My aunt Jacqueline has been heavy on my mind during quarantine. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are of me sitting on the floor between her knees as she braided my hair. We’d talk for hours, laughing at episodes of Golden Girls, as her hands weaved back and forth.
I always liked the way I looked in box braids, especially during the summer when I would undoubtedly be spending my days at the pool or in Antigua, where my family is from. But as is the case for so many young black girls who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I distinctly remember the moment I stopped feeling pretty in them. It was a silly insult—a kid in my fifth grade class called me “spaghetti head”—but for a girl who already stood out from her classmates in so many ways, it was all I needed to hear to want hair like everyone else. And just like that, my tradition with my aunt died.
I started relaxing and straightening my hair regularly in middle school and graduated to wearing weaves in high school. I also competed in pageants at a time when natural hair wasn’t really accepted, leading me to put my hair and scalp through so much trauma. It was only last year that I stopped wearing weaves and decided to embrace my curls and natural styles again. It took more than a decade, but I finally got tired of quite literally hiding my hair, and by extension, hiding who I was and the culture I grew up with.
My little sister and niece were also catalysts for me to embrace my natural self. They’re growing up in an age where they are constantly bombarded by images of perfectly edited faces and curated lives. I don’t want them to feel as if they need to alter themselves to reach some arbitrary standard of beauty. If I wanted them to believe me when I said they’re beautiful just the way they are, I had to believe in myself, too.
In March, I was planning on calling up my stylist for some Seneglese twists; I wanted to give myself a break from doing my hair everyday and wanted a protective style to help me grow out my hair and retain length. But before I could, New York went into lockdown as COVID-19 ravaged our state.
For everyone in New York City, it has been a supremely challenging time. It’s hard to focus on anything but the illness and death that has swept over our communities, our everyday lives disrupted beyond recognition. We are all grasping onto anything that can make us feel the tiny bit “normal” again. The term “self-care” is often thrown around to sell women products; it’s still happening during the pandemic. But for me, self-care during this time didn’t mean buying an expensive face cream or leisurewear set. It meant sitting with myself and focusing on truly caring for my health, both mental and physical.
I started to think about how when I’m doing my own hair, I see it as a task to get through. And the ritual I had with my aunt came back to me. For her, braiding my hair was never a chore—it was a labor of love. I wanted to shift my perception of it back to something I did to care for myself. But my years spent trying to conform to Euro-centric beauty standards meant I never learned how to braid hair, a fact I’m ashamed to admit as a Caribbean-American woman.
So I went on YouTube and watched hours of tutorials on how to do box braids and Seneglese twists. I studied videos obsessively for a few days until I finally got up the courage to try it myself. I must admit, my first attempt ended with tears and me literally throwing a pack of hair in the garbage. But after my meltdown, I took a breath and remembered I should have the same patience with myself as my aunt had for me. Although her hands were undoubtedly sore, she would braid my strands delicately until the job was done, even when I would start to nod off.