How a New Hairstyle Helped Me Confront Internalized Stereotypes

I found freedom in my pandemic-era hair journey

These days, you’ll find a vast selection of hair products inside my bathroom cabinet. Bottles and jars, big and small, lined up side by side like soldiers. It’s funny to think one year ago I wasn’t even aware of some of my essentials, like Originals Hair Mayonnaise and Shea Moisture’s enhancing cream. I had no clue about the cost of growing and maintaining my hair. Everything changed when salons and barbershops closed at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the midst of those dire times, I finally decided to take my haircare into my own hands.

Before the world closed up last year, I’d usually rock a low fade with a sharp shape-up. But my little brother challenged me to rethink my image, step out of my comfort zone, and get playful with my hair. I was hesitant; I feared what folks at my job would think and the stereotypes that would be placed upon a Black man with long, kinky hair — especially if it were twisted. Still, I shrugged off what others might think and took on the challenge.

At the start of my journey, I assumed maintaining natural hair meant just leaving it alone. Two months in, my hair had very little growth. After speaking with others, I realized my hair was dehydrated. I quickly learned a cardinal rule of Black hair: Unless you want a dry, malnourished puff atop your head, don’t wash your hair every day.

My friends shared other gems about the products they use and how they maintain their hair. I learned that two-in-one body wash/shampoos are the absolute worst for Black hair. Zero out of five stars, would not recommend. (Cantu shampoo, however, was perfect for damaged hair like mine.) I got put on to ORS Hair Mayonnaise, adding it to my routine as a conditioner to alleviate the split ends from my over-washed hair. And lastly, I learned that the almighty power of oil goes beyond sautéing in a skillet. Olive and coconut oils are also great for strengthening hair and providing shine.

My comb twist brought with it a spurt of self-confidence and some reckoning with my own biases… I’m still surprised by the image that stares back at me in the mirror.

With these new insights, I created a routine. I saved shampooing for Saturdays after the gym; during the week I’d just run my hair through water in the shower. After that, I’d style it with Pantene Intense Hydrating Oil or pair the oil with As I Am Leave-In Conditioner. At night, I would wear a durag to ensure the oils stayed sealed.

On wash days, I’d drench my hair with Originals Hair Mayonnaise, then put a plastic bonnet over my hair and condition it for 10–20 minutes. These weekly hair rituals became like a religion to me. And after a year, my hair had enough growth to twist.

When the time came to twist, I was nervous. I didn’t know what style I wanted or who to entrust with my ’fro. With hair stylists quoting prices from $180–500, I wondered if it was worth the risk of going through with it and possibly not liking the outcome. But when my friend recommended a Jamaican shop in the Bed-stuy area of Brooklyn that would do my hair for a relatively cheap price of $80, I figured “YOLO” and booked an appointment.

The tiny shop had a long, railroad-like layout; my stylist, Julie, was stationed second from the entrance. She yelled with excitement when she saw my friend. After they briefly caught up, she instructed us to wait as she continued braiding another client’s hair. Now, I’d heard stories and had seen movies about the Black salon experience, but I was still shocked by the delay. I was on time for my appointment, but it’d still take another 90 minutes to finish the current client’s hair?

When I finally sat in Julie’s chair, she twisted my hair and placed me under the dryer for 45 minutes, so the twist gels could dry. As I waited, a little girl asked her mom, “When will you be done?” Her annoyed mom told her to sit down. I shared the young girl’s yearning to escape. But the time flew by quickly enough. The dryer timer went off, and Julie directed me toward a mirror to see the result of her handiwork.

I was shocked at my new look. Back when I was growing up in Cameroon, I heard stereotypes about people who wore locs — they were labeled as menaces to society. When my elder brother got locs, members of my family frowned upon the hairstyle. With that in mind, I momentarily wondered if I should say to hell with these twists and revert to my safe low-fade cut.

I know the aforementioned stereotypes are not true, but it’s hard to unlearn them. Since growing my hair out and getting twists, I’ve found myself becoming more conscious about how the world perceives me. No one commented on my new look outright at work, but I noticed surprised facial expressions on Zoom calls. Perhaps the sensitive climate around race made my co-workers cautious about how their comments would be perceived. Or maybe I was overthinking things.

My mom was initially wary of me getting twists; she worried that I’d be a target for police. That I’d fit the description of a dangerous Black man. But she was surprisingly supportive when she saw the final look. And so was the rest of my family. Perhaps it was due to the pandemic, which has kept me safe at home more often than not. But whatever the reason, it felt good to be supported by the people I love, no matter the length or look or my hair.

My comb twist brought with it a spurt of self-confidence and some reckoning with my own biases. I challenged myself to see my frame beyond a low cut and fade, and discovered a whole new world and means of expression. I find myself connecting more with my Black peers over conversations about my own hair, as we share hair routines, styles, and tips.

A couple of weeks have passed since Julie helped me reinvent my look, yet though I receive compliments, I’m not yet used to the twists. I’m still surprised by the image that stares back at me in the mirror. But he does seem a little happier. Freer, too.

Next up on my hair bucket list? Braids.

Young Professional living in NYC. Avid podcast listener and lover. Host: City Living with Churchill Podcast| Citylivingwithchurchill.com

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