I feel like I am finally experiencing the love that has always been my due, not just as a black woman but as a creature on Earth.
By Kim Wong-Shing
Knuckles in your roots, fingertips massaging your scalp, wrists pulling your braids into order—just the thought of it makes my breath slow down a little. Doing someone’s hair is an act of intimacy rivaled by few others, and for people like me, it’s so relaxing that simply watching someone else get their hair done is enough to induce tingles.
For black women, whose hair is a frequent site of struggle and oppression, this act of intimacy gains even higher importance. When someone who loves you does your hair, they are giving you the gift of human touch and the gift of feeling confident for days. But for me—an anxious, light-skinned, queer introvert—the intimacy of hair, and the other forms of closeness for which it is analogous, has been difficult to come by.
To let someone touch your beautiful, complicated hair, you have to trust them. Many black women identify deeply with the image of sitting between their mother’s legs as a child, having their hair combed. For such people, having your hair done may make you feel like a child all over again, safe in somebody else’s arms. But if you’re like me, instead of nostalgia what you feel may be closer to utter amazement. “I can feel this good?”
In my childhood home, there were no quiet, intimate moments between my white mother’s legs. When I sat down to get my hair done, it was with absolute dread—on my part as well as hers. She didn’t know how to do my hair, and though Google and Youtube didn’t exist at the time, I’m not sure that they would have helped. In her eyes, my hair was an inherently impossible thing.
Just like my parents neglected my hair, they also neglected my heart—they didn’t talk to me about difficult topics, didn’t tell me they loved me, didn’t ask me what I felt about things.
My father, on the other hand, was deeply ensconced in traditional black masculinity. Figuring out how to do his daughter’s hair wasn’t even on the table. After all, black women do men’s hair, not the other way around. Thankfully, that model of fatherhood is going by the wayside, as the plethora of videos of adorable dads doing their daughters’ hair demonstrates.
Just like my parents neglected my hair, they also neglected my heart—they didn’t talk to me about difficult topics, didn’t tell me they loved me, didn’t ask me what I felt about things. They did their best, but the effects are undeniable: I became an emotionally illiterate adult woman. I know, logically, that the emotional illiteracy is probably not related to the hair illiteracy, but it’s hard to ignore the parallels.
It’s a bit funny to me now, how there was simply no adult available to do my hair properly, and how neatly this models the overall frustration of being a black woman in America. Existing at the nexus of two oppressions, black women have to deal with the inadequacy of white feminist “allies” and the myopic egos of black male “hoteps”—neither of whom really gets it. My background means that I am privileged in innumerable ways, but a white woman and a black man were the two most basic archetypes I had at my disposal, and they were both lacking.
For black women, hair is one of those priorities that is reserved for sisterhood, not allyship. That sisterhood is everything, and it requires bravery. It is love, distilled. It’s why Lupita Nyong’o couldn’t bring herself to charge her friends money for braiding their hair.
As I sought emotional literacy as an adult, I went to therapy to learn to identify my feelings. I allowed myself to embrace my deep desire to be loved, and so naturally, I circled back around to the matter of hair. Finally, in my mid-twenties, I am learning to be brave enough to ask for love in the ways that I need it.
Most boyfriends were too scared to put their hands in my hair at all, just one of many fears that came between us.
Though I am queer, I’ve spent most of my dating years defaulting to relationships with men. I always knew the script for straight dating, and as an introverted femme, it came easily to me. Importantly, I also knew that these relationships would demand little real intimacy. I dated stereotypical men, men who were just as incapable of putting words to their feelings as I was.
Not surprisingly, I was also incredibly lonely in these relationships. And not surprisingly, not one of these men were willing to learn to do my hair.
Most boyfriends were too scared to put their hands in my hair at all, just one of many fears that came between us. Shyly—couching it as a joke—I asked my last ex-boyfriend if he would try to make one braid for me. Just try. He finally made a feeble, laughable attempt at a bar once, and I was so charmed by it that I wrote it down in my journal as a notable act of closeness in a relationship that was otherwise marked by its sterility.
When I found the strength to leave my last relationship, I knew that I was leaving all others like it. Enough was enough. I thought that I was destined to be alone for a long while; I thought that I had to deprive myself of any intimacy to learn to do it “right.” Instead, I stepped away from that man to find myself somewhere new, somewhere entirely surprising.
When my partner does my hair, or even plays with it in the car, I go into a state of absolute bliss.
Last night, I sat between my girlfriend’s legs, on a little ottoman in their living room. My partner is a black woman. Together, we are figuring out how to be intimate, how to be in love. We talk about everything. We wash each other’s hair. They challenge me to not only put words to my feelings, but to turn and look them in the eye and speak those words out loud.
Sitting between their legs reminds me of childhood, yes, but it’s not like reliving it. Instead, it’s like rewriting it: a new, better narrative. When my partner does my hair, or even plays with it in the car, I go into a state of absolute bliss. I feel like I am finally experiencing the love that has always been my due, not just as a black woman but as a creature on Earth.
Last night, my girlfriend applied conditioner onto my hair and braided it down. They used the gentle touch of someone who knows exactly what it’s like to be on the other side. The braid-out and the warm feeling in my gut both lasted for days.
Author Bio: Kim Wong-Shing is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She writes everything from love songs to web copy, usually while drinking tea with milk. Her work focuses on culture, identity, beauty, mental health and natural healing. She grew up in Philly and graduated from Brown University. Blog Twitter Instagram