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How I'm Bonding With My Black Son Through Our Hair

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As the last daughter in a set of 10 children, my mother missed out on a lot of “girly things.” The biggest was probably not learning to style hair — because she never had to. So when I was born, she had no idea what to do with my hair. And though she tried, I looked a hot mess, often.

The relationship I had to my hair greatly shaped my self-esteem. I vowed that I would learn to style my hair in its natural state during my first year of college. The journey that followed greatly impacted my understanding of white beauty standards’ effect on Black women’s self-acceptance, and why a love for my “natural hair” was vital to loving myself.

I’m still not a pro, but with enough patience, I can do most of my favorite styles. As I learned to style my hair, my thoughts always drifted towards my desire to ensure my children wouldn’t feel the hair insecurity that shaped most of my life.

Years later, when we found out we were expecting our first child, a boy, I wasn’t sure how my newfound hair skills would fit into his life — especially since most of the males I knew kept low fades.

And as my husband informed me that he wanted to postpone, if not skip our son’s first haircut, I was uncertain if I could learn “boys’ styles.” At the same time, there was no shortage of “he would be so handsome with a haircut” comments from both of our families.

It seemed like a choice between pleasing our families and being able to raise a child who was able to very subtly resist “the way things are.” Both the pressure to conform to white beauty standards and gender binary stereotypes heavily impact Black childhood, so naturally, I went the resistance route.

I knew what I had to do. I would use the skills I’d started developing in college on my son. I expected that his BAA (big-ass Afro) would make a number of people, both Black and white, uncomfortable. But I wanted to walk with him on a journey to holistic acceptance in a way I never got to as a child. So, I decided to bond with my son over his hair.

At first, it felt awkward for me to replicate the wide leg stance with fast moving fingers I’d seen done by other Black women in my family, like my grandmother. He wasn’t too fond of being restricted to “the chair” for 40+ minutes at a time, either. But we both adjusted.

Now, he still hates sitting but he gets excited about bringing the hair tools downstairs, almost as much as he loves putting them away.

When I see boys of other races with long hair, I smile at their parents. I know that they receive similar assumptions related to gender and appearance. But I also know that what we experience as a Black family is different.

As I started doing more protective styles and focusing on keeping his hair moisturized, his hair started growing like wildfire. This led to his first encounters with just how politicized hair — particularly Black male hair — can be. Just like me, he’s had way too many folks see his unrestricted hair as an invitation to touch him without permission. So I taught him to say “don’t touch it” when he’s uncomfortable.

For Black children, hair texture is a huge influencer. Like many historically enslaved or formally colonized groups, our beauty is often judged in proximity to or in the context of whiteness. Hair is one of the best examples of this, likely only preceded by skin tone itself. It’s why “nappy” hair is deemed “bad” and looser curled hair is “good.”

Courtesy of A.R. Meadows-Fernandez

It didn’t take long for the hair politics to crawl into my own household through loved ones’ comments on his texture. I was terrified about how all of these would impact my son’s sense of self. He has a looser curl pattern, like his father, and I didn’t want the world to commodify him based on that trait. But if I’m being fully transparent, I had to work on the “pride” I once had for having a child with “manageable hair” that is differently textured from my own.

I had to unlearn the things that I’d been taught as a child and accept that regardless of others’ perceptions of his hair, he would never be more or less special due to hair texture. And I’m working to reinforce this every day.

At three years old, he’s never heard words that support one hair texture over the other. But he knows that I style my hair and his. And while he hates having to sit in “the chair” for prolonged periods of time, he loves the after effect.

When I moisturize my hair, he says “me too, me too,” excitedly. Each time I do something different to his hair, he runs to his dad or asks to FaceTime his grandma and demands that they look at his new hairstyle. He smiles hard at the “oooohs” and ahhhhhs” that follow.

He’s learning his hair is an extension of his bodily autonomy. It’s a bonus he hasn’t learned the world sees hairstyling as a “woman’s job.” I keep the process neutral by letting his dad do the washing, detangling, and often moisturizing too. These days, he even runs to get the comb in hopes of styling my hair.

These moments make me feel special. Although my mom showed her love in many ways, hair styling wasn’t one of them. Words can’t express how much it means to have gotten the tools to take care of my son’s hair — especially in a place with limited Black resources.

It’s a challenge raising a Black child who is growing out their hair, regardless of gender. But my son’s free tresses — though they can be time-consuming — give me something to appreciate. In my eyes, his chocolate skin and wild curls represent a journey toward freedom that is seldom seen in Black children. His big hair confronts the world with Blackness and requires that others keep their assumptions, and their hands, in check.

I don’t know how much longer my son will display #blackboyjoy through his hair. He’s quickly getting old enough that he has his own beauty preferences. But whatever he decides will be, and I will be beside him for the full journey.

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