When my baby girl was born I was completely smitten. Gazing proudly at her thick black curls, rosy childhood dreams of doing my very own doll babys hair came to mind.
Little did I realize how much work would be involved!
Two years later I sit with this squirming, screaming toddler in my lap, comb in my teeth, hair bobbles and pomade in my hand. Attempting to block out the high decibels of her cries, I embark on the weekly battle of taming her long bushy tangles. I recognize that as challenging as it is, the responsibility of caring for our daughters hair is a serious one for all mothers of Black daughters, biological, adopted or mixed; one we do well not to abdicate.
The story of ‘our hair’ has been a long and complex one. Whether we realize it or not, we have the power to pass on to our daughters either a warped, insecure view of themselves and their hair, or a healthy, positive self-image they will carry for a lifetime.
Washington Post columnist Lonnae O’Neal Parker recalls the day her five year old daughter came to the realization that she was different from the girls on the commercials; that her hair would never reach her waist. Even when I get older?” She cried; I cried. It is, for little black girls, that moment when you are just old enough to realize what the culture prizes as beautiful and just old enough to know that you aren’t it. It is a moment when even a mother’s love is not nearly enough comfort, but it’s the only balm we have. Parker articulates an issue that many of us prefer to pretend does not exist. For our daughters the reality that they do not look like Barbie or other popular media characters can slowly erode their self-worth, unless we counter it with regular positive affirmations.
Therefore, using labels such as bad hair, or good hair to refer to the texture of our daughters hair is unacceptable. Good hair is simply healthy hair, and a child should be raised knowing that every inch of her is beautiful and good. Terms such as nappy or kinky in African American vernacular are often used negatively to refer to the cotton-wool texture of natural hair.
Locally, words like sisal, coffee-bushes, and steel wool carry similar negative connotations. Children are tremendously impressionable, and quick to internalize any exasperation or disgust their mothers might express towards their hair, sowing seeds of self-hate and future inferiority complexes.
Psychologist Naomi Karuga reminds us that, Children are little persons. Your daughter is a little lady and is naturally inclined to preen and groom herself and to like looking good, in imitation of you. So the extent to which you nurture your daughters need to look and feel good about herself greatly impacts her self-image and confidence.
As such, apart from speaking positively about her hair, it is vital that a mother ensures as much as possible, that her daughter’s hair is always presentable.
In African American culture, the entire community takes pride in their hair. From Sasha and Malia Obama of the first family, down to low-income households living on welfare, a parent is considered unbelievably negligent if they let their child leave the house with unkempt hair.
Such a scenario would provoke insults, harsh reprimands and even public furore. An example is the backlash Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt encountered after they failed to properly groom their adopted Ethiopian toddler. When paparazzi photographs of their family outings repeatedly showed little Zahara with shaggy hair, hundreds of angry messages lambasting the celebrity couple clogged the blogosphere.
While our culture is much more forgiving, the point is a valid one. Lonnae Parker explains why she took time out of her hectic schedule as a working mother, to do her daughters hair daily: … it took 20 minutes of work to make them look special…to make them feel pretty so that neighbours would comment; Twenty minutes to be reassured that I’d sent my children into the world making clear that they were valued and loved. Certainly, taking the time to ensure that our daughters are well-groomed sends out the message that we care about how they look, and therefore about how they feel. It is thus an integral part of mothering.
Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that we love and value our daughters, we often are at a loss as to how to properly care for their hair. Hence, many ill-informed mothers make poor choices that may cause lasting damage. A common practice is that of adding extensions to toddlers and even babies hair.
Cathy House, author of Ultra Black Hair II, cautions, I have travelled around the country and seen the destruction braids do to our hair – receding hair lines back to the ears, bald patches and huge spaces between braids…I dont recommend them at all. Since baby hair is still immature, adding extensions in the first few years places unnecessary stress and tension on the hair. Extensions are often too heavy for fine baby hair, and often result in weakening and breakage from the hair follicle. It is better to wait until your child is older, and even then, make sure each extension is the same thickness as the portion of natural hair. Remember tight braids result in traction alopecia or permanent hair loss so make sure they are done loosely if you must get them done at all.
Another common culprit is those colourful rubber bands we see on little girls. Often, the rubber bands are painful to put in, and painful to take out. They are notorious for causing small tufts of hair to pull, snag and break. To avoid breakage, a better alternative is to use elastics, miniature clips or covered bands, but never tie them too tightly.
