"two strand twist out and tings" photo by instagram.com/preadolescentboy
photo credit IG preadolescentboy

“I’m embarrassed about finally having the energy to do my hair.”

In Part I of this series, “Negro Hair, the Fabric of Blackness: (Un)governable Textures,” I write about how our hair sets us apart from every other race and ethnicity, not only due to its texture, but also due to our unique relationship to the law — as those who have historically lacked personhood — and the specific governing of Black hair, especially that of Black women and girls. I want to expand this discussion and delve into one of the ways in which anti-Black ideology about hair places a larger amount of undue pressure on Black women with mental illness(es).

With mental illnesses like Depression, it is very difficult to motivate yourself to do basic tasks or take care of yourself, and that includes hair care. Black women suffer from high rates of Depression, as well as Anxiety, and PTSD, for reasons ranging from the 60% of Black women who experience sexual abuse before the age of eighteen, to the transgenerational traumas of chattel slavery coded in our DNA, to our daily warfare with misogynoir in a White supremacist and patriarchal society. The significant symptom that links Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD together as similar illnesses is fatigue, which is merely one reason why they can all be completely debilitating to those who are living with these conditions. When experiencing fatigue, whether mild or severe, as a part of mental illness(es), hair care is just one of the many things that become an extremely difficult to manage and emotionally draining task.

“I’ve cancelled plans and cried when I didn’t feel my hair was cooperating or tamed enough during some of my depressive states.

I’ve left my hair in a bun for over a week without taking it down because I was emotionally too tired to deal with it. Leading to literal knotted hair that I would comb through and cry without managing [or] being gentle to punish myself – in a form of self-mutilation.

It’s real – you aren’t alone.”

I have experienced a lot of breakage and damage in the past because I simply could not find the strength to tackle my hair. It takes more than two hours to shampoo, condition, detangle, blow dry, and trim it. It is a physical, mental, and emotional labor to do this because of the amount of time that I must spend standing with my arms above my head, using my fingers to detangle, using the blow dryer, etc. It’s frustrating and tedious and exhausting. I have stopped to cry in the middle of detangling or blow drying sessions many times before. I have recently taken to publicly asking friends on social media to hold me accountable and have permitted them to aggressively remind and encourage me to wash my hair. Otherwise, it might not get done. And this does not include the amount of time that it takes to style it after the washing and drying process – whether that be straightening, using perm rods, installing curl formers, etc. – or the time it takes to set the hair in twists or braids to be taken down the next day for a defined style. This does not include henna or masks or oil treatments or pre-pooing or deep conditioning. Ask any natural about “Wash Day” and they will likely have horror stories to tell.

“[H]aving braids eases that A LITTLE. But I’m still left with the fatigue accumulated by having to DO my braids. Their weight. Etc.

I find myself longing for MY hair when I’ve had braids in too long.

And then the anxiety surrounding DOING my hair sets in.

Cyclical. Depressive. Tiring.”

When you consider how many Black women are coping with Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD, and when you consider how anti-Black codes of acceptable/professional appearance operate and specifically target Black women in some instances, wearing natural hair becomes something that is political in practice in more ways than one. The reality is that it is something that is simply unsustainable for some Black women. This is a fact that we need to recognize, both in conversations about natural hair and in conversations about mental health for Black women.

“I see how people look at me and treat me when my hair isn’t super neat looking but they don’t know or understand [that] what I look like is the last thing I care about. My kids are fed and alive and that has to be enough. I don’t have the spoons to care about my appearance. I’ve resolved to just be okay with [it] being clean.”

I know many women who have opted to simply shaved their heads because of the emotional stress of maintaining their hair. I know many women who almost exclusively wear weaves and/or wigs because it reduces that stress and allows them to dedicate their time to other things in their life; work, family, socializing, exercise, etc. If I were to add up the number of hours that I have spent on caring for my hair in the past five years, I am certain that I would be appalled by the sum. Visits to salons and braiders rack up a large sum as well. The maintenance is expensive. Whether it be buying conditioners and oils or bundles and lace fronts. It adds up.

