Braided & Laid

The (Hair) Ties That Bind

Three Black women discuss their hair histories — from hot combs and relaxers, to afros and box braids.

Written by Leah Faye Cooper
Originally Published: 
Three Black women discuss their natural hair histories — from hot combs and relaxers to afros and bo...

I met two of my closest friends, Ashley and Joi, in 2010 when we were all graduate students at Columbia Journalism School. We bonded over many things: being among only a handful of Black women in our program, our very ambitious career goals, rarely missing a party, and a shared love of Harlem, where we were all living at the time.

Over the years, we’ve seen each other through various personal and professional milestones. And while hair has never been central to our friendship, the experience of having hair that society has long deemed unruly and undesirable — hair that is criticized whether it’s straightened or in its natural state; whether it’s styled in braids, locs, or beneath a wig — is something that all Black women can relate to.

Recently, the three of us sat down to discuss early hair memories, the many styles we’ve worn, and our paths towards embracing our natural textures. Ahead are excerpts from that conversation, highlighting the ways society and media influence perceptions of Black hair, and how we’ve navigated the noise.

(From L to R): Joi, Leah, and AshleyLeah Faye Cooper

Like many Black women, Ashley, Joi, and I all grew up with “kitchen beautician” mothers — moms who spent hours washing, conditioning, detangling, and styling our hair at home (usually in the kitchen). The ritual often involved Pink Lotion applied to the scalp, a hot comb heated on the stove, and the ever-looming threat of getting your ear burned. At various points in childhood, we all got relaxers.

Leah: Growing up, my mother did my hair. Sometimes she would take me to get it done, but for the most part, she was washing it in the sink at home. I remember her always talking about how laborious it was, like, "Oh my God, you have so much hair. This is so much work."

Ashley: I also got my hair washed in the sink. I remember my mom hot combing my hair with the old-school hot comb from off the stove, and having to hold my ear so it didn't get burned.

Joi: I loved getting my hair done when I was little. It was a bonding moment with my mom. She had a little bright pink chair that my sister and I would sit in, and we'd fight over who got to go first. I definitely got my hair pressed with the hot comb over the stove. Definitely held my ear; definitely got burned anyway.

Leah: Yes! I spent early elementary school in northern Virginia and went to private school. From kindergarten through second grade, I was one of two Black girls in my class. I remember wanting my hair to be long and straight. I had a lot of hair, so it actually was long, I just didn't know that because it was in its natural state, and nothing like my white classmates’ hair.

Ashley: I don't know the exact age, but I got a relaxer before I got to kindergarten. My neighbor was a hairdresser, and I would get my hair done at the salon in her house until she got an actual storefront. I went every two weeks for her to either press my hair or give me a perm. If the perm was burning too much, I wouldn't say anything, because I thought the more it burned, the straighter my hair would be. I just suffered until she came to wash it out.

I mostly wore twists with what we called knockers, but if we were going on vacation I had to get braids because my hair might get wet. The big thing was not getting your hair wet for those two weeks between appointments — and obviously not scratching your scalp before your perm.

Leah: One early hair memory I have is being in the sandbox in pre-K, and a little girl pouring sand in my hair.

Ashley: No!

Leah: My mom lost it when she came to pick me up. I remember her being really upset with the teachers like, "How could you let this happen?" And even though I don't remember exactly what she said, I understood, "Okay, there's a difference between sand being poured in my hair and sand being poured in one of my white classmates’ hair.” My mom had to wash my hair on a school night, which was definitely not the norm.

Joi: Oh, I know she was hot.

Leah: Yes. I don't know if it was for style or maintenance, or if it was because I was going to camp, but in first or second grade, I got braids with extensions in them. I was obsessed because they made my hair long.

My mom would take them out and wash my hair, and I would always get them put back in either on the weekend or during a school break. I remember one time, for whatever reason, I wasn't going to be able to get my hair done and I was going to have to go to school without my braids. I was horrified. I was like, "Absolutely not." And my mom was like, "Leah, what are you talking about? You have beautiful hair." But I didn’t think so.

Joi: And were you still one of the only students of color?

