I Am Not My Hair

“You like my weave?” I usually ask this question when standing in front of someone who hasn’t seen me in months or years. Twirling my long, straight hair with one hand and patting itchy stitching with the other, I’ll smile as they stare in frozen disbelief.

“Y-you cut your dreads?” Something about this weave makes people stutter.
“Oh yeah, they’re gone,” I’ll say nonchalantly.
“All of them? I mean, are they under there somewhere?”
“Nope, I look like Celie under this hair.”
I start cracking up. They usually give an awkward laugh before saying,
“Wow.”
Awkward silence.
“What made you do it?”
I’ll sigh, suck my teeth, and say, “It was time for a change.”

And boy, did people change…

Month #1 with The Weave. Raqiyah Mays Facebook Fanpage comment:

Kimberly says: “I cannot imagine going from natural to well…synthetic and pressing/flat ironing my hair…the look, the smells, the message… everything…No judgment…to everyone her/his walk but it will “neva” happen for me…all the best Raqiyah…”

But I didn’t do it for you, Kimberly. I did it for me.

Growing up, the hair styles I wore, like most young girls and some adult women, were decided by the celebrity I wanted to look like. I remember wanting a lopsided haircut and door knocker earrings like Salt N Pepa. To me, they were bold and cool, pushin’ it real good. But since my mother wouldn’t allow me to cut my hair short on one side, I was relegated to two corn rolls down to the nape of my neck. The kids at school made fun of me. They said the back of my head looked like a butt. Damn those bullies…

When I was old enough to get a part-time job at Dress Barn, I snuck off to Newark, NJ, waited two hours at a salon, and had my hair chopped off to look like Halle Berry’s bob-cut in the movie Boomerang. I was fly. And for the first time, I felt trendy, confident, and proud that I’d finally done something to my hair without my mother’s approval.

In college, when I couldn’t afford a new perm, I decided to get braid extensions to fulfill my dream of being LL Cool J’s around-the-way-girl. I had fantasized about it for years singing LL’s lyrics, “I wanna girl with extensions in her hair, bamboo earrings at least two pair, a Fendi bag and a bad attitude.” Once I got those extensions, I was that chick…almost. I had a Gucci. I had long, skinny braids. But in reality, I was one of those in-the-house-good-girls with knock-off door knocker earrings that were about half an inch long. Corny.

The one thing that gave me cool points, was that my braids made people say I looked like Brandy. I liked that. She was cute, rich, and at the time had hit songs on the radio. But it wasn’t long before the extensions, braided a little too tight and kept in a little too long, began thinning and nearly balding the edges of my hair. Brandy had the same dilemma. We started to look like our hairline was receding. So I took the braids out. And the poor college student in me was forced to go with the ghetto girl look – a pony tail about two inches long with hair sticking out the back of my head. I’d rub loose strands with one hand, trying to push them up into the elastic band, but my hair wasn’t long enough. I looked like a rooster.

Still, I refused to get a perm. Not only was it too expensive for my $0 budget, but the stinky chemicals made my hair fall out. So instead of burning my scalp, I chose to stand in the mirror, looking at my jacked up doo, crying, trying desperately to make something of the growing puffy mess on my head.

I bought a pick and tried rocking an Angela Davis afro. But instead of having a nice, round, 1960s mane, my hair looked like the outline of someone’s hand. I’d groan and cuss every single morning, while slowly starting to hate my hair. Frustrated, I stormed to some random salon, plopped in the chair, and said, “Cut it off!” The hair stylist leaned closer to make sure she heard me right. “Yeah, all of it,” I said. “I want a Caesar.”

This drastic change into a boyish look had nothing to do with me wanting to mimic Meshell Ndegeocello’s style. And I hadn’t turned into a militant lesbian. I just wanted to be free. Vindicated from frustration. Released from having to do the doo. And I loved it. In the morning, all I needed was a few seconds of brushing and I was good. The wind would blow off my head whispering a digression from stressin.’ The confidence in my looks grew over the years and built a strong wall that deflected and cared less about what people thought about me, including negative comments from silly high school boys on the A train giggling, “Yo, she bald.”

