The Triangle Hair Debacle
Startled by the sharp shriek of my younger sister, I jumped out of the shower and ran out, still soapy and dripping in my bright pink towel. In the upstairs family room, I witnessed my then nine-year-old sister red-hot, raging over the purple hair brush my mum was using to comb her hair. The result: poofy hair with little curl pattern, widening out at the edges in an unfortunate triangle shape.
Phase I: Triangle Hair Debacle
She had become the newest victim of Triangle Hair Syndrome™️: the skin-crawling result of looking like your hair has been replaced by a bent-out-of-shape triangle hanging on by its last thread. Our well-meaning mum had recently taken over styling our hair in an attempt to instill self-love in us. She wanted to prove that curly hair was beautiful and special, far from difficult and unpretty. However, one key difference was the difference in our mum’s hair texture. As much as I wished I could have my mum’s same thick and deeply wavy hair, the reality was much, much different. She tried helping in the best ways she knew how, but I eventually realized that this hair journey of mine would be a personal and solitary one.
Phase II: Wearing an Unfitting Halo
My hair and I have gone through several, distinct phases. Some have been more embarrassing than others. In elementary school, I refused to wear my hair out. Every morning, I would summon the strength of my chubby arms to pull my curls back into a side pony or a tight bun. I didn’t have hair gel, edge control, or any of the right brushes. Instead, my frizzy baby hairs framed my head in an uncomfortable, unconfident halo.
In middle school, inspired by the rise in hair tutorials by Black and mixed girls on YouTube, I learned that the true power of a braidout was manipulating my curl pattern and subduing it enough to be rid of its characteristic frizz and voluminous charm. Every few nights, I wet my hair and doused it in conditioners and curl creams to rebraid it in twelve or so sections. In the morning, when I woke up before the sun to get ready to take the bus to my performing arts magnet school, I unbraided my hair and reveled in the power of a few braids, wet hair, and its luscious wavy result. During school, I delighted by the compliments I received on my seemingly tamed curls. When asked if it was my natural hair and pattern, I fibbed and said yes, emboldened by the power this small grab at white beauty standards lent me. I found beauty in other Black women, but could never manage to turn the same compassionate eye on myself. I felt defective. I had bits and pieces of different cultures, yet I couldn’t manage to feel whole among the seemingly separate parts. I sought control in any way I could find it, including in developing a braiding routine that worked well enough to warp my sense of personal truth. I grew up believing my mum was the most beautiful woman in the world. People have told me for ages that I look just like her, though I never saw it, the stark difference in our white and brown skin tones drowning out any possibility of similarity.
I was chasing an untenable beauty standard informed by media, books, school peers and the internet, and also shaped by the forms of beauty I saw most in my personal life. With every ounce in my body, I made it my mission to conform, starting with my hair.
I added coconut oil to shampoo bottles, begged my mum to buy keratin products, and willed my hair to change. Much to my dismay at the time, she was unwilling to buy-in to my desperate attempts at a DIY beauty transformation. She refused to buy the keratin-infused shampoos that promised to loosen my curl pattern to an unfamiliar wave. She was adamantly opposed to using heat on my hair. Each school picture day during middle school, I dreamt that I had straight, flowy hair. Every year I’d ask to straighten my hair for the same occasion and every year I was met with the same disappointing compromise: my mum would straighten the first two curls in the front of my hair and leave the rest an untouched curly masterpiece.
Phase III: Isolation Breeds Compassion
High school presented the beginnings of what has grown to become a wonderfully difficult yet rewarding journey in self-acceptance. I moved away from home to attend a small (and very white) boarding high school. I had very few examples of Black girls’ hair to admire or feel connected to. In the isolation, I reached a newfound sense of pride in my hair. It was unique, different, and even…beautiful. In realizing I was all alone, there was no use to play-pretending assimilation anymore. I was one of three Black girls in my first-year boarding school dorm. We never spoke about our shared commonness, and the palpable differences in our experiences at the school. Rather, we giggled and joked our way into relating as much to the white (‘in’) girls as we each possibly could.