Finally, the million-dollar question that many mothers ask: At what age is it appropriate to relax or texturize a childs hair? When that question was posed to a number of experts, the general consensus was as late as possible, preferably after the onset of puberty. Cathy House states, I do not recommend relaxing a childs hair until puberty (12-13), as the hair often goes through hormonal changes around this time. Experts believe that putting in a relaxer too early can permanently alter the hair texture of a young child.
Dr. Melanie Miyanji, dermatologist at the Agha Khan University hospital shared with us that it is common to see young girls who are brought to us with very bad reactions to (hair) chemicals. We do not recommend them for children. Dr. Miyanji states that the fact that specific conditions and procedures have to be followed when applying such chemicals indicates that they can be absorbed into the body.
Because the skin is a porous organ, the extent to which such harmful chemicals permeate the scalp and enter the bloodstream is as yet inconclusive. However with this being a definite possibility, why risk it on your young child? Secondly, although the packaging on the relaxers themselves say, safe to use on age 5, or even younger, it is important to remember that their primary concern is not your childs health, but rather to sell their products and make profits.
Cathy House continues, some resort to relaxing the childs hair to make it easier to maintain before then but that tends to be a poor choice in the long run. In opting for convenience it is a far better decision to cut your childs hair into a short, manageable style than to relax it.
Our hair tends to be extremely fragile to start with, and our harsh equatorial sun, wind and dust, exacerbate this brittle state. Relaxers require high-maintenance and they strip hair of precious moisture. When young girls get their hair relaxed, this hampers their childhood as they are not able to run, play, sweat and swim without ruining their hair.
Often it becomes impossible to properly maintain relaxed hair on a child, so the hair breaks and gets damaged anyway. Rehema, 27, is happy that her childhood was not marred by a relaxer. ‘My mother always taught us that our hair was fine the way it was. We kept it in plaits and braids and she said we were not to get a relaxer until we were 18. Years later, I still have never put a relaxer in my hair. I have always believed that my hair is fine the way it is.’
Indeed, just fine the way it is is how we would all like our daughters to feel about themselves from childhood through adulthood. Thus, Ethnic Hair expert Mahisha Dellinger advises, invest in high quality hair products for your child. The main issue with our hair is dryness; therefore you must moisturize your daughters hair regularly daily if possible.
A good habit is to cover her hair at night with a silk or satin scarf, or to buy her a satin pillowcase, as cotton robs hair of moisture.
Stylist Roni Maingi recommends, Children play a lot so their hair gets dirty. It should be washed every week with a good shampoo and conditioner. Just like your own hair, your child needs a deep conditioning treatment monthly, preferably with heat. Some mothers wash their childs hair, apply treatment and then leave the child to play for sometime before rinsing it out.
Even if you delegate the blow-drying, ensure that excessive heat is not used. Also, your daughter should not be forced to endure undue pain or trauma from combing, pulling or plaiting her hair too tight. Lillian, 39, relates, rather than having the house-help take her, I used to take my daughter to the salon personally. I did not want her to go there and be manhandled or come home with a headache. Though not all mothers may have the circumstances to personally do our daughters hair, all of us can educate ourselves about the right products and procedures and take the time to properly supervise the ones caring for her. If we do this, we will no doubt enjoy the success of raising beautiful black women with good, healthy hair.
Do’s for your baby girls hair:
•Do educate yourself on caring for your childs hair. Books and the internet are good resources.
•Do tell your daughter repeatedly that she is pretty and her hair looks nice.
•Do use natural oils like olive oil, coconut oil, shea butter, jojoba, almond, sesame and avocado oils from infancy
•Do avoid products containing petrolatum and mineral oil as these clog pores
•Do not shampoo daily, as this strips hair of oil. Baby shampoos tend to be very drying as they are designed for non-afro hair.
•Do substitute conditioner for shampoo from time to time.
•Do make sure you plait or twist the hair all the way to the ends to avoid split ends.
•Do use leave-in conditioner after washing and deep conditioning hair.
•Do use a large wide-tooth comb to detangle hair, and always part into four sections, combing gently from back to front and from the ends to the roots.
•Do use a hydrating shampoo and deep conditioner on your child’s hair immediately after swimming.
•Do remove elastics and hair ties before bed, and put open hair in plaits for the night.
•Do invest in a wide variety of barrettes, beads, bobbles, bands and ribbons. Children love to be decorated in colourful hair accessories.