The Important Lesson My Grandmother Taught Me About Hair

Photo: Courtesy Of Jade Earle.
While most of my childhood friends were anxiously awaiting their first perm appointments or styling their hair in high buns with edges on the edge of extinction, all I ever wanted were gorgeous dreadlocks. Thanks to my mother, locs were the only hairstyle I knew as a young Black girl growing up in Queens. She went from wearing them dragging behind her back, to gathering them high above her head and wrapping them with scarves and patterned fabric pieces, using pins. From an early age, I was obsessed with how they looked and moved — swaying in different directions with uninhibited freedom. I wanted my hair that long. I wanted to look that regal. Finally, after two years of aggressive bartering (according to my dear mother), she allowed my cousin to start short locs on my hair when I was just 5 years old.

But there was one thing I didn’t realize about my desire to look like a queen: how much attention it would garner from my classmates. While most of them liked my hairstyle, others weren’t so in love, and they made it abundantly clear. One weekend, when I decided to tie my locs into Bantu knots to make them curlier, a classmate teased me, saying my knots were ugly and big. All I remember is crying to my mother as she consoled me. She taught me how to style and celebrate my hair with decorative, colorful accessories throughout middle and high school. Looking back, the only reason I kept my locs as long as I did was my mom. During a time when natural hair wasn’t yet praised in songs or celebrated in magazines, my family accepted my uniqueness and made me proud of my hair.

During a time when natural hair wasn’t yet praised in songs or celebrated in magazines, my family accepted my uniqueness and made me proud of my hair.

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Which is why when I decided to cut off my locs during my sophomore year of college, they were shocked. They remembered how long my hair had gotten by the time I was out of high school. But I knew it was time for a change. I was entering the young adult phase of my life, and I wanted to mark it as such. I was neither sentimental about the length of my hair nor ashamed of my locs — I just wanted something that was manageable and easy for my busy schedule. So when I booked my first buzz cut, I wasn’t afraid; I was excited.

My new short hair felt amazing and liberating. It was like a large weight had been lifted off my shoulders — my hair was no longer an issue I had to deal with every morning, and my new sense of style was reflected in my confidence. Now, instead of having something to hide behind, I was completely exposed. Whether I was happy, sad, or excited, everyone could see it on my face; there was no section of hair to gather in front of my eyes or pull on when I was nervous. My cut forced me to be honest with myself about my thoughts and self-esteem. In short, it brought me closer to myself.
Three years ago — when I first did the chop — I had no clue how anyone would react. The one person to whom I was nervous about showing my new look was my grandmother. Sure, I thought she was secretly a little glad to see my locs go (she preferred them washed, styled, and neat), but in her opinion long, straight hair was beautiful hair. Old photos of her in her twenties and thirties show her with curly hair as black as licorice cascading midway down her back. My mother remembers grandma as a younger woman religiously taking care of her hair. As she got older, though, she started experimenting with more relaxers and by the time I was born, the combination of perms and dye jobs had severely damaged her strands. But she continued making appointments because she thought she didn’t have any other options. Grandma’s hair soon became the personal area she didn’t want to be bothered with, and the topic she was too frustrated to discuss.

Opinions of my hair, on the other hand, were fair game. Grandma held nothing back when it came to what she thought of my look. But when I revealed my new hair (or lack thereof), she surprisingly had nothing negative to say. Her ideas on beauty were starting to change, and I could see her acceptance was growing. With her change in attitude, I gently suggested that perhaps a big chop was the answer to her own hair woes. She wasn’t completely against the idea, but she wasn’t totally on board, either. As much as she has her ideas of what looks good, she's even stricter about what she thinks looks good on her. And, she confessed, the reason she had worn her hair long all those years was that she felt like her head was too big to pull off a short cut. She used her hair to hide her face, while I cut off mine to show it. Funny how, even with decades on me, she had never stopped to think about what would truly make her happy.

She used her hair to hide her face, while I cut off mine to show it.

After a few weeks of debating whether she really wanted to go through with it, I called my barber to hold a spot in her chair for grandma to get a buzz cut the next day. (The choice to go was still up to her, of course.) When I walked into the kitchen from work that evening, she didn’t say a word. In fact, she didn’t need to say anything at all. The mop of hair that she had worried about for months was all gone. For the first time, I actually saw my grandmother’s gray hair in all of its frosted glory. She not only seemed more at ease, but her face brightened. “What do you think?” she asked, as she ran her fingers across her head in one swift motion. I was speechless. She looked great and, from the smile across her face, I knew she felt great for the first time in a while.

Grandma and I may not agree on many things, but we now see eye-to-eye on our hair. She still keeps hers short after her first big chop three months ago, and we often swap product suggestions. As an older woman, she reminds me of the great strides women have taken toward celebrating the texture and beauty of their manes. And she’s proven to me that you’re never too old to crawl out of your shell and walk with a new crown.
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