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Bernard: Hair Story

02/21/11 7:55AM By Emily Bernard
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(HOST) As the mother of twin girls, commentator Emily Bernard says that the idea of "hair care" has recently taken on fresh meaning.

(BERNARD)  Isabella, my regal alpha twin, could not be more aptly named. 

Queen Isabella was known for her beautiful hair.  But my Isabella is not a 14th century English noblewoman. She's a five-year old girl, born in twenty-first century Ethiopia. And she longs for long, straight hair. 

I did not inherit my mother's green thumb.  The flowers in our front yard thrive in spite of me. Isabella's hair is my garden.  I know the landscape of her scalp - with its mysterious valleys, bumps, and dents - more intimately than I know my own.  "Isabella, are you sure you want long hair?"  I ask periodically.  But she's determined, as she is when it comes to all of her desires.  Isabella, who rarely gives in to anything, used to submit herself to tedious, painful hours of pulling and twisting in order to get cornrows, or "hurting braids," as she calls them. 

Now, we have graduated to looser braids that reach her shoulders.  "Soon it will be smooth like Brandy's," she says, as she tosses her braids around in the mirror.  Brandy is a friend from preschool whose blonde hair shoots down to the small of her back.  It's time to break it to my beautiful girl.  "Honey, your hair is curly.  It will never be like Brandy's."  She turns back to the mirror; her face is serious.  "But I don't want curls."

I was sixteen when I finally convinced my mother to allow me to get my hair straightened.  "Relaxed," it's called, but there's nothing relaxing about it. You lie back in a sink for endless minutes while the sodium hydroxide sets in.  The deeper the burning sensation, the more successful the process.  Once your hair is relaxed, you're not allowed to scratch for a miserable five days.  Give in to the itch and burn your scalp. 

I could never be faithful to the mandate not to scratch, so I surrendered to my natural hair texture, but not happily.  Once my mother pointed to a Donna Summer album cover that featured the singer's face surrounded by long wavy locks.  "You have hair like this girl," she said.  I burst into tears right there in the record store. 

Relaxing is painful, and it has a painful history for African Americans.  Several times a year the covers of magazines aimed at black women cajole their readers into loving their natural hair. 

I was in my twenties before I learned to love my natural hair.  At the same time, I gave up constant dieting and feeble attempts at applying makeup.  And now I believe that the wanting for something else is just a rite of girlhood from which no young woman of whatever race is immune.  Even Jessica Simpson wears hair extensions. 

We'll get through it, Isabella and I.  And meanwhile, her twin sister Giulia, careful and rational observer that she is, responds to my offers to grow her own hair with a quick, "No thank you."

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Emily Bernard at VPR-dot-net.

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