I mean, I wasn’t that bald. Damn. I had a man who didn’t mind (at least he didn’t seem to). And even if I hadn’t had a boyfriend to rub my round, barely hairy head, I would’ve still been content. But no woman stays happy with her hair forever. As time passed, I went from Caesar to short fro, to coils, back to the baby afro, and finally to what I’d been building up the courage to grow – dreadlocks.

My hair began to lock right around the time when Lauryn Hill dropped The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. With ten Grammy nominations, worldwide fame, and offers for leading lady roles in a slew of blockbuster movies like The Matrix (which she turned down), Lauryn had my heart and respect. Not only was she a fellow Jersey girl, but this sista was progressive, fly, strong, busty, and had the ill hip hop flow that rivaled most of the males in the game. Regal and sensual, Lauryn Hill made having dreadlocks sexy and acceptable to the mainstream. She was my inspiration. And I felt like a queen with my locks. Happy to be nappy. Kinky and cocky. Having dreads made men more respectable when approaching me with lines like, “Hello, my Queen.” The Rastas would touch their heart when I passed by. And I didn’t need a shower cap to wash-up. I was free. But after a decade of living, breathing and wearing the dress code of dread-stuy, Brooklyn, things began to change.

It happened about 7 years into my NYC radio career, after I began gaining popularity as a personality. I posed for promotional headshots and suddenly realized I had an “image.” People made quick (and partly accurate) assumptions on who I was because of my hair. “Oh, you the black power sister,” they’d say. “Oh, you the crazy militant.” “Oh, you the rebel.” And yes, minus the crazy part (depending on the day) I was a little of each of these descriptions. But there was one comment that nearly changed everything for me. “Oh, you can’t cut your locks,” one VIP said, after I mentioned I was tiring of my look. “Your locks are who you are. You wouldn’t be Raqiyah without dreads.”

I believed this man, nodding in agreement on the outside. Questioning what was being said within. I embraced that belief for years. And for the first time in my adult life, I cared what people thought of my style. On the outside, I’d do my best to exude confidence and self-esteem. But my inner dialogue said something different. “If I cut my hair what will people think? Who will I be? What will I look like? What will I do with my hair? What will the radio station say about all those promotional photos they just paid a photographer to take of me? Will people think I’m selling out to pursue this acting thing?” I felt trapped by my thoughts, a slave to my hair, job, and life decisions. It was depressing and I wanted to be free.

Careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

I lost my radio job in September 2009. Afterwards, I’d sit at home on Facebook, planning my next move, looking at old pictures of myself from 5 years prior. And there I was, in an old flick, sporting my tired, fuzzy dreadlocked hairstyle – parted to one side in need of maintenance – rockin’ the same sporty t-shirt that I’d worn a few days prior. In early morning solitude, embarrassment rushed through my cheeks. I had to change my look, upgrade my style, and revitalize my energy. It had to start with a look that I’d never worn before. It had to be something that no one would ever expect to see me rock.

Oprah talks about those “Ah Ha” moments….

Watching Beyonce on the TV screen, I never fully understood what she meant by “Pat your weave, baby.” That line only made me wonder what it would be like having a weave, especially since they seemed more acceptable these days. Shoot, even white girls have weaves. I remember going to the beauty supply store and buying a long black wig for one of my scenes in the play “Auction Block to Hip Hop.” I secretly liked the look after struggling to pull it over my dreads. I loved the positive “Ooh” and “Ah” reactions from my castmates. Before then, I’d only joked about getting a weave like, “Me get a head of fake hair? Never!” I was a black militant. Power to the people! But over five months, rocking an assortment of fedoras, I grew my locks out with no firm decision on what I’d do when it was time to cut. I still wondered if people would think I was a sell-out for trading in my dreads for two bags of silky Indian Remy hair. But I was determined to break new and it had to begin with a hairstyle I’d never had — a weave or Jeri Curl. And I wasn’t interested in taking it back to the 80s, and greasing up people’s couches like the Soul Glo family from Coming to America.

