The instructor requested all children to be “recital ready” at least an hour before the start of the show. For dancers, that meant costumes on and hair neatly pulled back into a bun. After running a dime-sized amount of coconut oil along the perimeter, I was able to slick my daughter’s hair into a puff. Not a bun, but a tiny afro puff. Like most styles, it included a few tears. When we arrived at the studio, my daughter took notice of the other girls — none of whom had my daughter’s distinct kinky, coily texture. “Mommy, how come my hair doesn’t look like the other dancers?”
When I was just 4 years old, my father — with my mother standing by his side — chemically straightened my hair. Even at this young age, I remember begging to get out of the chair when I felt the relaxer burning a hole through my scalp. I looked to my mother to stop this madness, but she actually agreed that my hair was just too kinky. With an elevated voice, every hair session included mom screaming one or all of these phrases: “Can’t get the comb through it!” “She won’t sit still!” “It won’t stay straight!” Worse than Mom’s frustration, there weren’t any little girls in books or on TV with a texture like mine — the media only confirmed what my parents believed. My hair, and any other person who had this texture, was flawed.
After a while, relaxers became common practice. Straightening my 4C hair was just as much a part of my routine as wellness checkups. Like clockwork, every 6-8 weeks, Mom would reach beneath the kitchen counter and pull out a kit that would convert my hair from kinky to straight in just 20 minutes. The women on the relaxer boxes were always smiling, but I certainly didn’t feel like smiling when my hair was being relaxed. It burned — and I didn’t want to transform into someone else. What was wrong with the hair I already had?
I wanted to ensure pride — at an early age, she must understand the beauty of her own hair.
It wasn't until I was 28 years old that I took it upon myself to break this habit. I stopped chemical straightening cold turkey; but when my natural hair first grew in, I didn't even know how to love the texture that I was born with. After the big chop, I rushed to the bookstore in search of inspiration that would help with the transition back to natural hair. A picture book with a little girl (in beaded braids) on the cover practically jumped into my hands. As I flipped through the pages, I saw myself. The young me who yearned for lessons of texture appreciation and self love. Although I had intentions on purchasing an adult book, I left the store with a picture book because I knew I’d someday read this book to my future daughter. I wanted to ensure pride — at an early age, she must understand the beauty of her own hair.
Written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, I Love My Hair! is a lyrical picture book that perfectly describes the unique beauty of our kinky, coily strands. First published in late ‘90s, the main character, Keyona, learns to appreciate her naturally kinky hair.
“When mama gets to the especially tangled places, I try my hardest not to cry, sucking in my breath and pressing my hands together until they’re red.”
In the opening scene, Keyona sits in between her mother’s legs while getting her hair combed. Not only does this bring back memories of me sitting between my own mom’s legs for styling, like Keyona, my daughter winces each and every time she gets her hair styled. When Keyona is uncertain about the utility of her hair’s texture, her mom helps her to appreciate all the wondrous ways in which Keyona can style her textured hair.
“Do you know why you’re so lucky to have this head of hair… because it’s beautiful and you can wear it in any style you choose.”
Each time I detangle my daughter’s hair, I remind her that having textured hair means being able to wear many styles. Like Keyona, I love to “plant rows of braids” along her scalp like “the way we plant seeds in our garden.” Braids provide protection for the strands. We just “wait and watch for them to grow.” An added bonus are the colorful beads that are placed on the ends of the braids that “click to the rhythm” of her walk. “Tap! Tap! Clicky-clacky!” is the music that her hair makes. This book eloquently provides imagery that both individualizes and normalizes our hair — soft like cotton candy and curly like a winding vine.
The main character also enjoys letting her hair be free. After washing it, Keyona’s hair shrinks into a textured afro. My daughter loves her afro, but like the main character, has been teased. I’ll never forget the day that my daughter — with tears in her eyes–told us that another child didn’t like her puff. “She touched and laughed at my hair, Mommy.”
A small part of me dreaded having this conversation with a preschooler. While both her father and I have praised her from head to toe since birth, it’s tough teaching our daughter self-confidence, especially when there isn’t adequate representation in media and in books. Instead of depending on other parents to teach their children tolerance and acceptance, I knew what I had to do with my own child. I grabbed Tarpley’s book as my daughter climbed upon my lap. “There’s nothing wrong with you. She just doesn’t know how magnificent your hair is.” As we turned the pages, I could see my daughter’s tears transform into delight.
I Love My Hair! is not just for parents and little girls with kinky-textured hair. This book is a valuable teaching tool for all children. Self-confidence and self-love are universal themes. I don’t ever want my daughter (or other children) to feel the need to change her appearance to make others feel comfortable. My hope is for her to understand that her hair is, indeed, a treasure — and reading I Love My Hair! is the perfect reminder.