A quick preamble to this post: HuffingtonPost recently featured the story of documentary filmmaker, Erikka Yancy, who, due to insecurity about her appearance, spent $25,000 on weaves over the course of her adult life. The story is honest and eye-opening, and HuffingtonPost invited me (Leila) on HuffingtonPost Live to speak with Erikka and Celebrity stylist Elgin Charles about the article. I’ve included a clip of the article and embedded the discussion we had about it below.
It was a long road to recognizing my racial identity crisis. I did not realize it in junior high when I basked in the glory of being told by my friends that they did not consider me black because I “wasn’t loud and didn’t talk like the other two or three black girls [in our grade.]” I did not catch a whiff of it in high school when I would spend hours of my freshman year with a test tube clamp on my nose, desperately trying to make it smaller and narrower. It was years later, when I was in my 30s and I proudly proclaimed, “I am the least intimidating black woman I know!” The words had barely left my mouth before the shame and awkwardness of that statement hit me. My stylist and I were talking about my latest crush and the chance he may not like black women while I sat in her chair and she weaved fourteen beautiful inches of slick straight Indian Remi hair onto my head. The nausea came with the following thought, “Since when do I buy into that ‘intimidating’ stereotype?” Do I really mean whitest black woman? Am I still trying to be white?”
Before anyone gets upset I am not saying that women who get hair weaves have fantasies of being white. This is my story and my experience. If you see yourself in it or feel indicted after it, think about it — then forget it; or don’t, it’s up to you.
I grew up going to predominately white schools and continued to do so throughout my entire educational career. From kindergarten through graduate school I was the one or one of the few black students. I am also very much a product of my family lineage; no matter how thin or heavy I am, I always have full hips and thighs — and they started to look that way when I was about 13. Just around the time when my white female classmates all looked like what Vogue idealizes as the perfect woman, super thin and lanky. My body image took a beating until I went to acting school (college for me) and my voice and speech teacher told me to get over myself; “some woman somewhere is spending tens of thousands of dollars to implant the lips and hips that you were born with.” I saw myself differently after that. But nothing could make me appreciate my hair.
I have always hated my hair. That is not true — I can remember a time, pre-kindergarten, when I wore afro-puffs and would go to my Aunt Georgia’s house and she would cornrow my hair for the summer. During that time I was indifferent about my hair because I was four. I remember being little and running around with a half-slip on my head, pretending it was my long blonde (sometimes dark brown) super straight and shiny hair. I would fling it over my shoulder and whip it back and fourth, decades ahead of Willow Smith. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure I imagined my eyes were blue which should have been a warning. But I was a little kid; I didn’t know to look out for these things.
My real hair did not blow in the wind or swing back and forth. It was not yellow and shiny like Karen’s, or brown and slick like Judith’s or even braid-able like the other black girl’s hair. It never got long; it was just frizzy and big. Kids would touch it and say “Eww greasy.” My mom would tell me to tell them not to touch it, which I’m sure you know was super effective in second grade. There was this one kid who loved to complain he couldn’t see over my Afro in class. Grade school seriously sucked.
When I got to high school, I discovered relaxers — but that was a nightmare. I had grown my hair out to my shoulders at the start of freshman year, but I damaged it so badly with curling irons and blow dryers and whipping it around, that by second semester I had to have it cut into a permanent Halle Berry hair cut until I graduated. But the year before my graduation, a film that would change everything had been released — Poetic Justice. If you haven’t seen Poetic Justice you’re crazy and there’s no hope for you and also you missed the dawn of the box braid. Janet Jackson and Regina King wore these beautiful long box braids in the film. Black women with long hair that they did not have to grow! What?! I wanted them immediately.
My sister knew someone that knew someone who knew this woman that could give me the hook up. I finally convinced my mother that braids would be a good thing, and she took me to this woman named Star’s house and left me there for nine hours. That’s right, nine hours. That’s how long it takes to have long hair. Star braided my hair so tightly I couldn’t lay my head down to sleep. I took Advil for three days. She smoked a pack of cigarettes as she braided, cussed out her kids and a host of other things I wish I didn’t know. But when she was finished, I could put my hair in a pony tail and wear it on top of my head. I could whip it, and throw it over my shoulder. I was never going back to my hair again.
I left for college in Chicago two days later. While at school, I tried all different types of extensions and braids. I explored the African hair braiders that were famous up and down Clark Street, I found students willing to do hair for pennies and I discovered weaves! I got so much attention for my hair. I changed it nearly every two months and everyone always thought it was really my hair, or at least I convinced myself they did. I prided myself on getting realistic styles. I didn’t even really know what my own hair looked like. I was cast in roles based on my hair — but which hair? Once I had to reshoot a scene for a movie and could not remember which hair I had for continuity. That was pretty funny.
But even with my weaves and extensions, I still felt like an outsider. I felt like I was not black enough for one group or white enough for another. I felt like I confused people and that they did not know what to make of me, but in reality I didn’t know what to make of myself. Trying to “fit in” had made me feel more misshapen and gray than ever. So one day I just decided — because I only operate from two points, inaction and impulse — to walk into the salon and have them remove my weave and cut all of my hair down to its natural state. I loved it. I felt free and centered and beautiful. Then I walked onto the street and immediately felt like everyone was looking at me differently and I did not like it. They did not smile at me the same way. Men didn’t look at me the same way. Friends did not know what to make of it. “It makes you look more severe”, “You look more ‘ethnic'” and “I liked it long” were the most common responses. Twice in the grocery store a clerk called me “sir.”
I bought a wig.
Over the next 15 years, I spent 90 percent of the time in some form of weave, wig, extension or braids and 10 percent of the time impulsively cutting it all off and trying to wear my hair natural. Inevitably a day or two into being natural I would go running back to the beauty supply store to buy more hair of some type. I was so confused that once after watching Chris Rock’s Good Hair, I literally had an emotional breakdown in my stylist’s chair. I have done the math and from the time I was 18 until early 2013, I have spent $25,000 getting my hair weaved, braided or extended and just over one and a half years sitting in a chair having it done. When you want to fit in you’ll do just about anything. I am not saying that people that wear extensions want to be something they aren’t anymore than someone who drinks is automatically an alcoholic. But I was still a little girl with a slip on her head, flipping her blonde hair around, imagining herself with blue eyes. I just didn’t realize I was still doing it.
Click here for the full article on HuffingtonPost.com