I couldn’t relate to my white peers complaining about their hair becoming oily overnight, or join in as they helped each other braid their hair before sports games or camping trips. Once again, I resorted to the internet to teach me how to take care of—and eventually love—my hair. I learned about the right kind of hair products to use, and how to layer them properly to render my curls bouncy, shiny and hydrated. I hopped on Pinterest and made a whole board dedicated to cute hairstyles on my hair type—rather than trying to recreate straight hairstyles on my hair and getting disappointed. Surrendering to the impossibility of fitting in to my white peers ultimately saved my relationship with myself.
In a school surrounded by blonde and brunette-haired friends with straight or loosely wavy hair, it wasn’t easy to feel comfortable coming into this confidence. I didn’t have a salon in the small town that knew how to cut "my kinda hair" and had to order hair products online because local stores didn’t carry the brands that my hair craved. Friends, and more often their moms, made comments about how "different" and "cool" and "wow, pretty!" my hair was. The racial undertones were noted and felt, and yet I pressed on.
Phase IV: Last-Ditch Attempt at a Curly Bob
The first memorable time I sat in a hairdresser’s chair, she asked if I wanted a fringe. I didn’t know what it was, but I believed that it might make me beautiful. I said yes. The resulting fringe was a collection of four too-short curls, hanging awkwardly from my large forehead. In the quintessential, melodramatic way, I cried my eyes out as soon as we got home from the salon. Never again would I trust my hair to be cut by a confused white woman, blindly using her white hair tactics on my hair. In the years following this unfortunate haircut, I began developing a strict code for what I wanted my haircuts to entail. My growing discomfort with trusting other people with my hair pushed me to ditch the straight-hair-coded haircuts and embrace the fact that my hair would never look like the haircut models in the salon magazines.
At the same time that I was becoming comfortable in wearing my hair down, and letting my curls breathe, I was also acutely aware of the expectations everyone placed on my hair. It couldn’t be unruly or too messy. I had to spend time each morning making sure the shape was okay, and voluminous, but not too voluminous otherwise that would look a little wild, wouldn't it? Respectability politics were baked into my every day actions and the way adults and students alike spoke about and acted around the topics of Black hair, white beauty standards, and vague ideals of professionalism and being put together.
Phase V: It’s all a Work-in-Progress
Progress isn’t linear, and my journey to loving my hair has been anything but straightforward. Now, even during ‘bad hair days,’ I love that my hair is curly and that the curl pattern is different throughout my head, and the fact that my hair feels uniquely like my own. I put it in braids or buns for workout classes, leave it out most days, and sometimes attempt a fun updo if I’m feeling up for the challenge of getting the style just right.
Through it all, though, I am able to nurture the once scared and self-conscious version of myself who couldn't imagine a world where I wore my hair down and learned to love it. Planning out when to wash my hair and which hairstyle will best suit the activities of my week is still a nuisance most of the time. My dry hair drinks up moisturizers faster than I can repurchase, and it seems like one rainy day or windy afternoon is enough to twirl my hair into oblivion. And yet. I revel in the bounce and comforting weight of the curls cascading around my forehead and down to my shoulders. Something about resisting the urge to chop my hair at the first sign of inconvenience feels like a victory in finding my new internal spiritual hair groove. Caring for my hair has grown to become a labor of love, instead of being dreaded like a punishment.
I take pride in my multi-step hair care process and love waking up and shaking my curls out to see the light of a new day. Phase VI is undefined but I hope it involves a hot new hairstyle and even more ways to fall in love with myself.
Edited by: Rachel Goulston
Issue 17 Credits
Photography: Zelle Westfall
Creative Direction: Payton Selby, Ava Emilione, Leslie Vargas, Zelle Westfall
Photography Assistants: Ruby Summer, Jewel Simpkins