I am not sure when my hair started to fall out. It seems it was always in the process of falling out. When I woke up in the mornings I would find short strands of coarse, brown-black hair on the pillows.
At unexpected moments, I would discover soft clumps of matted hair waiting for me in my brushes and combs. Even when I ran my hands through the tangled strands or brushed hard, convinced I could coax my scalp to push out a few strands of new growth, my hair just continued to fall out.
It seemed to me as a girl growing up that every Black woman had a story about hair falling out ― being pulled, worried or burned out ― and never growing back, despite the liberal application of magic potions, lotions and creams to a barren, unyielding scalp.
Even Oprah Winfrey had a bad hair story she tells in that Oprah way, with just enough humor, self-deprecation and charm that she can make conservative white women nod along in agreement.
When I first heard Oprah describe her hair loss experience, I almost forgot she was a billionaire who had full control of her hair and destiny. Oprah moved close to the camera in the way that makes you think she’s only talking to you, and the two of you would have a great time chatting over lattes at Starbucks.
Oprah said her hair fell out in huge clumps after the Baltimore television station she worked for insisted she get a French perm to straighten out her coarse strands that stubbornly refused to lay down for the white men who paid her to report local news. Beneath the professional makeup and the perfectly coiffed new hair, I see her pain and I know like me she is still in mourning for the hair she lost.
When my hair started to fall out, my female relatives, young and old, came close to me and whispered sad stories about friends and relatives who used the wrong hair product or process and ended up “patchy” or bald.
My grandmother chimed in, “You know them high blood pressure pills cause a lot of our hair to fall out and worrying about things will do it too. I’m a witness, worrying sure will do it. Black womens got a lot to worry about in this old, wicked world full of pain.”
Several years later, in the mid-’90s, when I started to see my scalp shining through the thin hair, I went to see a white, female dermatologist with thick, brown hair cut into a conservative pageboy, which rested softly on her neck. I imagined when the wind, blew her thick, healthy hair would lift up and blow in the wind like the white women in shampoo commercials.
The doctor avoided looking into my eyes. She mouthed the word “alopecia,” which means hair loss, like it was an STD. She told me the hair follicles were dead and refused to offer hope they could ever be reborn. I sat there stunned; I was in a bad dream, but still wide awake.
My doctor delivered the news in a matter-of-fact way, as if she knew I would accept this indignity and add it to the list of disappointments Black women collect in oversized jars like discarded pennies that turn up without warning in the places where we work, live and die.
She didn’t ask me to make another appointment like most doctors. I imagined she was afraid that the dark cloud hovering over me would find her in the night and steal her strands of lovely, thick, brown hair.
I tried to pretend I was OK with losing my hair, but I could not escape the lingering shame. The Breck shampoo commercials I grew up watching declared with authority that a white woman with straight hair is the archetype of beauty. In the Black community, after generations of living under the destructive influence of white supremacy, we internalized these standards.
When I was a child, I often overheard my female relatives comment with approval about the young girls in our neighborhood who had “good hair.” I knew they meant long and flowing, straight to slightly curly, but never the natural, kinky hair that grew out of my head.
My mother invested time and money in straightening my curly hair with hot combs that singed my neck and temples and chemical relaxers that burned like fire, instead of teaching me how to care for my natural hair.
In the last decade, there has been more resistance from Black women, who defiantly wear natural hair and are willing to take legal action when white employers try to force them to make their natural locks more pleasing to white people, but when my hair refused to grow, I felt like I was in an unpopular league of my own.
I tried to cover up the hair loss with elegant weaves, braids and waves, purchased from clever hair merchants who grow rich selling bundles of processed hair to Black women. The new hair made me feel like a reborn, Black Rapunzel, but the weaving and braiding pulled out more hair, which permanently disappeared down the hairdressers’ wash sink with the other lost parts of me.
Eventually, I grew tired of seeing the pitying looks in the mirror from the women sitting in the other chairs at the beauty salon, who still had living, growing hair, so I just stopped going to the hairdresser and covered my blighted scalp with hats, wigs and colorful scarves.
I remember the conversation I had with my grandmother many years ago about hair loss, and I now understand that worry can cause a Black woman’s hair to fall out. I suspect a lifetime of living in a Black, female body and trying to fit into spaces where I was never welcome in order to make a living created so much stress that hair loss was an inevitable, unwanted result.
Today I am still worrying. I’m trying to survive year two of a pandemic, which is disproportionately killing women of color, and even though this has been documented in recent studies, Black women have not been made a priority in the distribution process for a vaccine that is still out of reach for many.
I am watching CNN and a white police officer, who kneeled on the neck of a Black man in broad daylight for nine minutes until he called out for his mama and breathed his last desperate breath, is on trial for murder in a Minnesota courthouse. During the trial, police shoot and kill another unarmed Black man a short distance from the courthouse while making a traffic stop. My hair is still falling out in soft, matted, dull-gray strands that feel sticky like cotton candy and linger on my fingers like memory, but I refuse to admit I am almost bald and suddenly I’m crying all alone.
Sometimes I’m deeply ashamed I didn’t fight harder to save the fragile strands of hair that had only me for protection.
I look in the mirror and I imagine the way it could have been. Thick, lush, coarse, silver-streaked black hair rises high from my scalp and falls gently to frame my face like a soft, velvet curtain. I feel an invisible breeze blow through my kinky-curly locks and my beautiful hair swings softly around my head.