“My baby locs were not for anyone’s consumption, or outside affirmation. My hair was weaving itself into beautiful, glorious locs and I was along for the ride, in a constant state of awareness of its growth. It felt good, touching my scalp, my fuzzy curls, without fear of outside perception,” – Yasmeen Jaaber

By Yasmeen Jaaber • 

Originally published on Medium • 

In March 2020, when my Junior year ended, there was little I had control over. I thought of the future and saw either fire and dying or nothing at all. I struggled with feeling any difference in the days and I needed something to give the calendar on my wall meaning. So Fridays ceased to be another day in an everlasting stream of days, and became my hair days. It was a ritual, sitting in front of the mirror I’d purchased from a thrift store in Maryland, and twisting up the little hair I had on my head between greased fingers while watching some movie I felt guilty for having not seen before.

Eventually, my interest in movies and hair days faded. It was increasingly difficult to keep up with the ritual, especially since I styled my hair the exact same way every week for no particular reason at all. I tried experimenting with different styles, but nothing seemed to fit my face the right way. I was unsure how I wanted to look, and at some point I decided I didn’t really care anymore. On a summer evening in August, I spent a few hours twirling my hair around my fingers, and started my locs not quite believing that that was what I was doing. Each week I thought to myself that I should go ahead and comb the coils out, but I could never figure out what I would do instead, so I just left it alone.

When I was a kid, every so often, my mom would tell me she was going to wash my hair. ‘Washing my hair’ never only meant washing it. It meant bending my neck across the sink in the bathroom and letting water pool at my collarbone and trickle down my back- warm, soapy and wrong. It meant taking a rattail comb and dragging it along my scalp, detangling and blow drying and braiding and looking down. Raking her nails against my scalp to let the soap sink in. When water seeped into the collar of my nightgown, my mother tightened the towel at the base of my neck, muttering apologies. She’d always sit me up to look in the mirror when my hair was all stiff with shampoo and shape it into an ice-cream cone.

My mom always called me tender-headed, but in retrospect I remember my discomfort as being more mental than physical. The feeling of water dripping onto my neck was akin to glass being dragged down my back, the sound of the comb in my hair made me squirm, I hated that so many things were happening to me and all I could do was sit and look down. It was a specific type of torture, taking a methodical little kid and forcing them to relinquish control.

There is a very specific Black experience of the dichotomy between “done” and “messy,” “nappy,” or “unkempt” hair. This dichotomy clearly exists as a result of the misogynoir and white supremacy that permeated my experience as a child. While I consistently expressed discomfort at getting my hair “done,” the alternative was never really an option, not even in my mind. It was a much more frightening idea to think of going to school and feeling embarrassed by having my hair look “a mess.” As a kid, I found joy in having my hair in cute styles, and much of that joy came from external affirmation that I was beautiful that day, and above that, that I was seen.

In the tenth grade, I singed my hair with a flat iron, beyond repair. I stood in the shower combing my hair with my fingers, waiting for the texture to turn from limp to curly, but it didn’t. I remember looking in the mirror, my hair lopsided and no longer my own and I burst into tears. Heaving, breathy sobs that lasted much longer than I expected them to. I felt that I had lost what could make me “beautiful” in the world’s perception of me. After I shaved the damaged hair off, my mom refused to let me wear a wig, and I had to adjust to my face and head shape.

Looking back on my years with a shaved head, I tend to see my journey towards gender abolition in myself. A lot of what it was taking to love myself without hair, included loving myself even when I was not always perceived as “woman.” I was constantly gendered as male when my head was shaved and I remember the unpleasant turns my stomach would take when he/son/sir were used in reference to me back then. In those days, I tended to view my gender as ‘who would love me?’ and ‘in what way?’. I view the unpleasantness of that ungendering as my fear of what it meant to be something other than a woman, that I was no longer attractive or lovable. I was scared to let go of what I thought was making me desirable to other people and I was mortified by the fact that the letting go seemed to have already happened, and without my agreement.

When I started my locs, the first thing I wanted to know was how long it would take for them to form. I frequently feel as though chapters of my life are ending and quick changes are the perfect way to crack open a new one. Locs were something I wanted to change my look. That August, I found myself craving maturity and distance from the person I had spent the summer inhabiting. I was also hyper-aware of the fact that I was going to be eighteen in a few weeks.

Within the first few months of starting my locs, I frequently dreaded and referenced the ugly stage. This is likely due to my older brother (who also has locs) always saying that I was in the ugly stage. I’d also seen about thirty YouTube videos talking about the ugly stage and how to avoid or style your baby locs in that time. Some videos straight up said that it was a part of the process and that was that. I, of course, was much more invested in the idea that the aforementioned ugly stage could be avoided with style. I spent a lot of my time styling my baby locs to remedy and avoid “ugly”. I retwisted my hair every week, thinking if my locs were “ugly” at least they would be ugly and neat, at least there was ritual involved.

At some point I began to view my hair as a process and not a product. My baby locs were not for anyone’s consumption, or outside affirmation. My hair was weaving itself into beautiful, glorious locs and I was along for the ride, in a constant state of awareness of its growth. It felt good, touching my scalp, my fuzzy curls, without fear of outside perception.

I struggled with intense self esteem issues for much of my youth. I hated my nose, my bottom lip, my moles, my eyebrows, my mustache, the hair that sprung up all over my body, the hair that sprung up out of my head (nappy, messy, unkempt). I recall spending a night praying to God to give me silky smooth hair like Miley Cyrus’s wig in Hannah Montana. I used to take a paper towel and scrape it across my cheek to remove the moles my mom called beauty marks. While I was beautiful at home, while I feel very beautiful now, my youth was saturated with images of white supremacist ideas about beauty. I did not feel beautiful unless my hair was “done,” and even then, there were still a myriad of things that made me feel ugly. The world made me feel like there was something wrong with me for being Black. For the longest time, the fact that I was falling outside of the convention felt like a personal failure.

Giving up shame I held from the world’s outside perception of me likely would have been harder without the relationship I started with my hair. During the ugly stage of my loc journey and beyond, I separated the world’s desire for me from my worth for the very first time in my life. I had never felt so free as when I looked at my hair just as it was emerging from scalp, allowed my sideburns to frame my face and began to acknowledge my own humanity. Yes, I show up this way and it is fantastic that I do. The most unmanicured version of myself is allowed, I allow it. Here I am, as beautiful and alive as the trees outside of my bedroom window. I wash my locs and it is love and has been ever since. My dreadlocks, the journey that I’ve taken with them, was the key into granting myself permission to exist as I am, regardless of desire, regardless of systems that are currently and will continue to hurt me. I am who I am and it is wonderful, from Earth like everything else beautiful, my value is inherent and ongoing.

Yasmeen Jaaber is a writer, speaker and radical Black queer thinker from Virginia, and the host of the podcast, “Was It Something I Said?“. You can support them on CashApp at $mistylowland and follow them on Medium.