Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: Natural beauty rituals and bonding

You may have noticed that my recent posting has been light and a little frivolous. That's because I'm on vacation this week and I don't feel like thinking really hard. I've been avoiding news and political shows and even blogs, for the most part. So, yesterday when Republicans had the rest of the country thinking about "teabagging," (Hee!) I was thinking about cultural beauty rituals.

When folks start discussing black women and hair care, cultural rituals almost always enters the conversation. If you are a black woman reading this, close your eyes and think about sitting, trying not to wriggle, between your mother or grandmother's knees in the kitchen --the air thick with the smell of singed hair and grease--holding your ear, so the heavy, iron, pressing comb can navigate your edges. Think about a busy Saturday in a black beauty salon, all the "regulars"--the folks who share your biweekly appointment--lined up with their hair in various stages of "done"; think about the loud laughter, the gossip, the clucking over the latest celebrity scandal. Consider the night ritual of wrapping and pinning and binding hair with a satin scarf. While I deplore the reason many of us think we need to spend copious amounts of time and money "fixing" our hair, the fact remains that the process of female hair care is a part of black culture--a part of how black women socialize, bond and find commonality.

Most black women (I think the stat is 80 percent) straighten their hair. I don't. I still have hair care beauty rituals, but now they are different from those of most women. As thrilled as I am to be natural, I sometimes miss the bonding.

Yes, there are natural hair salons, but I haven't found the atmosphere to be the same as in traditional salons. Plus, they're often pricey. My hair beautification routine is so simple now. It seems ridiculous to pay someone else a mint to do something that I can do just as well myself. Although, I reckon I'll try one of these shops some time, just to be pampered.

I'm too lazy to spend time on most beauty regimens. My nails are a right mess. But my hair...I love treating it well. I spent yesterday giving myself a henna treatment. This is one of my new rituals, acquired since becoming a nappy. Henna, a flowering plant found in African, South Asia and Australasia, is a natural way to dye skin and hair a reddish brown. It is also said to strengthen and condition hair, enhancing it's shine.

About once a quarter, I carve out time to pamper my tresses with henna. I boil filtered water, steep green tea in it, mix the liquid into super-sifted body-art-grade henna, with a few tablespoons of honey (a natural humectant) for good measure. I work the resulting smooth paste through my hair, caking it like mud. The henna feels really cool and refreshing against my scalp. And everyone remembers from kindergarten that it is fun to squish and squeeze things. Applying the henna feels like playing. Then I sit around in my grubbies, watching TV (Yesterday it was old "Sex and the City" and "Lost" episodes) and playing on the Internet. Some 24 hours later (after rinsing thoroughly and deep conditioning overnight), my hair is all shiny and soft, and when I go into the sun (which decided to surface again after like five days), my dark hair has subtle coppery highlights (particularly around those couple of grey hairs that have mistakenly taken up residence on my young and nubile head).

There are not many African American women I can share the experience of squishing henna paste on my head with.

Today, I find the comraderie of the beauty shop online in places like Nappturality and Curly Nikki and Afrobella, where nappy-headed black women can bond over our common beauty rituals--big chopping, twisting, mixing moisturizing concoctions with glycerin and shea butter, searching for "hair twins," henna dyeing, starting locs, choosing between Oyin, Carol's Daughter, Qhuemet or kitchen-made products. And yeah, we do the gossiping and laughing, too. (It's just that the laughing looks like this: ROTFL) I am also lucky to have a few natural friends.

Caring for natural hair is really quite simple and takes little time. You might not understand that if you venture into a thread on a natural, black hair care board. The hair typing...the products...the concoctions...Oy! But it's not that we need to do all these things, it's that we want to. Everyone likes to be treated well and self care makes us all feel good, and it feels doubly good to share the experience with others.

This curly sister may have given up the perm, but rest assured I still enjoy the pampering.

Image courtesy of Elaina's Blueprint on Flickr


Kahnee said...

I'm natural and did my first henna last week. Loved it. Loved the color. I do not miss the money spent at salons at all. Especially since I felt horrible after I left because my hair was so flat and lifeless.

motherissues said...