So I confronted my fear of selling out and focused on the truth: I’d done and will always do my share of community work, speaking out, walking in protest, and standing up in a way that speaks my mind, evokes emotion, and encourages intelligent, independent thought and dialogue. I’ve done enough work for people to know what I stand for. And if they don’t, it’s time I stopped worrying about what my fans, peers, and fellow natural hair loving progressives think. Early one morning, when few could witness and talk me out of this personal transformation, I let my weave expert, Jakera, chop off the locks. I closed my eyes with each snip and turned away from the mirror as she braided the remaining fuzz into cornrows. With the precision of a seamstress, she used black thread to sew 12 inches of hair onto my head.

At first glance, I turned my nose up and yelled, “Damn!” My hair hadn’t looked this straight since I was born. I was in shock over the look of having a head full of some mystery Indian lady’s hair. The surreal moment was captured by my cell phone memory, which filled up with varying shots of “The Weave.” That’s become my name for it. “The Weave.” That itchy stuff hanging from my head that keeps sticking to my lip-gloss, getting into my mouth, my food, shedding on the bathroom counter, clogging up the sink, my brush, and clinging to anyone who gets too close: “The Weave.” It’s alive!

The Social Experiment

When I felt brave enough to step on the street and reveal my new look, I could feel an immediate change of perception, mainly among the men. It was like a sudden rainbow coalition of diversified testosterone shining upon me. Now let me be clear: I never had a problem turning heads with dreads. And despite the statistics, I’ve never been one of those black women that can’t find a man. But my new store-bought hair has attracted a different kind of boyish attention. Within the first two weeks of having The Weave, White, Black, Indian, and especially Latino men, smiled and glared, saying things in Spanish as they rode their delivery bikes. They said things I couldn’t understand, that I’m not sure I wanted to understand. Some guys said I looked Dominican. A few dudes felt comfortable entering my personal space. Uninvited, they felt bold enough to grab my hand, arm, or jump centimeters from my face, hot breath touching my nose saying, “Can I come with you?” This was the first and only time, in my life, that I’d been approached by a man in such an over the top, aggressive way. Before The Weave, I only had to deal with sexually harrassing words from afar. After The Weave, the in the face crap from black guys and the occasional white dude with tats, has become the norm.

Typical conversations between the men & “The Weave”

“Yo, you look like Nicki Minaj.” No, I don’t.

“Yo, you look like a super model.” Oh, thanks.

“Hi, I’m Raqiyah Mays, you may not recognize me, I used to have long dreadlocks.” The man will pause for a few seconds, face slowly morphing from questioning to pleasing.

“OH!” His mouth drops.
“Whoooa.” He hugs me tight.
“You look good, Mami!”

According to an exclusive Essence Magazine poll, 56% of brothers say they are bothered by weaves and “fake” hair. “A weave says you are insecure and ashamed of what God has given you,” says Nate P (Age 30) on page 116 of Essence’s October 2010 issue.

But aren’t we supposed to judge a man by his actions and not his words? After 90 days of having my new hair, I’ve made the observationally researched finding that most men who say they don’t like weaves are liars. Some of the males expressing this are obviously lacking self-awareness. Since I’ve gotten my fake hair, I’ve seen the side of man who may say he doesn’t want his girl having a weave, but his actions show that he likes the look. It’s because of seemingly synchronized reactions by a multitude of males, from all races and varying states I’ve traveled to in the course of having this hair, I am convinced of one thing: The male species is socialized or genetically predispositioned (possibly from their caveman ancestors) to be turned on by a woman with long straight hair, in a way that they don’t realize or understand. And if this woman is lighter than a brown paper bag, the appeal is stronger.

Some suck their teeth and say, “This bitch…”

The women react a little differently. Some give gazes of resentment when I walk in with super high heels and the short skirt I occasionally choose to wear. When first meeting the new me with the new weave, ladies from my past have given awkward hellos and tried to carry on strange “How ya been” conversations, all while staring at my hair and avoiding long-held eye contact. I’ll giggle on the inside, waiting for them to stop the BS and ask what they really want to know. But they rarely do. Many of these women usually walk away leaving an echo of loud internal thoughts that scream truths through their eyes and body language. They think (or hope) I don’t pick up on their failed attempt at keeping a poker face. But I usually do. I mean, I’m a former journalist – we’re always watching. I’m a psychic Scorpio with an intuitive Pisces moon. Plus I’m named “Raqiyah” which means “highly empathic,” therefore I’m deemed and do feel vibes more deeply than many others. Besides that, my mama ain’t raise no fool. People can ask me anything. I shy away from no question. And If I can’t answer it in the moment, I promise I’ll get back to you later. But most aren’t brave and would rather talk about you, then to you. Never been my style, even with the fake… I mean… human hair on my head.

