A few weeks ago, I came home and, as soon as I walked in the door, T-Daddy said, “She wants her hair like Elsa’s*. I have no idea who Elsa is or how her hair even is. I tried to talk to her, but she’s really upset.”
I looked at TD1 who was sulking against the kitchen cabinet.
Me: Hey sweetie. What’s wrong?
TD1: I want hair like Elsa.
Me: Okay, well how is Elsa’s hair?
TD1: It’s down. Not like mine.
Me: Okay, well we can take your hair down and you can wear it like that tomorrow. Would you like that?
TD1: And it’ll look just like Elsa’s?
Me: No, it won’t look just like hers.
TD1: Because her hair is longer?
Me: Yeah, her hair is longer, but it’s also a different type of hair. So it just won’t look exactly the same sweetie.
TD1: That’s okay. When I never cut my hair, it’ll get longer and longer like Rapunzel’s and then it’ll look just like Elsa’s.
I looked at T-Daddy and we both shrugged. We had won the battle….or so we thought.
The next morning I began taking her hair down as promised when I noticed it was wet.
Me: Did you get your hair wet?
TD1: Yeah, I ran water over it so it can get super straight like Elsa’s. The water helps it grow.
Me: The water does help it grow, but it doesn’t make our hair get super straight. It does the opposite. It makes it more curly. You can still wear your hair down, but it just won’t be long and straight.
Uh-oh! That was the wrong thing to say. What followed was an hour-long emotional breakdown about super straight hair. She looked absolutely adorable in her twist-out, but it didn’t matter. Her hair wasn’t super straight. I let her cry it out by herself while I retreated, defeated, to my room. I pulled out her class picture in search of this Elsa girl. Who was she? How come we’d never heard her name before? Did she say something to my child? Where was this need for super straight hair coming from? TD1 has always been infatuated with long hair à la Rapunzel and the real Elsa, but nothing about straight hair so far.
I could just hear all the backlash I was going to get when our friends and family heard about this. See, that’s what you get for putting her in school with them white folks. She needs to be around people that look like her. How is she supposed to know she’s beautiful if she’s only surrounded by images of blue eyes and blonde hair? Those kids probably over there telling them they’re ugly and making fun of them. Waahh waah waah Had I really failed my daughters already by putting them into a Greek school where they are the only black kids there? (To be fair, there are other non-Greek kids and quite a few Indian kids, but it is a predominately Greek school.) Had I allowed my desire to expose them to other cultures and different people cloud my judgement? What if Elsa did say something to TD1 to make her feel bad about her hair? I felt hopeless and like a failure.
Then reason kicked in. Is it possible that somebody said something racial/prejudice to TD1? Yeah. Is it possible that my little private detective that is hyper aware and picks up on everything has picked up on the fact that she doesn’t look like her classmates? Yup, totally. But, is it also possible that she simply wants a certain hairstyle that her friend has? That’s possible, too. I remember begging my mom for a perm when I was in grammar school. All my cousins had one. All my friends had one and I was still rocking balls and barrettes and getting up early on Easter to be burned by fire with a pressing comb. Yup, I was TD1 once – natural girl with the ponytails and braids begging my mom for super straight hair. Only difference is that the people with the super straight hair I wanted to emulate had a much darker skin than the ones she goes to school with. It’s possible that this had nothing to do with racial identity, but I was making it out to be like that in my head. Truth be told, regardless of race, we’re surrounded by women with “super straight hair.” And, I’m constantly changing styles and hair colors. It was only a matter of time before she wanted something different, too.
Regardless, I talked to her teacher to see if anything had been said in the classroom that could or should frame the way I handled the conversation with TD1. Turns out, Elsa is one of the older girls in the class and TD1 looks up to her. She takes a special interest in everything this girl does, including how she wears her hair and what activities she does during quiet time. Furthermore, the kids and the teachers all can’t get enough of the special braids (courtesy of her super awesome aunt), beads and “clips” (barrettes) TD1 rocks at school. So she gets lots of love and praise for her hair, but she was just tired of the braids and wanted to wear her hair down for a while.
Day 2 of the twist out went a LOT smoother. I don’t know if it was the compliments about her “cool hair” from the day before or if she just decided super straight wasn’t her thing, but when I offered to style her hair differently, she replied “No thanks. I like it down like this. Then Lil’ Nana will braid it again, but make sure she doesn’t hurt me this time or I’m not gonna like my braids.”
I’m sure this won’t be the last we hear about “super straight hair,” but I plan to keep reassuring her that her hair is beautiful just the way it is, while also allowing her to explore different styles (within reason). I may even let her get “super straight hair” for a special occasion, like say a 5th birthday. I’m also spending a lot of time talking to her about the versatility of her hair.
*To protect the identity of innocent five-year-olds, we’re going to call her Elsa because which 4- or 5-year-old girl doesn’t want to be like Elsa?