Plaiting. A birthright.

September 17, 2010

Image taken from the Washington Post, from a photo gallery titled The Roots Of It.

My hair issues started early. For as long as i can remember the association of hair with pain and shame were all i knew. This carried through to adulthood.

That period around late September was a haven for the nit epidemic at school. They went rampant, feasting on a gallon of infant scalps, laying eggs and depositing waste in open sores for little ones to scratch and rub in, concocting a filthy infected wound.

It’s reported that children with Afro-Caribbean hair (wearing hair in tight cainrow plaited styles) are less likely to suffer this fate, due to the exposure of a nit with intent and increased hair density. The tight plaits are also beneficial when it comes to nit checks as it makes it’s over with in a flash.

A gaggle of five years olds lined up to determine our fate. Some were pulled out in a disgraced firing line separated from the rest of the kids and sent home for urgent treatment comprising of a foul smelling solution applied to the roots of the hair, not dissimular in scent to hair relaxer, only to return to the playground battleground and be teased by other kids (but saved by teachers stating that knits only inhabit clean hair) thus starting the retaliation of us previously redeemed as scot-free.

‘Dirty hair! Dirty hair! How come you don’t have nits? You don’t wash that’s why you look like poo!’ a mortifying taunt rings shrill.  I couldn’t explain it. All i knew is that once a fortnight (or three weeks if i could get away with it) i’d be subjected to a form of torture:

1) Shampoo – three times for luck, a rigorous scrub-scratch action

2) A conditioning treatment plus comb through – i always wanted my hair to stay like this; tiny curly ringlets that bounced when i moved my head)

3) a rough towel dry – turning the ringlets into my ‘Chaka Khan’ mane. It wasn’t appreciated at the time.

Followed by the moment i’d dreaded 4) Kneeling down on a cushion, tub of grease/pomade, agonising deeply gouge and slice of my scalp with the comb to part the mop into managable sections that would then be combed, brushed, greased, then brushed again until piles of tumbleweed styled (and sized) hairballs would emerge. I’m not talking about a peuny cat hack sort of affar, these were serious, larger than head sized hairballs that could collect on the carpet in chunks, representing the weeding i had just endured.

After the general parting came the fine parting, a scrupulous strand by strand splitting to get the intended cainrow perfectly straight. Head to mums knee, my hairstrands would be pulled so tightly away from my scalp the skin around my forehead and eyes would be taut sharper than a recent Joan Collins facelift.

I wasn’t allowed to move as mum wanted to get it just so. My nose and mouth were stuffed against the bone inhaling her scent through her hoisery. The TV audio now muffled making me yearn with intregue to glance at it to distract from the pain. I’d be crying by now, silently, as i’d be hit on the hand with the hard comb if i made too much noise- protesting only prolonged the pain.

And so four hours later (if i was lucky) it would be over.

My answer to those inquisitive taunting kids about why i didn’t endure this ritual every day was wasted. How on earth could they possibly understand, with their straight, fine European locks?

My goal was to keep my hair as neat as possible and I was ordered to wear a ‘head piece’ which was actually the top part of a pair of tights. Yes, the gusset. My mum was advised when i was six months old and having my hair braided was that this was the best way to keep my hair as new and as scraped back and frizz free as possible. So old hand me down tights that were no longer good for mum’s Radio Rentals uniform were passed to me, knotted at the feet, to put over my head before bed. They were put on as mindfully as possible, starting at the back, tucking my long plaits in and around my head, then putting the waistband of the tights wide to take in teh rest of my head without touching the plaits resting finally on the front of the forehead- the most critical area. See, the loose ‘baby curls’ at the front were unsightly. No-one wants a loose frizz ‘halo’, so it was important these were tamed and hemmed down (and still to this day done with a scarf rather than old hoisery hopefully emulating some kind of dignity)*. Removing the headpiece in the morning was as much a mindful practice. It’s a good job i wasn’t allowed to sleepovers, i would have died of shame to be seen like this by anyone other than my family.

The headpiece meant i could keep a style for longer, but it was useless unless it went in hand with static sleeping. Essentially i was trained to sleep with my head in one position, for rubbing my head from side to side would only breed frizz, regardless of the headpiece.

The problem was, I was a head-rubbing sort of child. This misfortune meant that at 8months old, the fine, jet black ‘cooley’, ‘good hair’ i was born with was literally rubbed away  at the back of my head from me habitually moving my head from side to side in the cot whilst sleeping on my back. Theories differ as to the reason for my repetative rocking but physically, it leads to one thing: Cradlecap.

My hair fell out and grew back the curly kinky mess it is today. Thick and dense like the lushest forest except lusture it lacks. It’s dry, dull and the most impossible area of my hair. The front, looser and more managable difiantly disacosiating itself from the back like a bus during the civil rights movement protested its shame. My mixed hair recipie is complete.

*NB take care to avoid ‘head piece giveaways’ to the public. No one need know of your shame. Once said front side is upon the forehead and covering the baby curls, gently drag back the tights to meet the front hair line. Or else morning indents will reighn supreme throughout the day and you will therefore be ‘busted’.

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