The hair I was born with still lives. It’s just currently at rest. After a lifetime of being exposed to the world, it’s finally hibernating, at peace, still, quiet, regaining energy from being touched, broadcasted, and judged from afar by millions of folks who felt like they knew better than me, what I should do with my hair. My follicles are under protection from this crap. They’re being guarded from the messages the world sends saying women are their hair. It’s a damn lie. Our feminine messages of expression come through our mouths, bodies, the way we walk, talk, move and carry ourselves. Our hair and how we wear it are extensions of that expression, sprouting through our scalps, connected to our brains, representing our interior, our inner being, our soul, our life. Yes, my hair is still there. I’m still me. I’ll always be a strong, confident, progressive, fish eating vegetarian who happens to love a protest, and enjoy wearing short dresses that show off my butterfly tattoo, while watching HBO, the occasional football game, or episode of “Glee,” and routinely tuning to CNN and Headline news, so I can pontificate on the economy and the state of Blacks in America.

I am not the hairstyle I choose to wear. That changes like a woman’s emotions. It’s as unpredictable and flakey as a hormonal teenager on her period. It’s multidimensional and often cataclysmic when it shifts. It’ll forever transition, forever evolve. And even when it does, I will still be me – even when I’m patting my weave, baby.

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18 Responses to “I Am Not My Hair”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I could never understand how women always have to be categorized by something as changeable and as superficial as hair. I know as I writer I’ve been called out by some women who have gone natural, stating that because I relax my hair I’m betraying my culture. Are you kidding me?? I’m saying to myself, “if they really knew me, my culture consists of Afro Cuban and Irish, so which culture am I betraying?? I see my hair as an outward accessory, not the definition of my character.

    So you rock that weave girl! 🙂

    Like

  2. Nice article…my wife went through something very similar.

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    Please have a look: http://www.twicketer.com and http://www.youtube.com/twicketer

    Thanks!

    Like

  3. This is a great article, and I enjoyed reading it. It made me think of my decision to rock wigs and weaves, and braids and twists and blah blah. I thought that i was hiding who I am when the truth is, I am someone who enjoys changing my appearance (well hairstyle) as frequently as I change my mind. I think the problem is that we as black women try to figure out ways to one up eachother, when its so obvious that hair is so subjective to your moods, and can be cut all off and grown back hundreds of times. You looked great with the dreads, and great with the weave. And if it makes you happy, then more power to you. I will continue to purchase my wigs, and once my hair reaches the length i want i will rock it out and full but NOT all the time, since i want to retain taht length. Anyway much success in your future!

    Like

  4. Another touch 2 the heart sistren…from 1 of the RASTAs dat touch his heart 2 you!

    Like

  5. As a dreadhead who wonders if she’s defining herself or allowing others to define her by her locks, I really appreciated this post. Perused some of the other posts while I was here. I WILL be back.
    I appreciate you speaking your truth.

    Like

  6. Great post and this is coming from a former relaxer loving, currently au naturale sista. I believe to each is own, what goes on in our inside is all that matters not the outside.

    Like

  7. I love this. I think everyone should be able to do what they desire. And I think that natural or not natural doesn’t make a statement unless you choose it to be. I have worn it all, loved it all, and now am into something that speaks to me for the moment. But I’m always changing and I so love your statement “I didn’t do this for you. I did this for me.”

    I’m not sure if it’s the expectation that we as black women are always suppose to stand for something in what we do but at the end of the day, we have to make decisions for ourselves!!!

    xoxo

    Like

  8. Hello, good morning! Came across this article on blacklatina.com and I must say, it speaks volumes. Hair will always be important to Black women – hell, Black people – but this take on hair gives that importance a new role. It matters because it shows that we’re multifaceted and that changing hair does not mean a changing personality.
    I’ve had natural hair most of my life, hate relaxers and swore I would never wear a weave. But girl, weaves are the business and the best of all worlds. You can get the look you want without changing the texture you have (which I appreciate because I don’t want perming remorse) and it doesn’t hurt that when I’m ready to go back to my fro, it’ll be huge – Peace and blessings and happy new year!

