After the initial shock of seeing Representative Ayanna Pressley reveal her bald head, my first two thoughts, in quick succession: Oh, what a nicely shaped head; and then, How relieved she must feel.
I stand by the first, but felt, and still feel, conflicted by the second — as conflicted as I feel every time I devote an excessive amount of energy or time to my hair. She is absolutely right: As Black women, our hair is political, an ideological playground where the fraught history of colonial violence and Eurocentric standards still cast a long shadow. There are still rules put in place in institutions of learning that jeopardize our children’s self-worth, milestones still being reached in the last year that have no business being revolutionary.
I’m conflicted because I don’t feel like my opinion about Representative Pressley’s decision to come forward about her alopecia should matter, not really. I am proud of her: so what? I am inspired by her courage: so what? I’ve grown weary of the discourse, the earnest necessity of it. But then my 4-year-old daughter will tell me she wishes her hair was long and straight, and frown at her reflection in the mirror, her sturdy shoulder-length braids, her tightly coiled curls, and I’ll remember, no, we aren’t there yet.
Several years before the advent of puberty and adolescent shame, I would sometimes put a towel on my head, and then swing it around, fluttering my eyelashes and preening. I’d brush it over my shoulder, cock my hip, blow a kiss. Then I’d catch sight of myself in the mirror and laugh, or grimace, or simply stare. There was a distinctly feminine power in long hair, I felt; some proto-sexual command of confidence that I yearned for. Around 7 or 8 years old I contracted ringworm right in the center of my head, and would often part my hair down the middle to survey the short, circular patch in the mirror with equal parts fascination and disgust. I took the requisite antibiotics and it eventually grew back. When I learned that hair was just a dead thing, strings of cells that didn’t actually sway or bounce or jiggle with any intrinsic vitality, I felt betrayed. After my best friend in middle school taught me how to cornrow and flat twist, I’d spend hours alone in my bathroom mirror with products and instruments spread across the counter, creating painstaking styles until my arms ached. I’ve easily spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on my hair.
Nearly a year ago I wrote another story for the Cut about my locs, and the question of whether I wanted to give my daughter the same style. I spoke to a few Black women for my research: a mom friend, a loctician, and my mother. I thought about the looks I sometimes receive, the comments referencing a religion I don’t practice, the curiosity about maintenance. I thought about the hours that I spend styling my daughter’s hair, the long and tedious detangling process, the dread that we both feel as we approach wash day. She’s expressed her desire, many times, to have Queen Elsa’s hair: a thick, long blonde braid to toss over her shoulder; an uncomfortable echo of my childish longing, that heavy towel flowing down my back. I still haven’t given her locs; I’m not sure that either of us are ready. I vacillate on this decision almost monthly, and then roll my eyes at myself for how much time I spend vacillating.
Especially in winter, especially at the beginning of this particular election year, it sometimes feels impossible to shake the conviction that we are trapped in a loop, that any progress will almost immediately fold back in on itself. There’s a grotesque irony in Representative Pressley losing her final strands of hair the night before she voted to impeach the president: an omen, a reckoning, a cleansing? We can conjecture, but irony rarely belies meaning; if anything, it further signifies the entropy it’s become trendy to take cynical comfort in. This isn’t just, nor does it make sense, but it happened. We can cry about it, bury it, or stand up and face it.
“I didn’t have the luxury of mourning what felt like the loss of a limb,” Pressley confessed to the Root. “It was a moment of transformation not of my choosing.” My friends and I have complained about our hair fatigue, the thankless labor of upkeep, and have made jokes about relinquishing the responsibility entirely: girl, what if I just cut it all off? It’s a tired sentiment, gauche in the broad daylight of someone’s else’s freedom to make that decision being abruptly rescinded. We can’t escape the reality that our bodies, our hair, our facial expressions, even our voices communicate a political stance that is up for interpretation — in a country founded on and governed by a code that interprets our humanity as Other. No, we don’t owe anyone any explanations.
Representative Pressley did not owe anyone this video, this statement, this show of bravery. And I don’t know if I really believe that she feels relief — that was likely a knee-jerk projection. What I saw when she addressed the camera, head on, skin gleaming beneath the lights, was a familiar grim determination. The weariness inherent in a Black woman staring down the Establishment and demanding its recognition, simply because it should be done. If for no one else, then for the young girls who look into their mirrors every day, who deserve any and every opportunity we can muster to help them love what they see.