Leah: By that point I was living in North Carolina and there were definitely more Black girls at my school, but still not a lot. I can't remember what I ended up doing — if I ended up going to school before my braids were in or not — but I do remember I got my first relaxer the summer before fifth grade.

Joi: Wow, that's late. That's delayed.

Ashley: That is delayed!

Joi: I think I was five when I got my first perm.

Leah: You literally could not tell me anything when I got that relaxer. My hair was straight, it was right past my shoulders, and I was like, "I am so cute!”

Joi: I got my first relaxer at five — a Just for Me. Remember those commercials and the jingle?

Leah: Just for meeeee!

Joi: No lye, relaxer free! I was “Just for Me” girl. And then I would have all these Blackity-Black hairstyles: hard gel swoops with glitter on the side, crimps, everything. I looked like a little old lady, but I thought I was so cute.

Ashley: I am so surprised that you had crimps and gel, Joi, especially being a pastor’s daughter. I come from a super Christian family, and they would not let me get a hairstyle like that because they said it was too grown. One summer I was staying with my aunt, and she took me to her hairstylist. She gave me crimps and I loved them so much, but my mom made me wash it out when she saw it. I was devastated.

Joi: You know how Christians, especially Black Christians, say: "You got to find Jesus on your own." My mom took that seriously. I mean, my Lil' Kim tape got confiscated and we didn’t celebrate Halloween, but I got my first wrap when I was 10 or 11. Aaliyah was popping at the time, so everyone wanted the wrap.

Ashley: I didn’t know how to wrap my hair until one of my friends in middle school showed me. How did you learn how to wrap your hair, Leah? Your older sister?

LFC: Yeah, I think my sister did teach me. And this brings up an insecurity that still persists to this day. I feel like every other Black woman I know is just innately really good at hair, and I’m not. I feel like I missed out on that gene, and as a result, I’ve rarely been pleased with how my hair looks.

When I started getting a perm, yeah, I would put a scarf on at night, but I wasn't really experimenting with a ton of styles. I would get my hair permed, wear it down for a few days, and then just have it in a bun. Not a cute sock bun — one of those buns that’s basically a ponytail with the ends flipped under into your hair tie. That's pretty much what I was doing all through middle and high school.

My sister has a completely different hair texture than me. Her curl pattern is much looser. I definitely remember being envious of that, and wishing that I had a hair texture more similar to hers. Mine is really kinky and it took a long time to embrace that. I'm still working on it, if I'm being honest.

Ashley: Me, too.

Joi: I've absolutely not fully embraced it yet. And I can relate, because my sister has a different texture, too.

Growing up during the heyday of music videos — a time when Eurocentric beauty standards were glaringly favored on television and in magazines — significantly impacted how we saw and felt about our own hair.

Leah: I feel like so much of the media we consumed growing up reinforced those feelings of wanting to have hair that was either straight or had a very loose curl pattern. Music videos were huge when we were teenagers, and the women in the music videos were often light-skinned or biracial, with really long hair. That was the standard of Black beauty that was constantly shoved down our throats growing up — at least that's how I felt.

Ashley: I agree. If your hair was going to be natural, it needed to be long with loose curls because that’s what was acceptable. Otherwise, you needed to perm it.

Joi: Yeah. I feel like the Hawaiian Curl had us all in the chokehold in the ’90s. Almost every video girl you saw was light-skinned with curly hair.

Leah: And calling someone “nappy-headed” was an insult. Our hair in its natural state was a punchline.

Joi: Yeah, and I heard most of those insults from Black people.

Leah: There’s a long history of self-hate as it pertains to hair.

Joi: In middle school, all I wore was a slicked-back ponytail — with the black gel. Remember the black gel?

Leah: Ha! Yes.

Joi: At that time, I loved Martin, the TV show. But every episode he was making fun of Pam's hair. That was a running theme in the show. It was always, "Look at Beadie Beads!" Weaves were always criticized on that show, too, so I didn't want a weave. That completely changed once I got to college, though. I was like, "Oh yes, a sew-in? Amen!"