    Like

  9. You, my friend, are beautiful, empowered, and more yourself because you get it. We are NOT our hair, there’s so much more. Love your article. I have dreads also after being three years natural. You are beautiful and I understand you’re a writer, but don’t ever feel you must explain yourself. Just be you because you do it so well! Stay blessed 🙂

    Like

  10. Raqiyah
    You posed the question that is the crux of the matter – is the male species socialized or genetically predispositioned to being attracted to long, straight hair? There is a anthropological argument to be made for ample amounts of hair (It conveys health and a bountiful food supply thus an ability to produce healthy offspring) just as there is ample evidence about hip/waist ratio and balanced facial features (both which suggest the ability to produce healthy offspring). Hairstyles; however, may be more social than evolutionary. Just as body types (circa 1500 a two hundred pound women would have been the sex symbol of her day) are. Men and women are bombarded everyday with the image of long,straight (the color black seems to be in vogue) hair as the hair “style” worn by sexy,healthy,intelligent women. Black women have to do the most to reconcile with this image since our hair is not this style in its natural state. As you stated in your article, it plays mind games with you as an individual and with the people around you. The image is the issue – our challenge is to change the image to include a multitude of styles which convey sexiness, beauty, healthy, intelligent. I was a pre-teen in the 70s and I remember when “Black was Beautiful” and Angela Davis and Cleopatra Jones were the embodiment of the womenhood. I won’t judge you; its very difficult challenging the overwhelming images we see everyday. Its a form of fatigue; I just think you needed to rest.

    Like

  11. Mary ann Barry Says:

    I Am Not My Hair Dread to Weave ,In Corporate America you ARE your hair because that how they see you first. In this world sometime you have to change your outer appear to get would you want. Question? can I get a job interview wearing oversize blue jeans, sneaker, duo rag, because this how I dress and it comforable for me try it.

    Like

  12. carmella75 Says:

    You go girl…

    Like

  13. Msoutherngala Says:

    This was definitely a great read with my tea. I don’t believe in judging a person by what I see on the outside (including hair) beacause it can change in an instance. I am a natural Sista who has decided to wear my hair as I please, and right now I don’t see myself wearing locs.
    If you are happy with your hair, then I say keep rocking it, Sista.

    Like

  14. Shawn Aaron Caldwell Says:

    You are not your hair, but you are your lips, your eyes and your beautiful skin. You are black strong and intelligent. What more can I say?

    Like

  15. Shawn Aaron Caldwell Says:

    You are not your hair, but you are your lips, your eyes and your beautiful skin. You are black strong and intelligent. What more can I say? Can I say one more thing RA. I don’t like women with weave, but you had dreads so that says alot about you. There is something about us all that we have to except about ourselves even if we don’t like it. The question that we should be asking ourselves is, can we get beyond the superficial, and see this person for who they really are? Just because a person is down on there luck, doesn’t mean that we cant learn something from that person. Enjoy yourself, evolution is apart of our growing up if we allow it to be.

    Like

  16. The weird thing is Africans do not have this problem. I mean Africans like myself who grew up in Africa. I suppose there’s no need to prove one’s ‘blackness’ when you’re African. At the end of the day that’s what it really is about isn’t it? I’m glad you decided to do what you want with your hair bugger the lot of them I say!!!!

    Like

  17. D. Elaine Burgess Says:

    Wow! You must have been in my head because that story is all about me. I’ve been wearing wigs for a few years and recently cut my hair off to nearly bald. I did the experiment too to see how men/people would react to my many hairstyles. You’re right. Men fall all over themselves when they see the long straight hair. I met a couple of men when I had a wig on. When they saw me again without the wig, that was the last time I saw them. I could only laugh about it and be thankful I didn’t get into a relationship with their shallow behinds. I just posted on my facebook page yesterday that I’m happy being nappy. 🙂 Light skinned with the kinkiest hair I’ve ever seen. 🙂 I get compliments daily from family, coworkers, and strangers, but the men still can’t seem to deal with it. I’m keeping it short just to prove that I am not my hair either.

    Like

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