I was a child.
It was never a choice what my appearance would look like. I grew to accept there was only one sole way I could look that was pretty or beautiful. Only one true way to gain the attention from onlookers, only one way to gain the approval of my mother. She liked me this way. She preferred me to look this way: with straight hair, subjected to a slew of unpronounceable chemicals and steamrolled with heat, gels and other harmful creams to yield it into a smooth, silky texture. A texture which was not my own.
But my mother liked it. And that was all that mattered.
A year ago when I moved to Madrid, Spain to live abroad, a dream of mine I was doubtful would ever manifest, I silently decided I was going to try become formally acquainted with the natural texture of my hair — it was a mission, part experiment, part curiosity. The lack of hair salons in Madrid solely dedicated to styling the hair of Black women quickly reinforced my endeavor.
I transitioned for roughly eight months before I was fed up with caring and attempting to style two different textures of hair equally vying for my attention. Deciding to do the big chop wasn’t a methodical decision or one I even planned. I woke up one morning and knew it was the day, left my flat and bought a pair of hair shears and stood in front of the full-length mirror on a back wall in my room. To keep me company, I sipped on a chilled bottle of rosé cava I’d bought at the market and played trap music.
An hour later, I held a handful of my hair in a tight fist, stunned at what I had just done. I sent a picture to my mother and my sisters of my hair and the next day, I was on FaceTime to show my mother what she called my new hairdo, as if it was a temporary thing.
She was confused. And she asked me if I was going to “do something to it.” And suggested I get hair products, comb and brush it and lay down my edges with gel, then tie it tightly with a scarf overnight.
My hair became a battlefield of emotions, insecurities and minefield of power struggles between my mother and I. But it was never just about my hair follicles, the dead protein that grew with no restraint for her.
It was about control.
As my hair grew and I inched closer to being one year chemical free, our relationship became the rockiest it had been since I first told her I would be moving 5,000 miles away to live out my dream of living across the Atlantic. And after I returned to the States and moved to Washington, DC in early June, she found I was unapologetic about my kinks. I wore it mostly in unmanipulated styles, foregoing raking combs and brushes through my coils and instead opted to finger detangle with fingers coated in EVOO.
I looked in the mirror and genuinely saw a woman who looked beautiful, who had defined what her beauty should be and look like whilst resting in it.
My mother looked at me and saw nappy hair which wasn’t groomed. She saw a woman who looked unattractive, unkempt and homeless. She saw a woman who was careless and didn’t care about her appearance. She saw a woman standing in her own way of ever having a husband or successfully climbing the career ladder. She saw a woman whose hair alienated her and prevented her from making new friends in a new city. She saw these things each time she looked at me and she didn’t hesitate to share them with venom lacing her words.
And each time she confronted me, mostly screaming, in the faux façade of “wanting the best for me” and “telling me what no one else would” or “just being honest,” a small part of me believed her.
I would question if there was a way to make my hair look better. For it to look shinier, prettier, healthy, like I had done something to it, fully knowing I had spent hours getting it to look how it currently did.
Each time I walked away from her hurtful monologues, I felt humiliated, less than, unattractive. I believed I was in some way standing in my own way just because of my hair. My hair was the foothill of all the opposition I was currently facing in my life. How did that logically make any sense?
These familiar feelings following the talks meant to help me and empower me, as she labeled them, seemed so eerily familiar with her treatment of me my entire life. Her insistence of saying the rudest, most emotionally damaging things in the guise of being able to hurt my feelings because she loved me. Because she cared.
She was allowed to be emotionally abusive and never contribute anything positive to my emotional reserves because she was my mother.
Here I was, as an adult, a grown ass woman, feeling reduced to the little girl who would cower whenever her mother entered the room, fearful of her moods which hung heavy in the air, able to completely topple over even the cheeriest, most peaceful atmosphere. And I always gave in those instances, sickeningly desperate to make her happy, to make her accept me, to make myself no longer the fodder for rampant criticism. I became and did whatever she wanted so there was no argument.
But right before I moved to Spain, I became tired and wanted to just be me — the me who had a separate identity which involved none of the things she had told me and wanted me to be.
I’ve slowly learned in my natural hair journey and journey of self-awakening that there was never anything in my power I could have done to shake her treatment of me. The way she has treated me was never just about my natural hair, my nappy hair which made me happy. It was about her. It was about her non-existent self-esteem which she projected onto me when she knew I was scraping at the bottom of the barrel to assert myself with an afro in those beginning stages. She knew how vulnerable and unsure I was and took full advantage of it, to make herself feel useful and more empowered, like she was contributing something positive when she was only really tearing me down.
This is what narcissists, like my mother, do.
It also wasn’t just a typical reaction to my hair rooted in self-loathing and anti-Blackness, although I’m sure it constituted for some of it for her.
Being as unfailingly uncompromising about my hair and not changing it and being happy with it, was seen as a threat to her.
It was the last straw of things which she could attempt to control and sling mud at me, hoping I could catch it. But I haven’t backed down. I haven’t defaulted to styling my hair in ways that are acceptable to her. I’ve marched to the beat of my own drum, which I will continue to do.
My mother and I had a conversation about my hair about a week ago, the last time I went home to Atlanta and spent some extended time with her in a while. My visit climaxed in her screaming, per usual, about how horrible my hair looked, how I needed to groom it and use products, how I was going to be single and never get a job I liked. She went off on tangents about how friends who complimented my hair were seasoned liars and didn’t know how to tell me my hair was embarrassment, and also said the reason I was having trouble with dating and making more friends was because of my hair. She slung retorts about how no one wanted to be around me and it was all my fault.
Once she finished her tirade, I looked her squarely in her eye, with a coy smile on my face and told her I loved my hair, it wasn’t changing and she was going to have to do the work to accept it.
I also told her if she brought up this conversation up again whether we were in person or on the phone, know I would either hang up the phone or refuse to engage. I was done hearing her be forcefully disrespectful.
I haven’t talked to her since.
Nneka M. Okona is a writer and former expat who recently relocated from Madrid, Spain to Washington, DC. Visit her blog, www.afrosypaella.com, her website, about.me/nnekaokona or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka
Nneka & I have been Twitter BFFs for a few years now but recently met one another at the What Binds Us Together Brunch. I was taken aback and admired her quiet demeanor and was always a fan of her writing, her voice the totally opposite of who she is in person. Nneka’s storytelling skills are exceptional and I am honored that she would tell such an amazing story that I could relate to on this space. Nneka, you are a gem. Thank you.