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Juliet and I both got our hair braided about a week after I arrived in Ghana. She said she planned to get hers done and that she really loved her hair dresser and that she would gladly do my hair, too. I was very apprehensive about getting my hair done but I wanted to be open to the experience of it. To be honest I was terrified about how my friends back home would react. Of course it is good to be aware and cultural sensitive, but Westerners have suddenly become avid policemen of cultural appropriation. I was not getting my hair done as a statement of ownership, though, but opening myself up to an experience that is just not part of my white girl culture, and very much apart of African culture.
We gave the hairdresser money to go purchase our hair extensions and in the late afternoon we settled on the porch in our plastic chairs and she started on my head first. The hair she bought for me was darker than I wanted, but I felt it was too late to go back now. It took four to five hours for her to braid in the fake hair with my natural hair, and by about 8pm I had a slightly more exposed scalp and medium-sized heavy rope-like hair. The hair dresser had an assistant too, and they both overlapped the hair with such speed and precision it was quite remarkable. Juliet’s hair was not finished till almost 1am. We offered the ladies drinks and food and the hairdresser almost ended up staying the night until it was for certain her husband wanted her to come home despite the late hour.
I was instructed to put my hair in a scarf and keep it nice, and she told me to try to keep my braids in for at least a month. I had no idea what I was getting into, honestly. The next day my head hurt so much I considered taking them out right away. Juliet encouraged me, though, and said she thought they looked beautiful. I really felt like I looked like a freak! And I don’t mean that to be offensive, it just not a hairstyle I’m accustomed to on white girls, let alone on myself. And my hair was darker than it usually was, so there was that. But the girls at the compound, Christiane, and everyone I came into contact with in Ghana, really, thought my braids looked nice.
This was a bonding moment for me and Juliet, and an interesting look at what hair has to do with our standard of beauty among different cultures.
I was very worried that getting my hair done like such would be rude to black girls in a way, because I don’t need to braid my hair to have long hair, or to do anything to it really to be accepted as pretty, I can just let it grow. Black girls often cannot grow their hair very long without it breaking, so they often braid or weave fake hair into their own. I choose to highlight my natural hair and style it in such a way that my culture deems attractive, sure, but it doesn’t take that much work, either. African hair is coarse and pretty painful to deal with, and they have a a variety of methods they undergo to make it more manageable, stylish, what not. As a young girl I was actually kind of envious of the easy switch-up of looks black girls had a choice of. I realise this is actually what is rude, but also ignorant of what girls go through to have their hair look a certain way. I told Juliet I really love ‘fro’s, but she said that’s one look I definitely can’t do.
Every morning before work, Juliet and I would help each other tie back our hair. Figuring out how to style my braids was very difficult, and it took me weeks to finally find styles that I thought looked nice. Juliet would style them the African way and I would still be trying to style my braids as if it was my natural hair. It was difficult to figure out a balance between the two, but it helped to find new hair accessories.
Sometimes my scalp would be so itchy I just wanted to shave my head. I would wrap scarves around it or just wrap it up completely Rastafarian like. Juliet didn’t want me to put it up at first, but I had to get it out of my face and off my shoulders sometimes. The ends were stringy and I wanted to cut them, but Juliet insisted that was just apart of the style and I had to just deal with it.
I would wash my scalp awkwardly when I showered but it wasn’t as refreshing as it was to wash and brush my natural hair. I began to dream of the day when I could run a comb through my hair again.
It was very hot and I wouldn’t have been able to do much with natural hair anyway, so in a way it was convenient, once I got used to it. It wasn’t a simple adjustment, thought. And then I was nervous about going home with the braids. I was to attend a wedding in Iowa the weekend I got home, and I really thought about taking them out beforehand. However, to take them out so quickly also felt rude, because it was an expensive thing to have done there, even if it only cost me the equivalent of twenty dollars, it was kind of a luxury there, and it felt rude to dismiss that.
So, I came back to the States with my hair in braids. I stopped in London on my way home and it was an interesting buffer for my return home. London is a very diverse and bustling city, with a lot of people passing through, and inhabitants of all shapes and colours and styles. I wondered what people thought of my hair but soon realized that they probably didn’t think anything of it, really. I did receive some compliments, but mostly no one said anything until I mentioned my apprehension about my braids, and then usually they were reassured me that they looked nice, and it was a normal thing to do as a white girl visiting Africa, or the tropics in general.
One local London tour guide asked me what I was up to when I was wandering a strip mall in the neighborhood where I was crashing, and asked me about my hair and what I was doing there. I told him I had just been in Africa, and he was surprised that I literally meant the day before, but was very kind and offered some suggestions about what I should do on my two-day layover.
On my flight home, I sat next to some lovely white ladies that I chatted with almost the whole time, and they, too, didn’t notice my braids as unusual, especially on a return trip from Africa.
After I got home, I was nervous to leave the house, and was content hibernating, but also afraid of what people would say if I went out. The conversations I had at the wedding I attended in Iowa were brief but fun, but being with the group from Chicago, it was more about being in that weird city kid group than being the girl just back from Africa. But it was also about educating people that had never had any experience with that hairstyle before, and explaining the amount of fake hair on my head and the way many Africans and black girls do their hair and why, hopefully was informative for the midwesterners I did converse with.
I met my friend Vanessa for coffee and we discussed how wigs have been and used to be more so apart of our beauty culture, and around the world still are, a huge part of hair culture and beauty norms, and as white girls in America it’s one thing we don’t have a lot of access to. Which is, ultimately, a privilege?
I bought some tobacco at the little gas station down my block and the Mexican lady loved my braids and went into a whole story about Guatemala and how she goes there to visit family and has gotten her hair braided before but it is really too hot there and Chicago is her home now. And she wanted to know where I got my hair done and how much it cost and then as I left even her husband was inquiring as I got on my bike, and then she came out of the store and they both kept talking about it how nice it looked and how here in the States it’s so expensive to have done.
I think my point is, and what I hope people get about me, is that I don’t want to insult anybody, I just want to learn, as first hand as I can, to better understand life and the way we live it, and then share what I know, and repeat.
I hope I don’t sound like a whiny white girl, and I probably do, but the whole braided hair thing got me thinking about gender norms and beauty standards in terms of culture and status. Just because we are trying out how another culture does things, doesn’t mean we’re making it our own, it’s about trying to find understanding through shared experience. And no, I don’t know what it is like to actually be a black girl, but I have a closer look at what the hair culture entails. And although it took my aunts and my mother and my sister two hours and a lot of mayonnaise to get the tangles out after I took my braids out, I’m glad I did it. But I probably won’t do it again.