I spent my childhood sitting between my mother’s thighs. I spent my Sunday’s sitting before her on the thin rug on the concrete floor as she did my hair. My mother loved me, but late in the evening, on this day of rest, I was not so sure. After dinner my mother had me wash my hair so we could begin brushing and blow drying it before it got late. The rich food in my stomach began to churn with anxiety. I hated Sundays; it meant having my hair done. It meant hating myself for an hour and a half. My throat burned and my chest felt tight as I got into the shower. For a minute I considered not putting my hair under the water, a rebellion that was only defeated by the weight of obligation. I do not know if I had started crying before or after the water ran down my hair, but the water from the showerhead distorted my tears and it made them less special. My eyes could not focus, not on the porcelain tub, or the dark black curtain, or the cracks in the cream shower tiles. I shampooed my hair and when I rinsed I let the product burn my eyes until I could not cry without it hurting. I filled my hand and the greater part of my fingers with conditioner and scrubbed it through my hair. My hair went down falling past the middle of my back, it was thick, encompassed with large curls and variant tangles. Under the water my hair grew to resemble an unnatural bird’s nest made from littered trash. I attempted rinsing out all of the conditioner from my hair. My mother would scold me later for having left product residue in my hair. Getting out of the shower, I looked at how my hair curled in every direction. I lost my hand reaching deep inside my hair to pull on my knotted roots. This is going to hurt.
I prepared for my mother to do my hair the way a soldier prepares to go to war, methodically and with little ceremony. I gathered the weapons of choice from under the sink in the bathroom; they felt heavier than they should have. The blow dryer held in my right hand, like a gun. The poignant smell of greasy coconut oil, held in my left hand, was metallic and reminded me of blood. My only reprieve was an apple scented detangler spray, a smell that to this day still makes me smile. I grabbed the brush, uncoiled the extension cord, and waited for my mother to sit behind me in the ugly pistachio green chair I was graced to sit before every Sunday.
She started by telling me that I should have combed my hair before I sat in front of her; I said nothing because she was right. She divided my hair into sections, pulling at the roots and ends until she was satisfied. She couldn’t see how this action made my eyes water. She would oil, detangle, brush, blow, and brush again. I hated the brush, the wide plastic bristles with little knobs on the end impaled my hair, and it ripped and tore and yanked. I remember how my sister would laugh at the faces I made and how my grandmother came out of her room waiting for my tears. The blow dryer was too hot and the air burned the back of my neck and the tips of my ears. We were not even half way finished.
My mother was a different person when she did my hair. Looking back I think she hated the process as much as I did. I like to pretend it was because she hated the idea of hurting me. She huffed impatiently as she combed through my hair. She told me to turn my head left, but it was not left enough, so she yanked me by my hair into position. In an act of self-preservation I could feel myself moving away from her, but she hit me with the brush for being difficult. My throat would burn with desperate sobs that tried to claw their way out of my throat. I looked up at my sister and grandmother; they were leaning in close to me waiting for me to cry. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths. I told myself to stop, stop thinking, stop wanting to cry, stop breathing. I promised that they would not have my tears. I broke that promise ten minutes later.
As she finished the last few sections, she was kinder to me. She spoke with soft words and gentle encouragements. I hated that she pretended that the last hour and a half had not happened. It was like the tears in the shower that never really meant anything. When she finished I could feel her relax as she sighed behind me. I got up hoping to make a quick escape, but she would not allow it. She stopped me looking into my red swollen eyes and she made me give her a hug and a kiss. It should not have felt so good to be held by her.
I could never find the process worth it. I was not somehow more attractive or more desirable because suddenly I could run my fingers through my hair. It burdened me; it made me apathetic about my own femininity. I sat before my mother every Sunday until I was eighteen because I couldn’t stand touching my own hair. I gathered all the materials and walked slowly into the bathroom. I never looked in the mirror right away. I wanted to be unburdened by my abusers; I needed to hide the tools which caused so much physical and emotion pain between me and my mother. Finally I looked up into the mirror at my hair neatly braided and tucked behind my ears. I looked at my face and cried simply to see what I looked like when I cried, and then I smiled to see if I was magically beautiful. I was not. I went back in the family room where everyone was watching television. They looked at me with something like pity. I sat on my mother’s lap and thanked her.
Cheyanne Akmal is a student at Fullerton College.