I've been styling my partner's hair (first variations on twists, now locked for the past 15 months) for two years or so now, and I love how it brings us together. There's something so intimate about our quiet time with my hands in her hair while we talk or watch a movie. She was never one for the beauty salons anyway and I know she prefers our little DIY rituals, but I do think having someone else involved makes it more special. (Though I sure wish at times when she's being whiny and impatient that she'd just do it her own self!)

Anonymous said...

oh! just saw henna at my favorite beauty product shop. didn't know if it would work on black hair or locs!

alicia banks said...


i am locked for life...since 1997

alicia banks

Lady C said...

Tami, I love my hair natural. Though I hated going to the "beauty palor" just to sit all day to get my hair fried when I was younger; I must admit, the most relaxing part of the experience was leaning back over that wash bowl getting my hair washed.

I used to dye my hair with Henna because I read somewhere that it strengthens the hair and it makes the hair appear thicker. With thinning hair that flies away straightened or natural, I just wanted something to make it look as though I had thick hair. Henna did that for me. I'm glad you reminded me of it.

Miriam said...

Henna. What an idea!

I wear my hair natural too. This sounds worth trying. Also fun.

Sassy J said...

I have been locing my hair for almost seven years and I started at Black Butterflies in Virginia. That was definitely a beauty shop experience sans the "2 hour wait because the 11:00am was late for their appointment" or sitting in the chair for 5 hours. In the early stages, I was in and out within an hour. I recently went back to my loctitian after living out of state for 3 years, and even with my hair being waist-length, I was there in under 2 hours. I was explaining to her that when I was back home in California (and she used to live there too), locs were a fad...most people (men) where doing them for the "Hyphy" movement--think E-40s "shake them dreads". Anywho. It took me close to 6 months to find someone, and that's after I flew to VA the first 3 months to get my hair done! Why did it take so long? For one, most stylist didn't maintain locs. Secondly, they didn't do the interlock technique and NO I don't want no darn palm roll!, and third, THEY WERE SO DARN EXPENSIVE! I finally found someone who charged me $90. By the time I left in August 08, she was charging me darn near $150. When I went to my original loctitian last month, I expressed to her how much I had missed her and the was like I came home!

Sorry for being so long-winded

Los Angelista said...

You're so right that online forums have replaced going to salon. Although I don't miss the smell of burning hair or the $$ I had to spend, I do miss the social aspects of hanging out, talking about everything under the sun.

And I LOVE henna! I used to henna my hair back in my late teens because I was friends with a lot of Persian and Indian girls and they all did it. Funny how now that I'm natural, I'm back at it again, every 6-8 weeks. It makes SUCH a difference!

Anonymous said...

I must admit that I too always hated going to black salons, but for me it was because I never felt the comraderie that is supposed to be going on. I always felt isolated and rejected. As soon as I opened my mouth I would get the "she talk like she white" comment. Occasionally, I would find a place where I did not stand out by my speech, but by then I had stopped trying to engage in the atmosphere.

I love having locs that I care for myself mainly because it allows me to own my hair. But not having to subject myself to an atmosphere that had become poisonous to my dignity is an plus I cannot measure.

Tami said...

Sassy J,

Just curious--why no palm rolls? I think I am going to loc later this year, after three years loose. Of course, before I do, I'm going to do my research on the best way to start them. Are palm rolls a more difficult or substandard method?

Tami said...

Anon 2,

I understand. I had some of those experiences,too, but while living in Chicago was able to find salons that felt more accepting of me.

Sassy J said...


Please understand no offense to the palm rolling technique. The salon I go to exclusively uses the interlocking technique, which is very similar to sisterlocs. With interlocking, it allows the hair to lock within itself quicker and at least from what I've observed, is that it holds at the root longer. I can wash my hair, scrubbing all in the scalp, and after I've dried and oiled it, it looks just like it did 4-5 weeks ago freshly done. I am very pleased with this technique. I can send you a picture offline.

