- Ashlyn Mason
Love From The Crown On Down
Nappily Every After, Netflix
When I was younger, my mother used our dainty kitchen for two things—cooking and doing hair, albeit not simultaneously. Almost every Saturday morning, I stood on the wooden chair to reach the height of the sink. I was hunched over like a cat to let the water meet my scalp for hair washing. I sat on plump yellow phone books stacked on the wooden chair, so I was somewhat at eye level with my mom and her tools. She was like a scientist in a lab, sectioning my hair into eight parts, carefully moving a wide-tooth comb through my mane to detangle it after a wash because I was tender-headed. My mom covered the narrow kitchen countertops with shampoos, conditioners, and a few pink bottles of moisturizer and special hair grease for my scalp that smelled like a strawberry pomade. I loved how she used those sweet-smelling products on my hair to work magic in my tresses.
I grew accustomed to the hours it took for my mom to finish my hair. I entertained myself by reading books or coloring. I only freed my hands to fold down my little ears when she used a hot comb to straighten my hair to avoid ear burns. She would style my hair in plaits, usually decorated with barrettes of my color choice, sometimes a mix-match of purples and pinks or all blues.
Saturday mornings, maybe, were more laborious for my mom, but that was our quality time. Our girl talk, our stories, and our laughs.
When I account for the many times my mother flipped the kitchen in our townhome into a beauty shop to care for me and give me her undivided attention, it feels like a distinct community rite of passage. She did this for me, and her grandmother did this for her.
When I turned seven, those Saturday mornings in the kitchen with my mom migrated to an actual beauty shop in Columbia, MD. Now we were both getting our hair done on Saturday mornings. We'd wait in purple cushioned chairs, hearing the hums of asynchronous blow-dryers. And WHUR FM playing in the background, water thudding into the shampoo bowls, conversations competing with the rhythm of all the sounds in this hair shop. While waiting to get called to the shampoo bowl, I tended to the stacks of Ebony and Essence magazines on a coffee table. I'd scan every page for pictures for a hairstyle to try.
There was no denying that I felt very much like an adult in the presence of mom and her cronies. I was often the only child in the salon when we went, and it was the one time I could eavesdrop on their conversations—from job woes and politics to relationship advice.
The women in the shop were mature, nurturing, educated, witty, and fashionable. They were icons, representing a standard of beauty I saw in myself. Charlie, our hairstylist, would say what will it be for you today, sweetie? I knew I was in good hands. And when she would spin me around in the black leather swivel chair to see the finished product in the mirror, sometimes in curls, twists, or straight - I felt confident looking back at myself.
Photo by vincent njoroge
In sixth grade, my parents signed me up for after-school swimming lessons at the Y. Because swimming lessons lasted a few weeks, I kept my hair in cornrows, my protective hairstyle of choice, under my swim cap when in and out of chlorinated water.
It was the first time I had worn my cornrows to school. And it was also the first time I realized that some people had stronger opinions than I did on the appearance of my hair.
Walking into homeroom with my braids, I remember being asked by a classmate, what did you do to your hair followed by a choir of snickering. I had never been asked that question and would have never expected to be asked that way. I’d never doubted my hair choices or myself. Whether my hair was straight with a side swoop, curled, or in braids, I was always made to feel confident. At that moment, I did not.
My classmate didn’t know the skill it took to weave strands of hair together to make those braids look like perfection, and the sacrifice of one's hands turned callous to braid the thickness and fullness of this hair. And how unfortunate for her not to know the storied history of braids tailing back to west Africa. She didn't know these things, and I didn't explain.
This was one of many objectifying and offensive instances; I observed early as a kid, but they would only be met with deeper mindlessness in adulthood and no excuse for childlike innocence.
I’ve always known the value of community a beauty shop provided, especially to Black women, from first-hand experience to pop culture references in movies and music videos, but it wasn’t until my late twenties when I deemed the hair shop more therapeutic than my sessions with a licensed therapist.
After a few weeks of me deciding to be vulnerable in therapy and fire off a stream of tears in one session, my therapist didn’t even give me a damn tissue. I wasn't coming to therapy to be coddled but for counsel, some compassion, and coping mechanisms after dealing with a tumultuous string of microaggressions at work. Unfortunately, this highly recommended therapist interrupted me often, was impatient, and lacked cultural competencies, which built a gap between my healing and her work.
I was intentional about never sitting in that office again. That experience, along with my health insurance not covering the cost, were my reasons for a therapy hiatus. Instead, I sat in my hairstylist's swivel chair, the same stylist I’ve had since I was a child. She was my “therapist.”
Though she never made me feel as though I was dumping too much on her, I know I gave her a lot. She gave me what that therapist didn't. I was heard and seen. And granted, we had this allotted time where she was doing her work, making my hair look amazing, but her counsel, affirmations, and mindfulness weren't required. She was always invested. There was and is some connectivity between myself and sitting in the beauty shop chair, whether it's the one in the shop or in my mom's kitchen.
Photo by RODNAE Productions
When I finally found my therapist, I considered her my "third chair" - the wooden chair in my mom's kitchen was first, the beauty shop's second.
I shared a story with my new therapist about the first time I wore my hair straight to work. I had been at this job for about six months and wore my natural curls and braids primarily upon entering the workforce after college. In college, these styles were embraced, and I did not feel excluded for choosing them by my professors or peers. But when I showed up for work that day with a bone straight hairstyle, two colleagues asked me why don’t you wear your hair like that more often? And told me that I had the look of a CEO. They insinuated that I looked more professional when my hair mirrored theirs; they were both in principal positions. This made me question if my hairstyle was affecting my career progression. I wrestled with thoughts of hiding parts of myself to get to where I deserved to be. Each time I did not meet a perceived standard of beauty, I was met with questions as if my crown did not also exemplify beauty or worth.
And this is what my "third chair" told me; “Keep doing what you are doing. Wear your crown how you please, don't be disempowered.”
It was simple. Those words meant show people that a CEO can wear a twist out, braids, or purple hair. And know that I can exist wherever, no matter what crown I choose.
And while I honor an opportunity to participate in gainfully interrupting "societal norms," a part of me is still just the young girl who wants nothing more than to sit back in that wooden chair and be cared for, heard, and seen - without defenses or explanation.