by Jessica Murray
I swore I’d never to tell this story again, but I need to tell it one last time and lay it to rest. I want helplessness to waft down around me, the way my straightened hair did the day I finally cut it all off.
When the barber was done, he smiled and I grinned back shakily. I stared at myself in the mirror, finally discovering at twenty what I really looked like.
Puberty had condensed my hair into a dark cloud, demanding hours of my mother’s hard work and skill. Hot combs and chemicals seared it out of existence, leaving my scalp bleeding.
It started falling out when I was fifteen, balding at the back, broken at the temples. I cried myself to sleep and tried to hide it with a headscarf. If I had to choose between having “bad” hair and having no hair, I would just have to go bald.
My mum, my gran, and every black woman who loved me said I’d better marry someone lighter than me so that my children would have good hair. I swore I’d never give my children the misfortune of looking like me.
* * *
Fast forward to university. I explained to a white friend the process of chemical relaxers, after she sweetly offered her flat irons.
“But why would you do that?” she said, pulling a face.
“Why?” I said, tasting the word. An idea was expanding in my head, threatening to crush my thoughts. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
It wasn’t okay. She tried to reassure me that I didn’t have to answer.
But I needed an answer. I needed to understand why I wore these labels—fat, black, coarse hair, ugly, ugly, ugly. Why? The vandalised ghosts of myself waited behind me, uncertain smiles and bleeding scalps. Her remark had smashed the surface of my life. I picked it up and turned it over and over. Why?
* * *
That winter, I touched my hair for the first time.
It was so soft! It sprung back beneath my fingers like damp moss. It was the friendliest hair in the world.
I turned to my mum. Her look said everything.
I had shaved off the respectability she worked so hard to cultivate. She taught me to speak BBC English, to know that the smiles of the politicians and the police were nothing but bared teeth. She knew what I was exposing my soft, nearly naked head to.
* * *
After I’d just had my hair cut, I bounced along my college reception on a bubbly cloud. My friend gasped, stuck a hand out and patted my hair.
My spine stiffened. I pulled away.
She grabbed me again. I felt jolted out of my body, my skin crawling. More people crowded in. I told them, first laughing, to stop. They didn’t. They never did.
There is something soul crushing about being surrounded by people who won’t take no for an answer when it comes to wanting to touch your body.
* * *
In my first year of uni, my vocabulary shrank to ‘no-stop-no-stop’ constantly. I asked. I begged. I yelled. I cried. I explained how it made me feel. Like an animal. Or less, because I’ve never touched a dog without the owner’s permission. My body slowly became not mine.
I grew wary of physical contact. If I accepted a hug, I accepted someone’s fingers worming their way toward my scalp. If I sat on a floor, cradling a mug of tea, I knew how badly I’d get burned if I jerked away from an unwanted touch. I’m a person who loves and needs to be held. I felt like I was starving.
My friends said I just needed to relax. I shouldn’t be so sensitive. Their excuses for ignoring my “no”s? They didn’t know why they should. It was hard to remember not to. It looked “so different”, “so bouncy”. It didn’t bother them if I touched their hair.
These were intelligent people. People who unwove DNA and understood Modernism. But they didn’t care. My reasons and “no”s weren’t good enough. They wanted to touch me, and they were going to. That’s when the panic attacks started.
* * *
I graduated from Cambridge, the most eloquent “fuck you” I could muster.
What keeps me up at night is how few of them changed. I’ve met the people who are going to run my country, and when faced with a person who felt differently to them, they exhibited a bland, smiling cruelty. Relax. We’re not hurting you. Relax. You’re what’s wrong.
Many still refuse to accept ever hurting me.
Sometimes I want to hurt them. I want a heart hard enough to throw, to shatter their indifference. But I know better; I know that’s the sound of my own pain.
I wanted to believe I could change them with my words, to make them understand. But the truth is, the abuse only stopped when I left Cambridge.
So I’ve told this story, and I want to let it go. I want to embody the lesson I learned when I cut my hair.
I will not bear lies, not on or in my head.
I discard the bewildering mixture of envy and self-hatred I feel whenever the wind moves someone else’s hair. It’s time for me cut off anything within me which is dead, and let my self, like my real hair, strange and springy and soft, grow as big as it can.
I will stop buying these ideas like I’ve stopped buying toxic “relaxers”. I don’t believe them. I never will again.
I will not regret being unable to change those who hurt me.
Yes, I am powerful. Yes, I fully expect to change the world for the better by being my audaciously beautiful self. I am going to live and love bravely and seek goodness wherever I can.
And, above all else, I will accept that we choose who we love, who we hurt, who we silence and who we learn from. I’ve only got one life to save, and it’s mine. I’ve only got one story to tell, and it’s mine.
Their story ends now.
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I’m a recent Cambridge graduate, a Buddhist and a big-hearted lesbian. I’m grateful to be living in London and rebuilding myself through writing, and through my amazing new Q/POC friends.