“I have cried and thrown brushes [because] of how hard it is to do my hair and, like, manage my emotions at the same time. Especially before work when I’m trying to look presentable and nothing seems to be working. It’s really hard and I wish more [people] understood.”

Black women often are not permitted to talk about the things that are difficult for us. We get called ungrateful complainers. We get gaslighted. We get victim-blamed. This disregarding of our valid emotionality is due to the Angry Black Woman stereotype as well as the Strong Black Woman stereotype. Our anger, no matter how legitimate, is immediately dismissed as being irrational and aimless. “Black women are always angry. Whatever they are complaining about cannot be as bad as they say it is. They’re over-exaggerating.” And admitting to being anything less than unbreakable leaves us disowned and dubbed as weak and useless, because “real Black Women”/”Black Queens” are inherently strong and can withstand anything. Black women essentially have Battle Fatigue, and no one seems to be interested in addressing our psychological wounds. We aren’t allowed to be vulnerable, in any way. We aren’t afforded the luxury of foregoing an intentional hairstyle and opting for “bed head” for a day or two, lest we be openly criticized and reprimanded for it.

“If I complain about how difficult and draining I find it to take care of my hair, it’s read as me being ‘ashamed’ of my hair or feeding into the negative stereotypes surrounding type 4 hair. That’s not the case.”

I have witnessed some naturals refuse to even admit that this maintenance is not easy for most of us. It ain’t easy. It is painstaking work, especially for those of us with thicker “type 4” hair. Admit to it. Own it. Nothing about being a Black woman is easy, including our hair care. And we should be able to talk about our struggles with it without people attempting to silence us or diminish the magnitude of the issue.

“It’s such a S T R U G G L E! And when I talk about cutting all of it off EVERYONE has an opinion! But God forbid I ask for help. [M]y hair too thick, too kinky, too long, too much for anyone to help me!”

When Kendrick Lamar and his ilk say “show me somethin’ natural” or when the many agents of misogynoir shame Black women for wearing weaves and wigs or call us “self-hating” for relaxers, they are not taking our mental health or emotional well-being into account. They are not considering the amount of time, energy, and labor that goes into maintaining our hair, especially “type 4” hair. Much of this is due to the fact that so many people tend to glorify “type 2-3” hair that is somewhat easier to manage than thicker hair with tighter coils and kinks. But, at the root, this is about people not caring what kind of labor they are asking Black women to do or what kind of daily barriers we have to traverse.

The quotes in this piece were provided by Black women who spoke with me about their own struggles with hair care while coping with mental illness(es) or some form of emotional distress. There were many others who were relieved to know that they are not alone in this exhaustion. The crying fits. The panic attacks. Breaking combs and throwing hair brushes. The sheer rage at having to dedicate so much time and energy and money to our hair in order to look “presentable,” “professional,” and “acceptable” in a society where our hair is considered to be none of these things without first being tamed to fit White supremacist expectations. And the disappointment in being pressured to either temper or unleash our manes at the aggressive behest of Black men who insist that we style our hair for their viewing pleasure, either to reify their own anti-Blackness or to adhere to their pro-Black royalty fantasy of having a suitable natural Queen to submit to their self-imposed Kingliness.

“The constant comments about shaving off ‘all my pretty hair,’ the snarky comments about my wigs. You didn’t see when I was crying alone in my bedroom with a newborn and matted hair, didn’t see how scared I was of myself and my inability to parent because of mental illness. Black men, shut the fuck up about our hair.”

From our mothers, grandmothers, and aunties yelling or mumbling that we “need to do something to that hair,” to the Kendrick Lamar’s of the world asking us to prove our authenticity and worth and Queenliness with our afros, to Carol in HR speaking softly to us about how our hair is “distracting” and “unprofessional.” The pressure to tailor our appearance in service of others is one that leaves Black women starved for a single moment of peace, especially Black women coping with mental illnesses, treated or untreated. Our hair is such a huge part of our daily battle against misogynoir and we deserve to be able to wear it however we want or need, and we also need to be able to speak openly about the moments in which we feel overwhelmed, unsupported, and alone because of it.

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Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She writes pop culture and media analysis, and is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies.


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