Why must you insist on looking so different all the time? I thought to myself as I felt the scrutinizing gaze of a dozen high school age black girls on my hair. They were on a tour, checking out the university and made a quick stop at the bookstore. All of them filed in, each one looking more fancy than the next. Designer handbags, cool jeans, cute tiny jackets. . . and beautiful weaves down-to-there.
What did I look like that day? I was wearing my husband’s old jeans rolled to the shins, a blue flannel button down that had seen better days (with another owner at that, since I’d found it at a thrift store), sneakers and that huge “one foot in diameter” afro. I know I looked like a bum, but it was Saturday and I hadn’t expected any business at the bookstore. Then these girls walked in.
They stared me down, wondering what ethos I had looking the way I do, as I explained the concept of buying textbook vs. renting them. I could actually see the wheels turning in their collective heads. Why on earth would anyone leave the house looking like that? Couldn’t she at least run a comb through her head first? Can she even run a comb through that?
I felt like I was in grade school all over again. Begging my mother to relax my hair because I didn’t want to be called “dookie braids” anymore. The girls in my school were exactly like these girls. Without the supervision of their tour guide, they too had the potential to punish me for my slovenly appearance.
When I was a kid, most of my clothes were well worn and definitely not stylish. I wanted cool jeans so badly, I sulked about it. I wanted cute shoes that weren’t used or scuffed. I most of all, wanted hair like everyone else. Long and straight or limp and greasy, it didn’t matter to me, so long as I just fit in.
As I wrapped up my spiel about books. I asked if anyone had questions. One girl raised her hand, as high school students are wont to do, and asked:
“How do you do your hair like that? I really like it.” Other girls began to murmur in agreement. Another added: “Yeah, it looks so free.”
You don’t know what went through my head at that moment. A mixture of embarrassment, pride, relief and guilt flooded my consciousness before I could sheepishly reply: “Aw, it’s nothing really, I just use a strong pick.”
And with that, they left as quickly as they entered, leaving me to ponder my own issues. How easy was it to transfer those old resentful feelings towards a new generation of girls? Amazingly easy. I pride myself on being patient and forgiving, but I was shocked to see how quickly I reverted back to a fight or flight response with women much younger than myself.
I felt guilty for judging them so harshly on appearances alone. What they wore and how they carried themselves really intimidated me. That in itself is a type of defense mechanism, isn’t it? Come up with your own narrative of another person you don’t know in order to protect yourself from being disappointed by them.
I learned all of this and one more thing. I have to stop being so hard on myself for the decisions I make about my appearance. I have to fight hard, all day, to keep the good feelings I had about myself in the morning. Insecurities can beat you up if you’re constantly worried about what other people think of you. I believe I’m smarter than that. I must remind myself to act like I am.