self reflection

Should I Give My Daughter Dreadlocks?

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty

Before my daughter was born, her dad asked me if I’d eventually put locks into her hair. By that point, I’d had them for a little over five years, and I had to admit, the idea of giving my little girl the same style was tempting. But something I couldn’t quite name gave me pause. I told him that no, I probably wouldn’t, and he didn’t press the issue.

Nearly four years later, I’m less sure.

Two decades of styling my own hair armed me with the skills to care for my daughter’s full head of thick curls, but it’s still not easy, by any means. For us, wash day usually falls on a Sunday; once every two weeks, I clear our schedules and get us mentally prepared for the marathon ahead. “We’re washing your hair today!” I’ll chirp, putting together our assembly line of supplies: shampoo and conditioner, leave-in conditioner, oils, a spray bottle, a tail comb, regular comb, detangling brush, regular brush.

Styling my daughter’s hair can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a finger-cramping, back aching three hours. The result, at my most strategic, can last for a week or more; her current style — finger-width two-strand twists, gloriously simple — is now on week two. Thanks to her hardy curl pattern — 4C, in hair blogger parlance — they’re still neat and, satisfyingly, make her smile and preen every time she checks my work in the mirror. Recently I posted an Instagram story of her, and a friend responded, “Are those locks?!” with an emoji to relay shock. I corrected her, but couldn’t help but cast a rueful glance at my daughter and wonder, well, why shouldn’t they be?

My own mother wasn’t thrilled when I told her about my hair transition plans in 2013. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she was very familiar with dreadlocks, albeit those worn by Rastafarians (and their imitators), who largely allow theirs to grow freeform. “I was afraid that you weren’t going to like it. If you didn’t like it, what were you going to do?” she told me recently. “I was afraid you were going to have to cut your hair off.” Watching my hair grow throughout the years and seeing the general rise in popularity of groomed locks has softened her stance. Now, she’s trying to find out whether she can get fake locks.

But back then, I assumed my mother’s ambivalence came from a place of worry about how I’d be perceived professionally. It wasn’t like the same thought hadn’t crossed my mind, though ultimately, I believed that mainstream society had grown more accepting of locks — where I lived, at least. After all, it’d been the sudden proliferation of natural hair bloggers and YouTube experts in the late aughts that inspired me to eliminate my permed ends in college. I’d come a long way from the internalized inadequacy that made it difficult for me to appreciate my hair the way it grew out of my head, and I’d also left behind the short-lived worldview that came after, one that quietly sneered at women who favored weaves and perms over natural styles. I grew up, in other words. I just wanted to do what felt right for me.

At the time, I didn’t know that the United States military maintained a strict ban on Black women wearing locks while in service — a ban that wasn’t lifted until January of 2017. Or that in December of 2018, a Black high-school student athlete named Andrew Johnson would be subjected to public humiliation by way of an overzealous referee, who demanded that he cut his locks right then and there, or force his team to forfeit the ongoing wrestling match.

I’m raising a Black child in the United States of America — how I decide to style her hair should be the least of my concerns. But I only get to parent my daughter once. I can’t pretend that our bodies aren’t a battleground for continued political and psychological violence.

I understand that by wearing my hair this way, I’m communicating my own defection from the Eurocentric ideal, and perhaps an alignment with a more revolutionary idea of blackness, depending on who you ask. It isn’t a reality I take lightly, but I’m aware that I don’t really have to worry about it, either. I live in Brooklyn; most of the time, I don’t have to look very hard to find others rejecting mainstream norms with their bodies. Still, I have been in spaces where I felt distinctly othered, and I have to admit to myself: that discomfort is an inevitability for my daughter. There’s little point in trying to control it.

I spoke to a friend of mine, Sunnie, who’s in the process of locking her 3-year-old daughter’s hair, and she offered a perspective that somewhat echoed my initial thoughts on the flexibility of locks. “As a little brown girl who never had her hair permed, it was really hard to manage my long hair,” she told me over email. “It was harder still to not be able to wear my hair out and free … I see microlocks as a way to deliver my daughter her time, gift my daughter a freedom I didn’t have the luxury of experiencing. Hair that doesn’t hold her back.”

Time is a certainly luxury I’d like to get back, and I know for certain that my daughter would appreciate a less literal interpretation of “wash day.” I asked Sunnie to refer me to the consultant who had helped her begin the sisterlocking process, a woman named Wariesi Flores. (Sisterlocks, or microlocks, are very small in circumference, sometimes only appearing slightly thicker than the average strand of hair.) Flores, the founder and CEO of Sumptuous Locks in Brooklyn, is a licensed sisterlocks consultant and has been a stylist for over ten years. She told me over the phone that her masters degree in political science gives her a unique vantage point into her career, as she is not only able to give Black women confidence in their appearance, but that her shop is also a safe haven for them to vent, discuss issues that might otherwise remain bottled up, and give each other the sort of support and empowerment that makes the daily grind in their majority-white workplaces more palatable.

What I really wanted to hear about, of course, were her interactions with her much younger clients. Or, more specifically, their parents. I told her that I was considering locks for my daughter, and, as I expected, she had nothing but words of encouragement — as well as some matter-of-fact rebuttals to common stereotypes. “Locks are not permanent,” she told me plainly. “At any point, you can totally comb them out. It’s doable. Perms are a lot more permanent … Once it’s in there, you can only cut it off.” She went on to describe the way that her young clients respond to getting locks and watching them grow. “I’ve watched young girls come in with their heads down and their self-esteem increase tenfold after getting locks … They’re much more socially acceptable than they were when you and I were children.”

“It’s a different time,” she mused repeatedly as we spoke.

It is, and it isn’t. My daughter attends an Afrocentric preschool in a majority Black neighborhood in one of the most liberal states in the country. I don’t anticipate future school administrators giving me a hard time because of her hair. Even so, it’s my job to think three steps ahead. She’ll understand the significance of her hairstyle, the same way she’ll understand the history of her ancestors. When she’s older, she’ll be free to decide whether she’d like to continue growing her locks, comb them out, or shave her head entirely. For now, though, I’m inclined to take the leap, to give her a style that matches my own. We can smile and preen in the mirror together.

Should I Give My Daughter Dreadlocks?