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Taking care of my own hair: Allegra's journey

Allegra, today, age 27.

I just spent the last 15 minutes combing out my hair. It’s not like I haven’t combed it in awhile—I probably combed it last week; maybe Tuesday? Wednesday? I can’t pretend to remember. But I make the dutiful, begrudging pilgrimage into my thick nest of frizzy, dry curls at least once a week. I watch myself in the mirror, tugging at my unforgiving hair as it resists each wide tooth of my cheap plastic comb. I try not to fixate on the copious dead hairs falling into the sink. I wince, over and over, as a clump of strands refuses to relent.

Without fail, combing my hair out is the most annoying part of my week. It’s physically painful, emotionally taxing, and a gigantic waste of my time. I mean, it’s not a waste of time; I know if I don’t comb my hair out, it will get all matted and dirty. I’ve been there before, and I don’t want to go back. But is all the pain, the half-hours, the disappointment worth it when I’m never happy with how my hair looks at the end?

Here's my wash day procedure:

  • comb it out so that I can put in my overpriced damaged hair products (Olaplex No. 0, and then Olaplex No. 3),

  • let the products “saturate” for upward of 40 minutes,

  • wash my hair—usually twice, since I’m only supposed to shampoo my hair every other week,

  • condition—I try to condition my hair every week, although lately my conditioner has been clumping up and just staying in my hair,

  • comb out all the clumped-up conditioner and other crud that’s somehow congealed in my hair,

  • rinse whatever is left out, and wring my hair repeatedly to get all the water that the product clung to,

  • and finally, when it’s mostly clean (????), I’ll slather my hair in a bunch more products: Olaplex No. 6, Olaplex No. 7, and some other expensive creams and sprays.

Olaplex, a necessary evil.

I hate it. I hate it so much. I hate my hair! People (white people, usually) think it looks so nice and cute and wow curls, I’ve never had curls, can I touch them? And then I tell them how annoying it is to take care of, and they scoff, because how could it be so bad? They cannot fathom that washing and conditioning your hair can be an absolutely miserable experience, let alone just simply combing it.

I’ve worn my hair out like this, in its mostly natural state (with the exception of the semiannual relaxers), for nearly four years now. Before age 23, I almost always had someone else take care of my hair for me. When I was a baby, it was my mom, who really had no idea what she was doing; she had other people take care of her naturally dense, thick, kinky hair, too. Relying on a regular hairstylist is pretty common among Black women around the world, because, as any Black woman can tell you, washing and styling is an Event—whether you do it at home or at the salon, making natural Black hair work for you is always a battle.

Allegra, age 12.

My babysitter, Eloise, took over for hair care duties when I was three. Those hair washes were traumatizing—I swear, I have talked to my psychologist about it. I’d sit in a little red plastic chair for hours in the living room, facing away from the TV, as Eloise pulled and pulled and pulled at my hair. Because I hated getting my hair done so much back then, these were always trials against long-gestating clusters of matting and dirty all intertwined within my hair. Once, it took Eloise two separate sittings across two days to finish washing and braiding my hair. (I only wore my hair in two fat braided pigtails, too, to really give you a sense of just how horrific this was) I remember breathing heavily and shaking after Hour 7 of the combing and snipping and grunting, praying for my head to stop hurting. To which Eloise always said that I did this to myself, which was true. I hadn’t let her wash my hair for four months before this.

Allegra, age 17.

When I was 15, my mom took me to get my hair relaxed for the first time. After the hairdresser reprimanded my mom for letting me walk around with disturbingly matted hair for so long, she chopped a ton of it off; at the end, I had bone-straight, shoulder-length hair, which was truly a shock. Getting to that point was another traumatizing ordeal I’ve repressed from my memory. (I honestly do not remember any of it, except that it took at least six hours.)

The kids at school (who used to put pieces of paper in my braids or try to cut them off when sitting behind me) were shocked when I walked into class on the first day of junior year, my hair as shiny and unfussy as theirs.

It was such a relief to be able to brush my hair without fear. But beyond that, I had no idea how to take care of it. Instead, at my mom’s urging, I still let the hairdresser handle all of that. Which meant I walked around with dirty hair half the time, because man, hair salons are expensive. But at least my hair was straight. Who cares if it was dirty and broken and damaged from being unwashed, brushed too harshly, and touched by way too many chemicals and hot tools?

Eventually, I started to care. I couldn’t keep paying $200 every month or so to have someone wash my hair; itching my dry scalp all day long was not a great look, either. So when I moved out of my mom’s house, I decided I needed to make another big step: I needed to stop leaning on others to care for my hair And part of that decision also included no longer straightening my hair. I would go back to wearing it curly, as nature intended. I thought that laying off the straightening iron would help my broken hair grow, since it was always choppy-looking; I thought that maybe being the one person who got to touch my hair would make doing so less painful.

Nope! Both wrong. My hair looks more in line with me and my style, and it is certainly far cleaner and healthier than it has ever been before. But I’m no pro, and my hair definitely has been abused for way too long to just go be strong and happy or whatever as soon as it’s freed from heat and rough hands. My hair is still always breaking off, and I clearly still hate combing it. My hair and I continue to be frenemies.

Maybe I’m just inordinately tender-headed. Perhaps someone like me was never cut out for this kind of hair, which requires regular maintenance and attention. I don’t like to maintain or attend to myself in almost any way, for reasons I have detailed in literally every other post I’ve written for this blog so far. So in a sense, I was always happy that someone else took care of that for me, but the pain of the process was way too much to bear. I’m grateful and proud of myself for being an adult and grooming myself in a more society-friendly way—it’s nice to have clean hair whenever you want to, I’ll tell ya! And I do much prefer how my hair looks and feels with poofy curls, as opposed to the straight hair I was constantly afraid of mucking up. But to anyone who sees me and thinks, aw, wow, your hair is amazing!: I will never agree with you. Because doing my hair has always just felt like a lose-lose.

Anyway, gotta go do step two of my pre-wash routine. See you in an hour.


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