My sister Mix and I have ridiculously curly hair. Hair we inherited from our Dad, and which I have passed on in full measure and more to my little Thing.
My parents decided early on that the best way to deal with our curls was to get rid of them to the maximum extent possible. So I spent the first fifteen years of my life with hair cut into really short curls. I’d get mistaken for a boy ever so often, but that was only half the fun. I’ve been teased with every name you could possibly think of, from Golliwog to Steel Wool – but then with hair like mine, it isn’t all that surprising to be walking down the road and have someone yell Boney M (then) or Scary Spice (more recently) at you.
Every curly person dreams of waking up with poker straight hair at some point. There’s something about straight hair that makes you look so put together. And no matter how much you try to tame it, curly hair just makes you look all the more disheveled. I hated all the questions that invariably came with my dark brown skin and curly hair – so I made up this elaborate story about being an adopted child whose birth parents were Ethopian. It was enormous fun until my spoilsport mum found out and put a stop to it.
That wasn’t all our hair woes were limited to, though. Growing up, Mix and I were probably the only girls who had their hair cut by a barber. Not the fancy hair stylist you run into at salons today, but a true blue, eighties side hero, ustra wielding barber, with greasy hair and an equally greasy smile. It never occurred to either of us to question why we couldn’t just go to the hair dressers with our mum. I’m not sure it ever occurred to our parents either. This went on, until one evening, my mum inadvertently gave us an out. I was in Class X, ‘the’ school year, the year that missing school even for a day was not an option.
On this unfortunate (for me) Sunday evening as I lolled about with a book, I caught my mum staring intently at me.
“Your hair looks very unruly”, she said, “you need a haircut.”
“Yeah, tell Dad, he’ll call the barber.”
“No, the barber won’t get here before next weekend. It looks really bad. Let me do it.”
“Err, Mum, you don’t really know how to cut hair, you know.”
“Nonsense, I’ve seen it done so many times. And I pay attention when I get a haircut. It’ll be a breeze. Trust me.”
I eyed her warily as she went about setting up a mini salon in our downstairs bathroom. If it weren’t for the fact that it was my hair that was about to be sacrificed to her gods of groom, I probably would have found her arrangements quite cool – the chair, the white sheet, her sewing shears – she made it all look so festive.
By this time you must be wondering why I went along with this. Nothing good could come of this. What sort of an idiot was I? The simple answer is that my Mum was an absolute force of nature. And on those rare occasions you did put your foot down, she still got her way, with this hurt, bewildered look that could melt even the most hardened heart.
“Please don’t make me look weird”, I begged, as I sat down in her mini salon, her spring lamb.
“Stop being a baby.”
With all opposition effectively silenced, she set about cutting my hair. I grumbled softly to myself, but it was more for forms sake than anything else. Naive idiot that I was, I really believed she knew what she was doing.
I could feel her grab chunks of my hair and lop it off, but didn’t really think anything was amiss.
Mix wandered in at this point, “Mum, I think you’re supposed to comb it out and then cut the ends.”
“That’s just for straight hair like mine, with your hair, this is the way to do it.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, still not worried.
“Of course I am, I can already tell how much neater it is. Everyone is going to ask who did your hair. You’ll be thanking me Monday. There I’m done.”
She was utterly proud of her work until she heard Mix howling sometime later. I’d just gotten out of the bath, you see, and the full force of what she had unleashed was now apparent. My hair was all over the place, long squiggly strands in parts, cut close to the scalp in others, one bit looked like hairy mushrooms on a mound; I could go on, but you get the picture. Mix, unable to stop laughing, just kept pointing at me and then at Mum in turns. I don’t know who was more horrified, Mum or I. Mix just kept laughing. I think we both sat down, Mum and I, and had a good cry. I couldn’t stay mad at her, she was so mortified.
I did go to school the next day, looking like Marlon Fraggle, wishing all the while we lived in a country where hats were a mandatory accessory. I don’t really remember much of that day; I don’t think it was easy though. Teenagers were just as cruel then as they are now. I did get a proper haircut that evening, the shortest I’ve ever had and embarrassing as hell.
Before you go all “poor baby” on me, it wasn’t so bad. I’ve experimented a whole lot with my hair in the years since (stop shaking your head, Dad) and a lot of my choices were fairly dubious. But I’ve survived every decision, they were mine after all. I’ve learnt to embrace my curly and ignore the world’s multiple opinions on what my hair should be like.
Today with Thing, we know it would probably be easier to get her a short crop – bath time tantrums would definitely reduce. But then I think back to my infamous homemade haircut, and I know it’s not our choice to make. She needs to embrace her curly, and she needs to do it her way.