Leah: To this day, I’ve never had a weave. I think that part of that definitely comes from not growing up around a lot of Black people and none of the women in my immediate family ever wearing weaves. But also, to your point, they were so stigmatized when we were growing up. At least in the communities that I was in. They were seen as “ghetto,” which is so sad.

Also, I worried that anything I did with my hair outside of getting a relaxer would turn into a spectacle at school. When I did have braids, kids were always touching them and saying things like, "Oh my God, this is fake hair? That’s so weird." Like a lot of young people, I just wanted to blend in.

Navigating hair care as young adults was a circuitous challenge. While we eliminated relaxers from our routines, wearing our coils in their natural state was, at the time, considered a bold move that could result in negative attention.

Leah: In 2008, towards the beginning of the natural hair movement, I decided to stop perming my hair. My friend Kaycee had done a big chop in 2007, and within a year she had this gorgeous, gorgeous head of curls. I was like, "I'm never perming my hair again." I couldn't bring myself to big chop, though, so I was just growing it out. Of course, it was breaking off where the two different textures met. Eventually, I cut it bob-length. By that point, my hair was all natural, but I straightened it almost every day, so I had tons and tons of heat damage.

Joi: Where were you getting your hair care information from? I remember my mom saying, "You have to take care of your hair." But I don't remember anyone teaching me how.

Leah: I don’t either. I watched my mom do her hair, and she definitely walked me through her routine, but again, hair care just isn’t intuitive to me, and I don’t remember learning how to do anything with my hair between wash days.

Ashley: I didn’t know how to do my own hair until I was 25. I never even washed my own hair unless it was an emergency, and then I’d just put it in a banana clip. I was so used to somebody else doing it every two weeks. When I studied abroad in Australia, I went there with box braids and after six weeks, I was like, "What am I going to do?" It took forever, but I ended up finding somebody to box braid it.

Joi: You found someone to box braid your hair In Australia?

Ashley: Yes, I found a white woman on Craigslist who had mixed kids and knew how to do it. It came out great and I was so grateful to have something done to my hair, but it was the first time that I thought, “maybe I should learn how to do my hair myself.”

Joi: I learned through watching other people, and my sister; she's actually really good at hair. By the time I got to college, people would come to my dorm room and be like, "Hey, can I get straight-backs?" I’d charged them $10. I was that girl at college.

Leah: No one would ever ask me to do their hair. Ever.

Do you remember what my hair looked like when we all met? In 2010? Joi, you were a sew-in queen back then.

Joi: I was a sew-in queen! I took no breaks. And I was natural, because towards the end of college, I was so stressed out from school, extracurriculars, and work, that my hair fell out and my dermatologist said, “You cannot get relaxers anymore.” So I was really struggling to have a style that was easy to do, but also made me look "professional," because I was working with mostly white people. At that time, professional hair meant tamed, slick, relaxed — so I got sew-ins all the time.

I got over feeling like wearing a weave meant that I hated myself, and I just gave myself a little more grace and freedom.

Ashley: My hair was relaxed when we all met, but I had actually gone natural beforehand.

Leah: That’s so interesting to me, that you went natural, then went back to getting relaxers, and are now natural again.

Ashley: Yeah, coming back from study abroad in 2009, I hadn't permed my hair for three months, so I figured I might as well ride it out. I let my hair grow out with the box braids, and then I cut most of it off. When I came home, both of my roommates laughed in my face.

Leah: No, they did not!

Ashley: Yes. They were my line sisters, so both Black women, but they laughed in my face because they thought my hair looked ridiculous. It really hurt my feelings. I was already very self-conscious, but I wanted to try it because the natural hair movement was really taking off. I didn't really know how to style it, though, so I would just twist one side back and clip it. Eventually, that section of my hair became completely straight. Between not knowing how to style it, not feeling super confident, and having a straight patch, I just started relaxing my hair again.

Leah: I remember your relaxed hair in grad school, but after we graduated you had this amazing long weave.

Ashley: Yes, I got a U-part wig. I had been opposed to wigs because, like you said, they felt very stigmatized. It thought if you have a wig, you don't love yourself. But I wanted to try something different, so I got a 26-inch Brazilian and I went to Jersey City to get it installed. I loved it. I got over feeling like wearing a weave meant that I hated myself, and I just gave myself a little more grace and freedom.

