I Shaved My Head for My Daughter; Turns Out It Was Also For Me
I’ve mentioned in previous articles that I grew up as the only Black kid in rooms of White children, so I won’t go into that again.
What I will go into? The fact that I didn’t realize how it really affected me until I decided to shave my head.
I made the decision because of my daughter. She’s this tinier, cuter version of me with brown skin a shade or two lighter than mine. She also has the prettiest curly hair. I know I’m her mom and I’m supposed to think these things, but I think she’s absolutely beautiful.
Thing is, I know not everyone will think this— I don’t expect them to. What I do expect, sadly, is for her to eventually hear things that will make it a challenge for her to think this about herself even. I expect her to start questioning the value of her skin, of her eye color, and of her hair. I expect these things because, as badly as people really, really, really want to believe that we’re now in this promised land where racism doesn’t exist anymore because a White guy held a door open for a Black guy once without calling him the “n” word, I know things haven’t changed that much. I know that straight hair is still preferred over curly hair. I know that blue eyes are still beloved over brown. I know that we’re having to enact actual laws in order to stop places from ruling natural Black hair “unprofessional.” We’re still in a mess — a somewhat better mess, but one nonetheless. And I fear my kid getting mixed up in it in a way that messes with her own understanding of what makes her beautiful.
So I’m digressing to say here that, until I did the deed, my hair was not natural. I mean…it was mine. It grew out of my scalp, but it was chemically straightened every 2-3 months like clockwork from the time I was twelve. I’d become very fond of the ease of care and the “twirlability” of it. I really just felt that I looked better with straighter hair, and I loved that I wasn’t spending hours on getting ready. I’m a lazy asshole, so of course ease was a huge selling point for me.
Despite this, I was cool with a shaved head in theory, at least at first. Relaxers are expensive and time consuming, and I was losing interest in going to salons all the time to keep things up. The amount of money and time I’d save alone sounded awesome and necessary. That, coupled with the idea of eventually being able to show my daughter how to love herself, made it a total no-brainer. So I decided I was doing this. I was going to be the strong, Black mother my kid needed, the one spitting in the eye of people who might call my kinky coils “unruly” so that my child could see that words didn’t change a damned thing. I was going to be my little girl’s freedom fighter. I was going to be her hero.
But then…there was the time leading up to the Big Shave.
I gave myself a few weeks to acclimate to the idea.During this time, I realized exactly how “not okay” I’d been all these years, and just how much racist sludge I’d actually internalized.
It started with me just asking my (very White) husband how okay he’d actually be with the cut. He said he’d be fine with it, but I couldn’t seem to trust him on that. “You do realize I’ll have my natural hair back?” I asked. “I won’t look like this anymore. “
“I’m aware.” He said, looking at me like I’d sprouted a horn from my forehead.
“I’m just saying. Natural hair is different.”
“OK. You’re sure?”
“Honey it’s 10:30…”
“I’m just saying because if I do this…”
And around we went for a good 15-20 minutes. He assured me that he would be fine with my change probably four different times before I finally accepted it and went to sleep. Nothing too crazy, I figured. I was just making sure that the person I love most in this world would still find me attractive.
But then I started worrying about other people’s responses to me. I worried that people wouldn’t think I looked feminine, that people would stare. I was scared that people who followed NYAM would be turned off by my changed appearance and that they would see me as more “aggressive” or “weird” looking. I even found that, when I imagined myself achieving big things, I couldn’t imagine myself looking glamorous or stunning with short, curly hair.
That’s when I realized that my mindset might’ve been a little more fucked up than I’d originally thought.
I was able to recognize —eventually anyway — that these concerns were all projection. My femininity isn’t in any danger; I’m a woman for Christ’s sakes. People already assume I’m aggressive, both because I’m a Black woman and because I have an amazing Resting Bitch Face; that’s not different. And frankly, no one follows NYAM for fashion tips; they follow it because they hear a message they need to hear. At least I hope that’s why. Those of you looking for fashion tips are probably really disappointed right now. Sorry.
But those fears were there. The toxic beliefs and lessons that I’d always thought I’d escaped had actually made discreet nests in my subconscious. Turns out my comfort with straight hair wasn’t just a casual love for convenience, so much as I’d fallen for the narrative that it was more elegant. All those times that I’d hidden in the house when my new growth had come in were due to a deep-seated fear that my natural curls would look messy or ugly. Every time that I’d said that I had “no problem” with natural hair, I’d unknowingly lied; I totally did. I’d been told in no uncertain terms throughout my life that you can’t be beautiful with it, and I’d fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.
Honestly, the more I thought on it, the more I realized that my fears were all rooted in things I’d been told growing up, be they through words or through society. For example, the time a (different, but still very White) boyfriend of mine told me that he was glad I was getting my hair done the next day, because he liked “to run [his] hands through a girl’s hair, and I can’t do that if your hair’s not straight.”
Or the time that a popular boy in the eighth grade looked at me for the first time only after I’d come to school with freshly-straightened hair.
