Welcome to Mane Character, a deep-dive on the mind-mane connection and how our hair impacts our mental health.
The first time I was called “tender-headed,” I was four years old. I’m still blurry on who said it exactly. I don’t believe it was my mother, but she was my priority hairdresser until I was nearly seven, so that feels like a possibility. I was in the kitchen of our home in West Hartford, Connecticut, sitting next to the gas stove, the same gas stove where I had placed my palms on a pancake griddle a year or two prior. Now, it was the heating source for the red hot comb pressed next to my scalp to burn my hair follicles into a different texture. I flinch, because, well, there’s a red hot comb next to my scalp, and I am four years old, and it is Sunday and I just want to be watching cartoons with my siblings! That flinch somehow equated to my scalp being too sensitive; too easily taken out by something as measly as a little hot comb.
I’m fairly certain my mom still has that hot comb.
I didn’t realize being “tender-headed” was a demeaning term until I was 10 years old and had cut my hip-length hair into “layers.” That mistake somehow led to me sitting in a chair at the Metro Detroit Salon, surrounded by all the aunties, about to undergo the rite of passage that is getting your first relaxer. Those who are said to be "tender-headed" often struggle with this type of chemical treatment, as your personal and emotional strength hinges on how long you’re willing to tolerate it. (Disclaimer: I’m not coming for those who have returned to relaxers in recent years. I’ve considered it myself, even knowing about the lawsuits. Whatever makes your hair manageable for you.) I was so determined to wipe the scarlet T of tender-headeness off of my chest that I once let my hairstylist forget about me during a relaxer day, and I wound up picking scabs off of my scalp a week later. But my hair? She was laid, honey.
Guinea-pigging myself for the sake of beauty was down to a lifetime of being told, “You have to suffer to be beautiful.” Sometimes it’s good, like the results of a chemical peel; sometimes it’s bad. This one was very bad. When I had to do my own hair for the first time, I realized that I may not actually be tender-headed, but rather, have a natural human reaction to enduring pain under extenuating circumstances. But how much pain, and how much-weaponized language, should I be expected to endure?
What does the word "tender-headed" mean?
Scalp tenderness or sensitivities can be caused by conditions affecting the tissues, blood vessels, and nerves below or throughout the scalp. Other reasons for scalp sensitivity include sunburn, alopecia, dermatitis, and head lice. But being tender-headed isn’t a medical term. Rather, a cultural one. Trichologist Bridgette Hill explains that the level of a person’s scalp sensitivity can even be attributed to something as simple as repeated excessive tension of a particular hairstyle, improper use of styling tools, or symptoms of more extensive scalp and nerve conditions such as occipital neuralgia. “Occipital neuralgia is scalp tenderness due to the nerves that run from the back of the neck to the forehead,” Hill says. “Though this condition is rare, if scalp tenderness is pervasive and severe without any visible symptoms, considering the nervous system would be the next logical step.”
Tender-headedness may be a result of hair combing, brushing, and styling techniques, too. Often, particular hair types and textures are handled too aggressively while styling, which stresses the follicle and impacts the blood vessels and nerves. If you’ve ever left the salon feeling like your stylist took out their frustration on your scalp, well, there’s a reason for that. Other common reasons for personal variations in scalp tenderness can range from genetics to stress levels. There’s no actual way for your hairstylist to look at your scalp and determine that you are “tender-headed,” as there is no measurement to identify the level of sensitivity a person has to their hair or scalp. “All scalp conditions are typically multifactorial, meaning to successfully manage scalp conditions, it requires all possible underlying root causes to be taken into consideration,” adds Hill.
I say that being tender-headed is more of a cultural notion because I see brands catering to sensitive scalps all the time, but those brands don’t seem to be making products intended for me and my multi-textured, kinky-curly natural hair. The theory of being tender-headed is linked to a term coined by psychologist and hairstylist Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, called “aesthetic trauma”.
What is aesthetic trauma?
She introduced the concept while developing her Guided Hair Autobiography — a research assessment that prompts individuals to recount their earliest memories of hair, including the people involved and their emotional experiences. Aesthetic trauma describes distressing experiences related to beauty, highlighting how these early memories can be profoundly emotional and impact an individual's present understanding of themselves and their beauty. It is a cyclical and deeply embedded process that can be emotionally painful, depending on a person's experiences. It's easy for us to internalise certain words or phrases like tender-headed, for example. These words can impact our present tense understanding of ourselves and our beauty, suggests Dr. Mbilishaka.