Leah: I always felt like having any kind of weave would make me less conventionally attractive. I’ve also felt like that about my short, natural hair. I guess that’s because people have explicitly told me that or insinuated it, which is ridiculous. So many of the women we idolize as a culture — Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, pretty much every Black woman in Hollywood — they all wear wigs and weaves.

Ashley: When did you big chop, Leah?

Leah: In 2014. My hair was falling out from a combination of heat damage, not knowing how to care for it, and also going through a hard time personally and dealing with a lot of stress. My sister took me to brunch — God bless her, she's an angel — and asked if I was okay. We had this whole conversation about lots of things, and at one point she was like, "Your hair is falling out. Let me help." She booked an appointment for me at Hair Rules. I was completely broke at the time, so she paid for it, and that's when I cut my hair really short.

Unfortunately, I still didn’t know what to do with it, so I was trying all these methods I’d seen online. You know that meme that says, “Natural Girls be Like #Wash Day” and there’s a picture of all these random things on a kitchen counter: mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, eggs, broccoli, a lemon, olive oil, ranch dressing. That was me! And then I was still straightening it from time to time, which was causing it to break off again and grow out unevenly.

Joi: I wore sew-ins for 10 years, until lockdown made me take a break. One day I decided to just cut off all my hair and start over.

Today, we all wear our natural hair and largely avoid straightening it. Box braids have become a go-to style for me, Ashley is usually in an afro, and Joi is growing out her lockdown cut. While our hair is still met with stigmas and stereotypes from time to time, it’s often on the receiving end of compliments, too. Regardless, we’ve all come to realize that the only opinions that matter are our own. And as a growing number of Black women go back to getting relaxers, we hope that they feel equally empowered to do whatever they want with their hair.

Joi: When I was a sew-in queen, you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, okay? And I was received that way. Walking down the street, my inches bowing in the wind, I could see heads turning.

Then when I cut my hair during lockdown and started presenting it more naturally, I felt like the world was engaging with me in a more hostile way. It’s hard to explain, but it seemed like people were assuming the worst of me. Whereas before I could utilize my pretty privilege, none of that privilege existed when I started wearing my natural hair. People do treat you differently, and that was just a jarring reality that I had to get used to.

Leah: The reactions are crazy. At a former job, one day I walked into the office wearing sunglasses with my ‘fro blown out really big, and a colleague was like, "Wow, you look so scary! You look so badass!" What does that even mean? Half of the office walked in wearing sunglasses, and no one else got that reaction.

I will say, I get a lot of compliments on my natural hair walking through the city, primarily from Black men. A lot of: “I love that natural, sis… I see you, natural beauty… okay, Black queen!” But there are a lot of assumptions too. Whenever Ashley and I are out together and we both have afros, people assume we’re a couple.

Ashley: You’re right — they do!

Leah: I forgot why I got braids again, I think maybe I was going on vacation and didn’t want to deal with my hair while I was away. But anyway, as you guys know, I’ve been rocking box braids pretty frequently for the past few years, and I love them. When I take them out, I try to give my hair a rest for at least two weeks before putting them back in, which also forces me to engage with my natural hair and learn how to maintain it.

Ashley: I mostly do twist-outs and wear an afro. Before lockdown, I was doing twist-outs more frequently. Not because I felt like I needed to, but because I didn't want to wear my afro too often to work and I was still working on accepting it. But during lockdown I had more time to think about what I actually want to look like instead of worrying about the white gaze or the male gaze. So now I've been wearing my afro as much as possible because it's my favorite.

Leah: I love your hair. And Joi, your big chop was so fly.

Joi: I maintained that short cut for a while, and I liked it. It was completely different from anything I’d ever done. I think every woman should cut their hair off at least once in their life. It was a very freeing experience; I learned how to access different parts of myself. Now I’m growing it out. I was doing coil sets and now I’ve graduated to twist-outs. It's been three years since I’ve had a professional press, and I plan to get one soon. Maybe I’ll do it for my birthday.

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