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Hair

How Braids Taught Me To Love Myself

by Halleta Alemu

@halleta

• By Halleta Alemu

If you had asked 6-year old Halleta what she would have chosen if you could magically grant her one wish, she would have wasted no breath on her answer. Out of anything in the world, she would have wished for straight hair. Hair that grew straight. That didn’t need to be burned into being straight. Run my hands through and watch it glide down to a perfect center part kind of straight. Imagine Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. That kind of hair. My hair never did that. It was too curly, too kinky, and too coarse. Even when straightened, it would never have that soft rhythm as it fell. My hair fell without music. 

The difference between my black, Ethiopian curls compared to the smooth, straight follicles of the American girls I was surrounded by meant a menacing world of a difference to me. Straight hair meant whiteness. It meant beauty. It meant having a career. It meant having the power to be loved. These were all beliefs I subconsciously downloaded, although I didn’t process the racism attached to them. 

Once I got into my teens I straightened my hair every day. I believed it would bring more than a change in texture; it would bring a change to my livelihood. But I was never happy with how my hair turned out. It was never straight enough. I used relaxers, extensions, and weaves – but nothing came close to that ultimate wish of naturally straight hair. It all felt like a knock-off. Then one day, I found an answer. A Black friend casually mentioned getting a Brazilian Blowout and I gasped, “I didn’t know Black people could get that?” I asked her. She corrected my assumption and told me it was true. That month I scheduled a hair appointment. 

The moment the stylist finished, I stared at the mirror in pure awe. I lifted my hands and tousled my hair. It was so soft. I escaped to the bathroom to inspect my transformation. Ran my fingers through my bangs and slid them back. Then like twisted fate it happened — the slow glide of my hair rushing down to bounce and meet the sides of my face. It was better than Alicia Silverstone because this time it was me. Tears welled in my eyes. I rushed out and gave my stylist a gigantic, cosmic hug. I thanked her for making my biggest wish come true.

The following weeks were magic. No amount of water or weather could alter my hair to the point of kinkiness. I had met what I thought was my deepest state of bliss. I was sure my life was going to change. And there were brief flashes of change. It helped diminish my fear of intimacy with men because now my hair was more manageable. I stopped dreading working on set because my hair was finally “easy” enough for any stylist to handle. I stopped fearing the rain, the ocean, pools, hot yoga classes. I could indulge in water without the fear of my hair demanding payback. All of that was enough for me those first few months. For the next two years, I religiously continued getting Brazilian blowouts. Yet, each time left me less and less captivated.

I stopped setting my hair on fire and in a figurative way, stopped setting myself on fire too.

It wasn’t until the pandemic began that I had to reassess my situation. I couldn’t afford blowouts anymore and even if I could, salons were barely operating. I waited for the day my final treatment would fade out with no idea of what to do next. As the pandemic raged on, I became accustomed to seeing fewer people. My self-care practices began to shift. I relied more on beauty rituals that I set and governed, rather than ones that were inflicted upon me. I noticed how so much of how I presented myself, both in action and visually, was a survival mechanism for enduring racism and Anti-Blackness. As my straight hair continued to fade, so did that burning desire for it. I had thought my straight hair was making me more confident, but upon real observation, nothing radical in my life really changed. The only thing that was different was I spent less time worrying about my hair. The blowout was just a veneer. A shiny polish. 

I started to foray back into wearing my natural hair — wearing braids again like when I was a child. The moment I stopped trying to alter the texture of my hair was the moment my life started mirroring that in return. All the fearlessness and love I wanted so badly from straight hair was now flowing so effortlessly through this practice of wearing braids. I stopped setting my hair on fire and in a figurative way, stopped setting myself on fire too. I began making more decisions that centered my self-preservation. I now catch my hand before it strikes the match. I feel less of a need to be someone else, less of a need to perform. The truth is, it was never about straight hair — it was about forcing myself into a closer proximity to whiteness. It was through the pandemic and the rise of racial discourse that I was able to unpack that. 

How we treat our hair, our skin, our bodies, is a direct extension to how we treat ourselves. I was hostile, militant, and relentless in how I treated my hair. That toxicity revealed itself in other avenues of my life, and it was just not sustainable. If what you pine for seems like it exists within only one route — one which relentlessly demands the alteration of who you are — it might be time to course correct. There is a path that is clearer and made for someone just like you, believe me.

I’m not saying I’m never going to straighten my hair again, but it’s the beginning of a new story. As I continue to refine the areas in my life where I was unconsciously seeking damage, I’ve begun to notice the seamlessness of life’s grace when you make room for your own healing. How routes divide and come together, nestling to make your true pathway. Just like my braids, weaving in and out, forming a passage to that childhood wish of confidence. Which was always sleepily lying in the coils of my curls, just waiting to be activated.