Let me set the scene: I have a comb in one hand and I’ve been sitting in the same spot on my living room floor for the past five hours. It’s my braid takedown day and call me dramatic but I’m close to crying actual tears. To my estimation, I have another 50 braids to take out of my hair and I look like, well… Black women know exactly how crazy I look right now. I want to give up but there’s no way I can pull off two afro-puffs and half a head of straggly braids. While a huge portion of my life has involved me taking my hair out and putting in a protective hairstyle, I’ve always struggled to have patience with the process — even with endless snacks and a 50-episode-deep TV series.
It’s at this very vulnerable moment that my partner (who had been relegated to the back room for the past five hours) peeks his head around the door and offers to help. Exasperated and so very, very dramatic, I whisper defeated, “Yes, please” and hand him the comb and scissors. So, he carefully cuts out my fuzzy braids with the scissors while I rest my aching arms and devour a huge multi-bag of crisps. He works fast, laser-focused, gradually pulling apart the braids that were hard to reach at the back of my head. We’re like this for two hours. And I completely submit to the loveliness of it all.
We’ve never done this before. My haircare is business I typically keep between myself, my hairstylist and my mother (the hairstylist in question). But, for the first time in my adult life, I felt comfortable letting my boyfriend (any boyfriend!) help me with my natural hair. To be clear, my Black mixed-raced partner was already familiar with my lovable Black woman-isms: I have more hair products than bathroom cabinet space and he already knew that when I say “I’m getting my hair done” he may not see me for the entire day. But, having him take out my braids felt different. In the past three years of our relationship, we've had many milestones. Our first apartment. Our first holiday. Our first big argument. Letting him in on one of my sacred and private Black women’s rituals was an entirely new kind of first for the both of us — one that required me to let go of my need to always be “done” and “perfect” and be even more vulnerable with my partner. For my boyfriend, he simply had to prove that he was trustworthy with a pair of scissors. Why did I find this gesture one of the most intimate, bonding experiences we’ve had as a couple in recent times?
“This is what softness looks like for me in my relationship,” said a friend over Instagram. “It’s the display of patience and care, for me! The fact he’s taking an interest in something that matters to me and investing time in looking after me is so attractive.”
On TikTok — the hotbed for relationship and couple goals content — there are thousands of videos of Black women showing their boyfriends taking out their braids and weaves. There are the Black Love braid takedown videos (you know the ones where they’re playing neo-soul in the background?) and there are the braid takedown videos by interracial couples, which are supposed to show a partner’s appreciation and care for a hair texture that isn’t like their own. For all of the creators, it is a beautiful example of a soft Black woman and femme being cared for and the captions effuse cute romantic sentiments like, “he did good” and “my man, my man, my man…”. For the many people in the comments, the act of taking out braids is a sure sign of a good man, as one person wrote under a similar video, “This is a love language, ma’am.”
I’m not usually in the business of celebrating a man doing the bare minimum — showing care is an expectation for any relationship. But as I discovered, taking out my braids was not just a gorgeous way to show and receive affection but a quiet acknowledgement of how close we had become. “It was a bonding experience,” said my boyfriend, who prefers to remain nameless in all of my gushing articles about our relationship. “I was happy that you trusted me. I know you have complicated feelings about your natural hair texture and the fact you were happy to let me help was a great step as a couple.”
“I am not new to Black hair,” he added. “I had my cornrow days! But I’ll never truly understand the time and effort it can sometimes take to maintain tighter textures. Helping you take out your braids is one way to learn more about you.”
As a woman attempting to navigate the emotional minefield of heterosexual relationships, we’re often told that men make their feelings clear through their actions, rather than simple communication. The deluge of online relationship advice is usually preoccupied with deciphering a man’s true feelings by examining how he interacts with his significant other, and the so-called signs of a “good man” are as antiquated as “he buys you flowers”. I tend to expect much more emotional maturity from my partner. However, I do agree that actions can show you the content of someone’s heart. As a Black woman, if you show me care during my most Black woman moments then you’ve got me on your side.
At Unbothered we’ve often discussed the healing elements of our hair and wash day rituals when it comes to loving and valuing our authentic selves. I hadn’t expected that by taking care of my hair with the help of my partner, I was taking a step towards healing from my past relationships. There wasn’t much I would trust in my former partner’s hands, never mind my hair. Past bad relationships made me question my self-image and my importance beyond what I look like. It means I’ve had trouble letting go of insidious ideas of who and what a “perfect girlfriend” is — one who never has a hair out of place and is almost certainly wearing bundles. It took me months before my partner saw me in my bonnet and before I let him see me when I was sick. And don’t get me started on bathroom dynamics when we first moved in together. It’s hard to be vulnerable when you’ve been burned in the past but I’ve been working on being comfortable in my most unpolished veneer.
Earlier this year, I talked to relationship expert Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, LMFT about learning to relish in and thrive in the softer moments in my relationship. “Vulnerability means [you are] risking letting someone in. This person who I'm choosing, who's also choosing me, do they want to understand me?” she explained at the time. Seeger suggested that these vulnerable moments in my relationship — whether letting my boyfriend take out my braids or otherwise — are important parts of strengthening a couple’s intimacy. “When we think of intimacy it’s always intertwined with sex. But if we think of intimacy as this very separate thing from sex (although needed for a healthy sex life) and instead as this idea that [makes us ask ourselves] can I trust that if I open up you're going to continue to choose me, and you're going to continue to honour the fact that I'm worth getting to know, as I evolve?”
I don’t mean to sound facetious but allowing my person to go rummaging through my scalp is as intimate as it gets. I’ve never underestimated the unique role our hair can play in how Black women approach new relationships, especially with men (the stories about attracting different kinds of men on dating apps whether your hair’s natural or in a weave are endless and problematic). After navigating a dating world with men hellbent on touching my curls without permission, being simultaneously fetishised and scrutinised by simply existing as a Black woman, it is a privilege to play in my crown.
I know my partner understands the magnitude of this — why hair is never really just hair for Black women. It’s why I have been conscious of always taking stock of the small everyday moments of intimacy that strengthen our bond. And on this occasion, it was the first time he helped me take out my braids, and how we grew closer one braid at a time.