“Who does her hair?” She asks me gruffly. I look up from the table where I am trying to manage my four young children and squint into the glare of the insanely fluorescent lighting of a local burger restaurant. I rarely take the kids out to eat alone, but day after day trapped in the house have driven us to this corner burger place.
The freezing rain taps against the dark window. I try to block it out along with the difficult drive home.
“I’m sorry?” I reply as she registers over the chaos. She is barely taller than my oldest children with a pretty face around a prominent nose. I notice the red apron around her waist and blush at the french-fry explosion under our table. The red glow in my cheeks burns deeper when I understand her question.
“O-oh,” I stammer. “I do. They’re only box braids.” I am immediately apologetic and defensive, explaining my short-comings to this stranger who has asked me a simple question. “I can’t corn row.”
She touches one of my daughter’s thirty braids and feels it from root to tip with expert hands. “They look good,” she answers me, “but they need more oil. They’re too dry. Our hair needs oil every day.”
I wince. I have wonderful oils at home. Mango. Olive-infused. I have never been into hair. My own long, auburn locks can be gorgeous, if done by a hairdresser, but I never learned to style them and I wear a perpetual ponytail. The foreign texture and baffling care of my daughter’s hair has sapped whatever energy and interest I ever had for primping. We consider our bi-weekly box braiding a mutually endured chore.
Feeling like a failure in a fast food restaurant with my pale ketch-up-smeared boys and my unoiled brown daughter, I nod. “I know, I don’t stay up on it enough.”
“I used to do all of the kids’ hair in my neighborhood.”
“Really, you must be so fast.” I am jealous. I would give much to have been raised with this skill. To be deft and quick and not five-thumbed, fumbling with the tiny braids and miniature beads.
Later it strikes me that she never said Saige was beautiful. She touched her with matter-of-fact skill, not wonder or curiosity. It is one of the most honest—and easy—interactions that I’ve ever had in this town regarding Saige’s hair. The realization makes me sad and unsure of our decision to parent our multi-racial family in this small Northern city.
Usually, it goes quite differently. “Your daughter is gorgeous.” “She is so pretty.” “May I touch her hair? Look at those beads!”
My daughter is a beautiful girl, inside and out. She has a captivating smile. She can infect a room with her effusive giggles. She is gentle and inclusive with her younger brothers. She is also miserably obstinate and she throws fake tantrums that send my blood pressure rocketing through the roof and into the heavens.
In other words, she’s a little girl.
In the great scheme of children of the world, I don’t find her looks particularly remarkable or unremarkable. All children are beautiful. My little girl, the recipient of so much exuberant praise on her physical appearance, and in particularly her hair, draws attention in this part of this small city, I fear, for being something more akin to different.
I don’t think her well-meaning admirers intend that subtext when they lavish her with praise. I don’t think the kind strangers with whose compliments we contend almost daily understand why their comments engender my tense smile and deflective remarks.
“They’re mine, so I think they are all beautiful,” I say.
“OH, but she’s gorgeous! Look at that hair.”
“All children are gorgeous.”
Why fight it? After all, who doesn’t want to be beautiful? It’s a compliment, don’t be so sensitive. I hear these arguments, but I disagree intuitively. I don’t want the word beautiful to have a subtext for my daughter. I don’t want it to mean, exotic or different or unique or black. Most of all, I don’t want it to mean “noticed.”
Our family is different and people notice, that fact is easy to address. Beauty I prefer to let her define on her own with as few preconceived prejudices of others as possible. She need not feel vulnerable to every passerby who hides curiosity in compliments.
And so, for now, I’ll stay on course. I will downplay over-the-top compliments even when it offends the speaker. I’ll continue to seek out every interaction that I can to make it clear to my daughter that the dynamics of this street do not equal the dynamics of this city or this state or this country.
“The kids laughed at my hair today.” Saige says at the dinner table. “They said it sticks up funny.”
My heart thumps painfully sideways in my chest. Her hair is done with two ponies on either side of the top of her head. We call the style “Mickies,” because the deep, thick black balls above her forehead look like Mickey Mouse ears. The back I left natural to give both Saige and me a break and to let her hair rest. It looks lovely when she leaves in the morning, but no matter how much oil I put in it, no matter how carefully I brush it down behind the ponies, by the end of a long day of school it is matted, dry and covered in every fuzz that her head encountered that day.
“That’s not nice, all hair is different, what did your teacher say?”
“She said she thinks my hair is beautiful.”
“I think your hair is beautiful too,” I tell her. I am caught in a mama bear rage, though I know it is an overreaction.
Matt catches my eye at the other end of the table. “It’s okay,” he soothes, “kids say whatever they’re thinking. It’s not mean-spirited.”
It’s not intended to be racist, he means. I know that, but it doesn’t make it not about her differentness.
“Would it be easier if she were in a predominantly black class?” He asks me.
No. It would most likely be harder. From a hair perspective, anyway. Gone would be the innocent comments—those kids and their parents would know that someone at poor Saige’s house was stumbling around hair-blind.
“Tomorrow,” our little girl declares, “we should put the ponies all over my head. That way, it won’t be Mickies, it will be TOFU HAIR.”
She laughs uproariously, her head thrown back, her mouth open, not phased by the comments of others, unwilling to be cowed, unafraid and confident. Her brothers join in and the screeching laughter approaches rainforest canopy levels. She giggles until even Matt and I laugh with her, though why that would be Tofu Hair escapes her confused parents. The way, I suspect, her peers will laugh with her as she grows.
Because she demands it, because her poise leaves no room for ridicule.
Because she is beautiful, inside and out.