Hair is a big deal. I have had every hairstyle that a black woman can have and still have hair on her head: hot combed, afro, relaxed, Jheri Curl, extensions, back to the afro, and dreadlocks. I had so many different hairstyles, that for at least five years, I didn’t match my driver's license photo. In 2004, I underwent some dramatic changes. I had gastric bypass surgery and lost 80 pounds, I got my first tattoo, and I made a commitment to my hair and got dreadlocks. Early on, it was rough. Although my natural hair was long, when the stylist twisted it make my locks, it was shorter by about two-thirds and my biggest fear came true, I looked like that motherfucker from The Little Rascals! But as time when on, my hair grew. And grew. And grew. Had I let it alone—as I should have—I would be able to sit on it now. However, in 2014 I went through, what I'll call, an existential crisis. It was a inharmonic convergence of a bad term teaching, pissing way half my paycheck on bullshit (thank God for the bailout from First National Bank of Big Sister), and feeling lost and empty all the time. What do most people do when things don’t go their way? Well, some drink, some take drugs, some try to fuck their problems away, and some just say fuck it and fall asleep. Me? I do something ridiculously drastic to my hair.
I used to be a spur of the moment kind of girl—you know, if a friend came up with something that sounded like fun—like driving to the Dairy Queen in Indian with a couple of guys we just met—or something fun and risky—like driving to the Dairy Queen in Indian with a couple of guys we just met—I was down. Looking back I realize I’m lucky I made it through 20s without ending up face down in a shallow grave in the forest preserve. Now when I think about making a change, I take my time. I ponder it. I write about it in my journal, I propose it to my trusted inner circle, and I query my electronic mentors: Dr. Google and at that time, Curly Nikki, Napturality, Carol's Daughter, and a site that sold something called a Knotty Boy Dreadlock Removal Kit. I watched hours of YouTube videos that showed how to take my locks down—without losing most of my hair in the process and ways to style my newly acquired tresses. My idea was to lose my locks and just wear my hair long and natural. So, I ordered the Knotty Boy Kit and waited until the weekend just in case anything went wrong, so I’d have a couple days to fix it.
Friday night I got home and washed my hair with the shampoo from the kit. I saturated one lock with the removal lotion, sat on the side of my bed, and, with the pointed end of a rattail comb, worked it through my lock. Two hours, some extreme shoulder fatigue, and a small ball of hair later, I had unraveled an inch and a half of hair. I was tired, frustrated, and felt even more hopeless than I had before. That’s when I realized it would take about a month for me to undo one-quarter of my hair—nights, weekends, holidays, and days off included. I went into the bathroom and took a long, serious look at myself and my hair. It was well past my shoulders and in my fantasy, had I been able to undo it, I would’ve looked like Diana Ross—full and curly. You know, the kind of carefree hair that everybody wants but few people have? Then I focused on that inch and half of loose, wavy hair that brushed against my right cheek and I knew what I had to do. You think I’m gonna say I cut that loose part off and went about my business, right? Oh no Fam, that would’ve been much to easy.
I went back into the bedroom, found the scissors, grabbed a handful of locks—I had about two inches of new growth—cut them off, and released the breath I hadn't realized I had been holding. What remained stuck out like wires desperately reaching out to be connected to something. Immediately my head felt lighter, lopsided even. I said aloud, “Damn Girl, you are in this shit now.” I went back into the bathroom, methodically snipped off all my locks and tossed them into the toilet. Why the toilet? I don’t know. I guess if I’d just put them in the garbage I might have been tempted to take them out and try to glue them back on. The toilet was the portal of no retrieval. Think about it: If you drop a quarter in the toilet, even in the one at home, you would think twice before sticking your hand in there, right? Or is it just me? Anyway, I stared at my reflection and teeny parted afro—my head so light it seemed unattached—glanced down at the toilet bowl full of what looked like amputated tarantula legs.
I got back in the shower and washed the ineffective goo out of my hair. I was relieved that my hair didn’t stay separated like it had been because that would've been fucked up. Like most people I know, I had about a hundred bucks worth of partially used make-up and hair products in the bathroom vanity, so I dug through and found the half used bottle of Kiehl’s Crème with Silk Groom. It smelled fantastic and tightly curled my hair. When I looked in the mirror, my mother looked back at me, and I was exuberant. That Monday I walked into work to a gaggle of wide eyes, open mouths, and a chorus of “Ohhh! You cut your hair!”
I had done it. I had chopped off my locks, given myself a new look, a new attitude, and a new me! Or so I thought.
Like most quick fixes, the newness didn’t last long. I had gone from normal, carefree-let-it-rain hair that I didn’t have to comb to hair that had to be slathered with even more expensive goo, and styled every day. It was a pain in the summer, but I endured it. In the winter, I had to go outside with wet or hair worse, put on a hat that crushed my curls, and that's when I realized the enormity of my mistake. Plus, all that renewed I-feel-so-good-inside had been quickly replaced with the same old dread that I had before, it was just wrapped in a different package. A package that required more attention, money, time, and care than I ever wanted to put toward most things, least of all my hair. I thought chopping off my hair was returning to ground zero, rebirth, a fresh start. It was anything but. I still felt empty and had the added burden of styling my hair everyday.
A year later, I was scheduled for hip replacement surgery and I rationalized to everyone around me that I needed to re-lock my hair. Lying around the house for two months and being only partially mobile I wouldn’t be able to do much with it. That time I didn’t have to consult Dr. Google or anyone else. I knew I was doing. It was the right thing. Yeah, I had cut off ten years of hair in an attempt to find something and what I realized was I hadn’t lost anything, just buried it.
I used to color my hair because I thought the gray made me look old. The truth is I am old. Older than that goofy 22 year old who made hideously bad decisions. And old is good, when you consider the alternative. In 2016, I stopped coloring my gray. If I really wanted to start over, really wanted connect to the me I thought I had lost, I had to let her come through—gray hair, titanium hip, and all. Add to that a weekly therapy appointment, a handful of anti-depressants, and a no interest payback arrangement at the First National Bank of Big Sister, and I am truly renewed me.
About the artist...
Phyllis Porché grew up on the south side of Chicago and is a writer, storyteller, teacher, and fiber artist. She is a Moth StorySlam winner and has told stories at Literate Ape, First Person Live, This Much is True, and other local live lit events. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and crocheting scarves for donation through her church. Her secrets to writing are late nights, good wine, chunky peanut butter, strong coffee, and writing by hand, but not all at the same time.