Depending on where you are there, many people do not do interlocking, but they may do sisterlocs, which as I said before, is similar but done a little different. Or, they use the interlocking as a "repair" method and not exclusively to the whole head.

There's an online book on doing the interlocking technique...trying googling "latch hook hair" or something like that.

But, Tami, if you've had palm roll before and you like that and it works for you, keep it!

Tami said...

No offense taken, Sassy J! I've never had palm rolls. Since I am thinking about locing, I've been grilling folks who have done it for info. So far, I've talked to someone with Sisterlocks, two people who started with twists, and I have a friend who started with palm rolls about 10 years ago. I am curious about people's preferences, cause I want to find the right one for me.

If you wouldn't mind sending me pics, I would love it:

PioneerValleyWoman said...

I have been natural for a while now, but on occasion I used to go to the salon to have my hair washed, trimmed, blown out and then pressed with the flat iron.

I have recently discovered, though, that I can do it just as well at home, so that is what I do weekly, wash it, blow it out, flat iron it and then set it. Saves money, of course.

I will get a trim at the salon once a month or so, but only do a trim and a blow out. I like the idea of the henna thing; I might want to try it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I have three different textures going on so most salons don't know what to do with me.Growing up I had to go through the ritual of sitting between my grandma's knees as she combed out my butt length hair.My mom got tired of it and had my hair cut off, and my grandma promised to haunt us if either one of us did that again.I did try to get my hair permed but because of the hair texture thing they never worked out right and I didn't have time to go to salons as often as I got older.Now, my hair is left to its own devices most of the time.I do still try to restrain it with gels and creams because I am not comfortable with looking like Rosana Rosanna-Danna.I used to hate the volume of my hair and envy the nice tamed curls I see some WOC get to rock, even the WOC who let their hair fall as it may look tamer than my own that just wants to form a pyramid of poof.
It gets hard to discuss hair with people who don't have some of the same issues.I avidly watch the shows about dealing with curly hair and get so disappointed to see it is someone who gets cute tendrils when they get out of the shower but just need to run a comb through it to straighten being used as a model.
Since I have moved to HI, it has been easier for me to embrace my hair.The ladies enjoy their fluffy hair.

GirlGriot said...

I've been natural since 1989 ... and I've been thinking about henna. Your description makes me want to run out and try it tomorrow.

I've been back and forth about locks for the longest time. I usually wear twists now and my hair is kind of long at this point, so I wonder just how high-maintenance it would be to start locks at this point (Sassy J, I'd love to see a picture of the interlocks, too if you wouldn't mind: It's hard to think of giving up my big Cleopatra Jones afro, though ...

Tami said...

Oooh, GirlGriot, I want a big Cleopatra Jones fro! Problem hair sort of flops instead of standing up.

Kia said...

I've been natural for over 4 years and feel fortunate to have a found a fantastic stylist but my relationship with her is much different than the ones I had with beauticians when I was relaxing.

There was an article I came across with the supposition that processed hair was keeping black women from a healthy lifestyle. Did anyone else read this? Goodness knows swimming has been made easier but weight is determined by my love of sugar and that hasn't abated since I've been Fabulaxer free...

And I'm going to try a henna treatment soon, thanks for the inspiration!

teendoc said...

Goodness I must be the opposite. I love going to the loctician. The place is fab and it is such a treat not to have to palm roll my own hair. Plus their palmrolls are much neater than mine are. No loose hairs.

And the styling! They style in ways I never could: ringlets, updos, fishscales. It's a real treat.

The funny thing is that even my white colleagues can tell the difference between when I've done my hair and when I've gone to Duafe. ;-)

teendoc said...

Oh and I forgot, I've been warned away from heavy products like Carol's Daughter for styling/twisting.

Sassy J said...

@teendoc-- I feel you! I love going to the shop! I will gladly pay for my loctician to do her magic...just washing me own hair is a chore!

And I agree on Carol's Daughters hair products...though it can work wonders on natural hair, on loced can be a nightmare. It's a good thing to stay away from thick, opaque shampoos and conditioners on loced hair...but each person is different, too!


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