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several pictures of one woman at many ages
Daphne Boxill
April 10, 2021

My Mother, My Hairdresser

My go-to persona in a hair salon is a study in courteous endurance.

Doing cornrows really tested my mother’s skills, but she got really good at it and loved doing them, she even figured out a way to put beads on the ends of my braids.

There is a lot of yelling and performance going on. It's both inspiring and overwhelming.

I am part of this movement too. I’m generally a quiet person, but I have opinions about growing up in a small, white, conservative town, and about working for an organization where all the senior management is white. So, how do I assert myself?

I write. I share my recollections, like this one about my mother doing my hair. I write and share them because they are part of my black life. And they matter.

Some of my Hairstyles

For the past two weeks, I’ve been going to a salon to get my hair braided. I’m not talking about trying to recreate Beyoncé’s cascade of braids in Formation. I no longer have the patience to sit for eight hours while a stylist braids extensions into my hair so that I can whip my mane around.

I am talking about two very simple French braids like I used to wear in junior high school.

Initially, I got them done because I was going on vacation. I didn’t want to be bothered with travelling with a bunch of hair products. I’m a very low-maintenance person in every other regard, and I’ve always hated that caring for my hair turns me into a high-maintenance kinda person.

So, before my trip, I settled into the stylist’s chair. Even as the stylist was pulling my hair tight, and my scalp felt tender, I felt calm. Me? Calm at a hair salon? Very unlike me.

My go-to persona in a hair salon is a study in courteous endurance. When I enter a salon, I am all smiles. Happy to take off my coat, put a cape on, get my neck padded with towels and flip through a stack of magazines while I wait patiently. Yes, yes! I say. I will partake of your instant coffee! I don’t mind moving from the upright chair to leaning back into the chair and balancing my neck on hard porcelain. Thank you, YES. You only have the two magazines? No problem! I will read through this 2012 InStyle again.

Then somewhere around the second hour mark, my blood sugar plunges, and I start plotting my escape. The hairdresser notices that my hair is badly damaged and needs a conditioning treatment. I assure her that my thinning hair full of split ends is just fine thank you very much. I really don’t care. Let’s do that trim next time. I reach to undo my cape. My hair is still wet? Thank you! NO! I don’t need to sit under the dryer. I am fine. I am VERY low maintenance! What’s that? It’s minus 10 outside? I’ll put a hat on and see you next time! And I am out the door.

But this time, 2 days before my stateside trip, I was more than happy to spend the time and watch myself in the mirror as my hair got braided.

As the soft-spoken stylist started parting my hair and braiding from the crown of my head, I closed my eyes and time travelled back to my lilac bedroom, where I would sit facing the mirror as my mother did my hair.

Hair was my mother’s passion. What I mean to say is, MY hair was her passion. For me, my hair was a burden, a time-consuming chore that separated me from everybody else. All I ever wanted was hair that didn’t require fussing or fretting over, but that was precisely what I got. In my mother’s eyes, my hair was a representation of how well cared for I was.

When I was tiny, I had two options: I could stand on a small step so that I could lean over the sink in the laundry room and allow my mother to wash and rinse my hair, or we would go into the shower together, and she would comb it out. Both options yielded the same results: wet hair that was a nightmare to comb through. My mother used a tough plastic turquoise comb to tug at my scalp, trying to unravel the intense knots. I cried so much that my mother would enlist my father to hug me while she pulled and combed. I held onto him fiercely and wailed into his neck.

This does sound dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, let me explain that this hair trauma took place in the 70s in my very small, very white hometown, situated in the middle of nowhere. Ours was a town with a humble Rexall, that had no fancy moisturizers to put in my hair. We had Alberto V05, bottles of Suave and castor oil. Castor oil, you say? Yes, that emetic. Of course, now there are 101 Pinterest boards about the remarkable properties of Jamaican Black Castor Oil, but back then, castor oil was just a good old-fashioned laxative that we secretly used to moisturize and condition my hair.

Castor oil may have worked as a conditioner, but it was certainly not the sexiest thing to put in my hair. Not when Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific was on the shelf. No, that was not for me. Nor was Short and Sassy, or Silkience or Fabergé Organics. I thought maybe Tame could be for me because the name seemed to imply that it could subdue my unruly hair, but no. Those products were not in my mother’s arsenal.

We had sensible shampoo, her tough turquoise comb, castor oil, a hairdryer with a hood, a hot comb, rollers, ribbons, bobby pins and my mother’s impeccable skills.

Up until the age of 11, I wore my hair in pigtails with ribbons. Sometimes, my mother would put my hair up in a bun. Regardless of the hairstyle, my mother liked my hair looking neat and polished. I, however, couldn’t stand the look, so I raked my fingers through my slicked back hair at the front to give myself a little halo of frizz.

Pretty soon after that, however, these two go-to hairstyles felt limiting and too childish. I just wanted to wear my hair down. I wanted hair that moved. Movies had begun their invasion of my brain, and I longed for movie-star hair.

I immediately became infatuated with Donna Summer’s long, flowy tresses in Thank God It’s Friday. I need to look like this. I begged my mother. This was something that the hot comb alone couldn’t do. We needed a relaxer, which she got from a connection in Toronto.

I sat in the kitchen as she applied the thick white paste to my hair. It burned a little, but when we went down to the laundry room sink and rinsed it out, I couldn’t believe the results. My hair lay flat on my head. But that was just the first step. Next came the rollers and then time under the hooded hairdryer.

When we were finished, I couldn’t stop staring at myself nor could I stop touching my hair. It lasted for all of two days before it had to be put back up into a bun, but when I walked into math class and one of my classmates said, “Hello, Donna Summer!” I knew that it had all been worth it.

After Donna Summer, my next movie star hair crush was Bo Derek. Bo Derek and the braids she wore in 10. I never saw the movie; I didn’t have to. The saw trailer of Bo Derek running on the beach in her flesh coloured bathing suit with her beaded cornrows played incessantly. I feel a little sheepish admitting that I started wearing my hair in cornrows because of Bo Derek. I mean it’s one thing for white people to be swayed by cultural appropriation, but me as a black girl, embracing a black hairstyle because it was glamorized by a white woman? It’s a little Victor/Victoria, you know?

Doing cornrows really tested my mother’s skills, but she got really good at it and loved doing them, she even figured out a way to put beads on the ends of my braids.

“We’ll wrap the ends in tinfoil!” She announced.

“Tinfoil?” I asked.

“Yup. And then we’ll slide the beads on.”

It was genius.

Sunday nights she would come into my room with tinfoil, the beads I had picked out, a comb and a mug of tea. I would sit, as she parted my hair and braided. She would ask me for tinfoil to wrap the ends of my braids and then I would hand her the beads I wanted and when it was done, I would look at myself and be happy with what I saw in the mirror.

Eventually, I left the braids behind. There were more hairstyles to come. From Jheri curls to the Grace Jones hair cut to dreads, extensions, turbans, and texturized hair to where I am right now. Finally able to relax in a stylist’s chair while I remember all the hairstyles of my youth.


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Writer, blogger, street photographer! READ MORE FROM DAPHNE

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