My Belly or My Hair?

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By: April Desiree McQueen | Photo by Caique Silva

With my situation, living on a very limited budget, I have had to make a choice: my belly–exercise and healthy eating–or my hair.

I spend $75 every two weeks–$60 on a shampoo and blow out and $15 to trim my ends. That comes to $150/month and I’m neither rich nor extravagant. I have to be frugal because after the hair expense, I only have $80 left for groceries for the rest of the month. Not to speak of the $0 left for a gym membership. Once the initial fees are added, the cost for a gym membership is about the same as my ramen-free and vegetable-rich groceries. Each month, as I look at my budget, I’m forced to choose whether I’ll spend my money on joining a gym and eating nutritious and healthy food or visiting the salon.

I struggle with this choice. As far as free exercise goes, walking is for the brave, because although I technically live in a walk-up community, I don’t feel safe walking, jogging, or bicycling anywhere near my apartment or in my neighborhood. Meanwhile, doing my own hair is an exercise in futility. I can spend twice as much time and product on my hair as my stylist–shampooing it and combing it after using almost an entire bottle of conditioner–only to get unacceptable results despite my considerable effort and fatigue. On top of all that, living on a budget where everything is allotted before it’s obtained or spent gets old and restrictive quick.

As a Black woman, I feel like I need to do so much just to be ‘accepted.’

As a Black woman, I feel like I need to do so much just to be “accepted.” For me, choosing my hair over my belly is encouraged, especially by some of the Black women in my inner circle (e.g. grannies, aunties, mamas, sistas, and girlfriends). It may seem shallow, but these “truth-telling” women may think they’re doing me–a Black woman avoiding a salon visit to pay for food and exercise–a much needed service.

I remember one particularly challenging Christmas. I had finally grown my hair out of a relaxer. One extremely vocal truth-teller decided that her hurtful comments were exactly what I “needed” to hear. It was not just the negative comments, but the fact that she made them in front of everyone within earshot at the gathering, including my man, now partner. My hair not being professionally done was a problem so dire to her that publicly embarrassing me and causing me pain was inconsequential. It seemed that the sad state of my hair, in a sea of weaves and wigs, somehow gave her justifiable license to criticize my hair, my choice, and ultimately me.

On another similar occasion, my partner’s mother, who too is also extremely outspoken, told him right in front of me that he needed to give me some money to get my hair done. A short while later she said that she’d even give me the money and taken me to her salon herself, but she “didn’t want to get too involved” since I wasn’t her daughter-in-law. (I have been in partnership with her son for six years.) On both occasions I was wearing a natural style that I had spent considerable time and effort grooming before going out.

I wasn’t a feral cat, but a regal lioness. I felt fearless and free, a natural beauty

This began what I now remember as my “tie-up” period with my hair. I only wore it in a bun with my family, despite how thick, rich, and beautiful I thought my black and white natural hair looked un-tied and in its full glory. When I set my hair free from the bun, my partner affirmed it; total strangers at the local Walmart affirmed it; and I affirmed it: bun-free was popular with the public. I wasn’t a feral cat, but a regal lioness. I felt fearless and free, a natural beauty, proudly wearing a t-shirt from Procter & Gamble proclaiming that “My Black is beautiful but not apologetic.” At the time, I was proclaiming that I was going “non-salon natural” because I was choosing sweat-producing Zumba classes, considering aqua-aerobics, and delighting in eating well (vegan, although not organic due to the increased expense) to live well. This personal choice of do-it-yourself hair care, however, resulted in warnings of: “But you’ll sweat your hair out!” a very critical warning. Or in a social situation hearing, “You have so much hair!!!” which is more of a subtle put down than a true compliment. As a result, I felt I was neither accepted nor acceptable by the majority of my own community within a community, despite my inexpensive hair choice and the considerable savings I was racking up from not going to a salon and allocating that money toward working out and eating the rainbow of produce items that I could splurge on at the local farmer’s market.

…I felt I was neither accepted nor acceptable by the majority of my own community within a community…

I can’t help but think that a White version of myself wouldn’t have to choose. With the same amount to spend ($230) she’d have so much more left over. She’d only spend $20 on a haircut every 6-8 weeks, if at all; $10 for shampoo or conditioner she can use in the shower; leaving her with up to $170 for a fridge full of fresh vegetables, fruits, lean meats, fish and poultry, legumes, and grains. She would be able to choose to spend the remaining $30 for a monthly gym membership, a luxury she could enjoy with its classes, weight machines, and swimming pool. She wouldn’t have to resort to a budget-friendly YouTube workout. She wouldn’t have to dare to go on dangerous, low-income neighborhood walks. Her budget would give her choices, not limitations. Even if she ties her hair up in a ponytail or twists it into a bun, her “tie-up” style is a choice to be elegant, not a requirement that peers negatively impose on her. Her choice isn’t something that’s loaded with overt and internalized social inequality. Mine unfortunately is.

So, in my situation, when I have to make a choice—my belly or my hair, I choose my hair, I am ashamed to say. I continue to choose my hair over my belly out of vanity. I find myself striving to keep what amounts to an Anglo-looking hairstyle for personal and professional reasons and maybe over some misdirected self-esteem issues about being “acceptable” only if I have a hairstyle like a blow out or a tightly pulled back or up bun. Nevertheless, I know one thing for sure: I look like a totally different person and instantly gain acceptance, attention, and the assumption that I am what my educational and professional skills say that I am and even more. It’s a risk-accepted trade-off where I’m keenly aware that my full acceptance is not guaranteed no matter how many compromises I’ve made to satisfy my group.

I’m keenly aware that my full acceptance is not guaranteed no matter how many compromises I’ve made

Making hair-over-belly compromises might speak volumes about me. Since I can’t change those comments when they come, I choose to change myself to escape their criticism and tolerate what they think passes as their love and concern. But the deeper question remains. Am I allowing these well-meaning others to contribute to my own brewing cultural self-hatred?

This is the complexity of the salon-hair conundrum that never fails to lead me back to the salon-hair choice. I do this for inner circle social survival. I do this in order to belong. I comply when I attend annual seasonal gatherings armed with my salon-styled straight hair and a tortured smile. Is it my hair or all of me that’s being offered as an apology or seeking acceptance? At one year away from age 50, I realize that I will never get a personal invitation to choose salon-free hair as easily as I receive invitations to these social events. I know that it’s my choice to love myself over, above, and beyond loaded compliments that come at a cost. I am a de facto member of the salon club even if I choose to invent my own rules of belonging to our sisterhood.

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Team Unruly
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