In Quarantine, Love Is Rediscovering My Hair
My aunt Jacqueline has been heavy on my mind during quarantine. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are of me sitting on the floor between her knees as she braided my hair. We’d talk for hours, laughing at episodes of Golden Girls, as her hands weaved back and forth.
I always liked the way I looked in box braids, especially during the summer, when I would undoubtedly be spending my days at the pool or in Antigua, where my family is from. But as is the case for so many young black girls who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I distinctly remember the moment I stopped feeling pretty in them. It was a silly insult—a kid in my fifth grade class called me “spaghetti head”—but for a girl who already stood out from her classmates in so many ways, it was all I needed to hear to want hair like everyone else. And just like that, my tradition with my aunt died.
I started relaxing and straightening my hair regularly in middle school and graduated to wearing weaves in high school. I also competed in pageants at a time when natural hair wasn’t really accepted, leading me to put my hair and scalp through so much trauma. It was only last year that I stopped wearing weaves and decided to embrace my curls and natural styles again. It took more than a decade, but I finally got tired of hiding my hair and, by extension, hiding who I was and the culture I grew up with.
My little sister and niece were also catalysts for me to embrace my natural self. They're growing up in an age when they are constantly bombarded by images of perfectly edited faces and curated lives. I don’t want them to feel as if they need to alter themselves to reach some arbitrary standard of beauty. If I wanted them to believe me when I said they’re beautiful just the way they are, I had to believe in myself too.
In March I was planning on calling up my stylist for some Senegalese twists; I wanted to give myself a break from doing my hair every day and wanted a protective style to help me grow out my hair and retain length. But before I could, New York went into lockdown as COVID-19 ravaged our state.
For everyone in New York City, it has been a supremely challenging time. It’s hard to focus on anything but the illness and death that has swept over our communities, our everyday lives disrupted beyond recognition. We are all grasping onto anything that can make us feel the tiny bit “normal” again. The term “self-care” is often thrown around to sell women products; it’s still happening during the pandemic. But for me, self-care during this time didn’t mean buying an expensive face cream or leisure-wear set. It meant sitting with myself and focusing on truly caring for my health, both mental and physical.
Now braids are a symbol of love and unbreakable spirit for me.
I started to think about how, when I’m doing my own hair, I see it as a task to get through. And the ritual I had with my aunt came back to me. For her, braiding my hair was never a chore—it was a labor of love. I wanted to shift my perception of it back to something I did to care for myself. But my years spent trying to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards meant I never learned how to braid hair, a fact I’m ashamed to admit as a Caribbean American woman.
So I went on YouTube and watched hours of tutorials on how to do box braids and Senegalese twists. I studied videos obsessively for a few days until I finally got up the courage to try it myself. I must admit, my first attempt ended with tears and me seriously throwing a pack of hair in the garbage. But after my meltdown, I took a breath and remembered I should have the same patience with myself as my aunt had for me. Although her hands were undoubtedly sore, she would braid my strands delicately until the job was done, even when I would start to nod off.
At 2 a.m., after six hours and several glasses of wine, I stood in the mirror and looked at my work. Some twists were bigger than others, the parts weren’t exactly straight. But I had actually done it: I did Senegalese twists on myself. I was proud of myself for not giving up when learning the technique felt impossible. Proud of myself for finding my way back to my culture after years of being lost. And proud for finally showing myself the patience and tenderness that my aunt and other people have shown me.
During quarantine, I’ve learned that when the world is in chaos, when everything around you is seemingly out of control, it’s really important to be kind to yourself. It’s easy to let people’s opinions or images on social media make you feel like you’re not doing or being enough. I certainly will continue to have my days when I pick myself apart. But now, in those moments, I’ll remember to go back to that feeling of being that little girl between my aunt’s knees or of being that woman who was finally gentle with herself and found self-love in the process.
Aunt Jacqueline passed away in 2016, but I'd like to think she's proud of me too, for realizing that braids can be more than just a hairstyle. Now they're a symbol of love and unbreakable spirit for me—and a tradition I can't wait to pass on one day. Hopefully, I can do cleaner parts by then.
Ashley Alese Edwards is a writer in New York City. Follow her on Instagram @ashleyalese.
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