am today. Back then, i might of had a problem with that. I want them to see the beauty of our hair and it’s versatilities. One moment it can be braided, then poofy and coiled then thick and straight. i mean c’mon what other hair is like that? its truly amazing to watch how far you can bend and stretch this tough hair and see the many style you can make out of it!

    • So Jassmen what was the catalyst or the moment where you didn’t care if your non-black girlfriend (oops) saw your hair during the washing, detangling and styling stages? Or was it more of a gradual process of growing comfortable with your body and your hair?

  3. I am glad that you wrote this post. So many women fear what others will think about their real hair. It is something ingrained in us from birth. We must be perfect at all times. Your hair revel to your sister’s friend did not turn out as bad as you thought it would. Infact, it seemed that she was sad that her hair could not hold a style like yours could. Bravo!!

    • Totally agree with you about how we feel like we have to be ‘perfect’ all the time. And there’s this sense of shame if we are not.
      I still don’t know what my sister’s friend thinks of my hair. But should I care? No. But I think it is something that takes time…becoming comfortable with this body and possessing its beauty. 🙂

  4. Where to start on this topic! Even I can’t bare the sight of my natural hair- let alone others to see it! When those long awaited 6 weeks are up for me to get a re-touch, I delight in the silky manageable texture my hair will be yet again.

    But I’ve paid a dear price for adding chemicals to my hair. If I could turn back the clock, I’d stay natural- and learn to love my hair… Then maybe that would have influenced my decision at 19years to relax my hair. Since being in Brazil I’ve had the urge to go natural. I think it makes a huge statement.

    But not to diverse from your post… Really your sister should knock before entering!! 😉

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