Or the time that someone told me that they didn’t mind talking to me because I wasn’t “like those stereotypical Black people” because I didn’t “talk ghetto” and “actually took care of my hair.”
Or the time that I stood next to a tall, blonde girl in a public restroom and immediately felt lesser, because I was short and brown and was due to relax my new hair growth.
I realized in those days leading up to my cut that I’d walked away from these things with a lot more internal damage than at first thought. I’d learned things that I legitimately thought I’d shaken off. Which is why, if you’re reading this and you’re all “I don’t see color! Everyone’s just a person to me” you need to quit lying to yourself.
Of course you see color. You see the rules and assumptions and supposed tropes and stereotypes. You just process them subconsciously. We all do. And the quicker you come to grips with that, the quicker you can take control of how you process it.
Anyway. This brings us to the day of The Big Shave.
THE BIG SHAVE (dun dun duuuun)
So, after realizing that I was effectively still working against demons I didn’t even know I had, I decided that I definitely needed to do this. I just wasn’t sure when.
Then, I had a push in the form of ending of a toxic friendship. The moment it ended, I felt that crazy high people get when they’ve just done something they didn’t think they could do. I was looking around like “Fuck yeah! What other brave things can I do?”
And then it hit me: it was time. Time to do what had until recently been unthinkable.
I picked a barber shop around the corner that just happened to be open. I sat for an hour, my gut rumbling with nerves. Strangely, despite the anxiety and impatience, I never felt the desire to actually leave. I was certain I wanted to do this, but I also wanted to get it over with.
Questions kept floating through my mind: Would I cry? Would I hate it? Would my husband see me and summarily put a bag over my head? Would my daughter like it or run screaming from the room? My mind couldn’t stop asking, and I couldn’t stop entertaining each possibility, sampling each like chocolates in a heart-shaped box.
Finally, it was my turn. My barber was a woman, and I was kind of glad, because explaining myself to a guy felt a little scary. I just pointed at my head and said “We’re buzzing it.” To which the lady replied. “Oh! Are you sure?”
I could only nod. I was starting to get scared and I didn’t want to yelp in her face.
So she started up the clippers and got to work. I watched as a foot of hair fell to the floor. I chatted merrily with the barber, but never took my eyes off of my own reflection. I was ready for a dramatic screaming fit to rise in my throat. I think she was, too.
Something happened about halfway through. Both of our attitudes changed. The barber stood back to admire her handiwork so far, and said, in a surprised voice: “You actually have a great shaped head for this! Valerie! Look at her head shape! Isn’t this the perfect head shape for a buzz cut?”
“PERFECT!” Valerie exclaimed. “I could never shave my head because I don’t have this great a head shape. Justine, doesn’t she have a great head shape?”
And so the shop stood for about thirty seconds to admire the shape of my apparently perfectly round head. As they did so, I sat in shocked silence. The silence wasn’t due to sadness or fear or disgust.
It was due to elation. I was beautiful.
Understand, I don’t think I’m beautiful very often. Most of the time, I sit around in sweats and an over-sized shirt and feel like I should be telling riddles to allow people passage across a bridge. But this time, I could actually feel a giggle bubbling up in my throat. I was only half-bald, but I loved it. I actually loved it.
After she’d finished, I rubbed my hand over my head and felt the tiny curls against my palms. “Is this my natural hair?” I asked.
“That’s all that’s left!” My barber replied. “What you’re feeling is your own natural curl pattern.”
I let that sink in. I wasn’t going to have straight, long hair anymore. I wasn’t going to look “sleek,” not in the traditional sense. I was challenging beauty standards that had become my own over the last 20 years, standards that didn’t favor me as I am, that I’d come to accept as actual gospel. I was seeing myself as I’d never seen myself before. And I loved it. I loved myself for the first time in a long time.
It felt weird.
The day I shaved my head, I took photos and sent them to friends. I shared the change on social media. I was in love.
And now…now, while I still adore this cut (and am actually keeping it shorter for summer before I grow my curls out at all), I’m still cleaning up the mess that my childhood left. I’m still feeling uneasy about leaving the house without makeup on to “remind” people that I’m a woman (it doesn’t help that I’m a dead ringer for my younger brother). I still see old photos of me with long hair, and spend a couple of seconds wondering if I was more beautiful then.
I think, though, about how my daughter reacted when she saw this cut for the first time. She reached out, touched my curls with her little hands, and said: “Mommy, you look like a princess.” In a world where she’s told frequently that princesses must have long, flowing, at-worst-wavy hair, this feels like progress. I watch as she insists she’s a princess, or a ballerina, and how she says with full confidence that she can be these things without feeling like she’s not as “well-groomed” or as “put-together” as kids who aren’t like her. I see her realizing that her own beauty is objective and independent of what others tell her, and I feel like the message got across for her. For now, at least.
And hell no, I don’t think she won’t hear bullshit from people as she gets older about her appearance. But I also think that, if she has another curly-haired, brown family member to come home to who can show her that those opinions don’t affect her reality, she can grow up valuing herself.
In fact, maybe we can help each other, and I can wind up doing the same for myself.
Better late than never, right?