In essence, while we love the Black hair salon experience for what it stands for, it may have had a hand in Black women’s aesthetic trauma. Dr. Mbilishaka cites psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who famously said that we all exist within social ecosystems that influence our identity. “With that,” adds Dr. Mbilishaka, “you can think of the most central part, which includes family, peer relationships, school, but also larger society and watching television and movies,” she says. “These things emphasize and perpetuate the aesthetic of the Black women and the expectations that they have, and the point of comparison to ourselves. I think it's multi-rooted in terms of the intergenerational transmission that happened.” We’ve all fallen into our own internalized notions of colorism, and especially texturism — and being called tender-headed is just another way to fuel that notion. It’s “good hair” vs. “bad hair” all over again. It’s a little more gentle than calling it “nappy,” because “tender” is a good thing, just look at chicken tenders! They’re great!
I digress. It’s not bad to be sensitive — but in a tough, emotional world, being sensitive is lobbed about as a criticism. Both Dr. Mbilishaka and I think tender-headedness is a real condition where the scalp is extremely sensitive. People do experience pain and discomfort during hairstyling or washing, but it's common for people who have natural hair to experience it on a differing scale because of the impact of detangling the hair or pulling of the hair compared to people who have relaxed hair or non-textured hair. That’s kind of the point: I don't think that the term tender-headedness can even exist in the same manner in other communities because their tangles are not the same as my tangles — in more ways than one.
The language we use about the hair on our head has always been an irk to me because it feels deliberately confusing: What exactly makes a flyaway hair “pesky”? The haircare section is already segregated enough, and it doesn’t help that sometimes the language and terminology used is intended to make the user feel shamed and isolated — as if it’s absolutely your fault that you have split ends and you must do everything you can to not only get rid of them but make sure they never happen again. This goes all the way up to the top: The people in charge of making the products don’t have to explain the language they use to market them because the consumer isn’t taking a second to think about what the language used to sell those products actually means, whether it’s internalizing and perpetuating negative self-talk without a thought. We — meaning Black women — deserve more across the board, from every angle, when it comes to our hair. From correcting the laws that allow us to be discriminated against for our hair type and texture and calling out the unregulated (and infuriating) modern hair appointment booking style, to literally not shaming children for flinching when something hot is placed near their face. When is getting a relaxer actually going to be relaxing? My hair is not something that needs to be tamed.
What is hair depression?
This negative language perpetuates a deep dissatisfaction with one's hair, which is known as "hair depression". It can significantly impact a person's self-esteem and emotional well-being. Dr. Mbilishaka describes "hair depression" as a mismatch between how an individual wants their hair to look and how it actually looks. “Our hair is a complex language system that can tell how old someone is, their marital status, maybe their spiritual beliefs and cultural connection. Because hair is the most easily manipulated part of our racial aesthetic, I think it holds a lot of emotional weight,” she says. Dr. Mbilishaka adds that we can't change our skin color day to day, nor is it possible to regularly change our facial features. We can, however, switch around our hair when we please.
Depression, in particular, can show up in the hair in terms of people not being able to take care of it. It may become matted, for example. Others can leave a long time between washes or leave their braids in for too long. When someone is experiencing a depressive episode, hair care and styling (which takes a lot of time and energy) often fall by the wayside. Whether it's fatigue or even a sense of worthlessness, it can be easy to forget to invest in self-care. For Black women, though, hair is often one of the major ways that we take care of ourselves.
Then there’s "hair stress," coined by Dr. Evelyn Winfield Thomas, which refers to the emotional weight and dissatisfaction that can accompany the hair care process, particularly for Black women. The pressure to conform to certain beauty standards and the emotional toll of both maintaining and styling hair can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. These experiences can lead to reduced self-esteem, increased emotional distress, and a negative impact on overall well-being, highlighting the significant psychological effects of dissatisfaction with one's hair.
Dr. Mbilishaka reminds me that the hair care process is rooted in concepts of racism or white supremacy. “When Black people were first enslaved in this country, our hair was called wool or fur — this was a technique to dehumanize people. Because if someone was seen as an animal, then they could be treated as such.” The ability to demean someone based on your personal opinion of them being ugly, unattractive, “nappyheaded’, or any other negative term for something out of their control is part of how white supremacy thrives. That’s how terms like tender-headed can lose their entire meaning — it sounds like a compliment, but it might not actually be one. We’ve talked a lot about eradicating Eurocentric beauty standards — but now it’s time to get to the root of how we talk about our hair, starting from where it all began. Pun intended.
Our hair is a litmus test of what’s going on in the back of our minds, and the words we use to talk about it reflect that. More than ever, particularly in the age of social media and its nearly unattainable beauty standards, it’s time to be cautious of how we project those standards onto others. Yes, it’s good to encourage diverse representations of beauty in media, advertising, and popular culture to normalize a broader range of hair textures and styles — but until we can get there, we’ve got to learn how to develop boundaries and shields from other people's negative comments about our own hair. A term like tender-headed doesn’t send me into a blind rage as much as it did previously, but it’s still one I don’t use in my regular life.