Yes, I’m considering the unthinkable. Letting my 11-year-old perm her hair. Before you throw jars of kinky curly products at me, let me explain.
My daughter was seven years old when she went through that Black girl right-of-passage: getting her hair pressed.
Since the age of two, my daughter’s hair has multiplied in length and thickness every month. Okay, I might be exaggerating, but that’s what it feels like.
I told my own stylist that I just didn’t know what to do. I was able to pull together braids and twists occasionally but having a break from the work of that and just doing ponytails every now and again would be helpful.
“Why don’t you press it?” my stylist asked. “Then you’d have a week or two to do simple ponytails for a while before washing.”
As a long-time hard-core naturalista, I balked.
“But her curls are beautiful.” I said.
“So are yours,” she said. “But sometimes I press your hair and it’s perfectly fine.”
She was right about that. I love the occasional blowout.
“We don’t normally work with young children,” said my stylist. “But bring her in, I’ll do it myself.”
When my seven-year-old walked in to the salon, her full 10-inch Afro ready to be transformed, my stylist’s eyes widened. Even she didn’t know what she was getting into.
Three hours, two candy bars, two crying jags and twenty hugs and kisses later, my daughter’s hair was straight. Her hair had gone from ear-length to reaching down to her mid-back.
I realized I made a mistake almost immediately.
My daughter stepped down from the chair, took a look in the mirror, thanked the stylist and then—she shook her hair back and forth. She reached around and touched her back, surprised to feel her own tresses back there, long and silky soft. My stylist and I exchanged a look. And she quickly pulled it back.
It was too late.
Ever since that day, my daughter’s favorite hairstyle has been a silk-press. She’s fine with everything else, from cornrows to ballerina buns and everything in-between but ultimately, she prefers her hair to be straight. Period.
She is now 11. I think she should start to have more autonomy over her body—including her hair. Of course, I still have the last say, (no piercings). But what she wants is almost more difficult to decide.
She wants a perm.
At this point, her hair is straight more often than not. She has so much hair that I am completely done. I can’t handle it. When I wash it and put it in twists it takes around six hours. We are both exhausted and one (or both) of us are in tears.
Last year, my mom graciously decided to take my daughter to the salon every two weeks: wash, deep-condition, blow-dry and press. Everyone was happy. My daughter loves her hair, I’m not on duty and the hairdresser gets her money.
Most importantly, her curl pattern is mostly in-tact. But what about my daughter’s self-esteem? What am I showing her by allowing her to wear her hair straight all the time? I'm worried that she will see her curls as less-than?
Some would say that the way you wear your hair should be seen as just a hairstyle, not a treatise on your Blackness or your politics. I don’t believe this. There is at least part of us that is represented by our hair. Maybe wearing the color yellow or eating grapefruit doesn’t send a message. But dreadlocks versus a perm versus a baldie—it’s a statement. And she needs to know that.
I have to face my own role in this, as the main person responsible for creating this Black girl and making her into a Black woman. Her dad and I enrolled her in a private school, for the education we believed was best for her. And it is. But, still, it is also not as diverse as we would like and I’m sure that going to school with many girls who have back-length straight hair is having an impact on her. Exactly like what happens when she watches the Disney Channel.
So. Should she get a perm?
I know the first thing most would say: it’s damaging! You’ll ruin her hair!!
That’s hogwash. First of all, a silk press involves some serious heat on all of her hair every two weeks. Don’t tell me that carefully applying chemicals to part of her hair, every six weeks is worse. Could her hair be damaged? Of course. Can a silk press also damage her hair? Of course.
I do recognize that a perm means hardcore chemicals and just being near them can be hazardous. There are risks with a perm. It requires a stylist who is very knowledgeable and using only the very best products. I’m confident we can keep her hair healthy. And, making that choice would be hers, not mine. She knows all the risks and this is an opportunity for her to make a decision for herself that is not permanent. (Her 15-year-old sister once got a red-orange dye job that turned out to be filled with lessons.)
Sometimes we forget, hair is dead matter. It literally dies the moment it comes out of our scalp. The idea of healthy hair is a misnomer. You can make it look healthy, (whatever that means), but it’s dead.
Also? I really don’t want my daughter to put her hair before herself. But If she wanted a baldie, I wouldn’t let her. I don’t think an 11-year-old should shave their heads because its severe and they may regret it. But that’s the same rationale as a perm essentially so I recognize that I’m being a hypocrite.
She’s a tween. Identity matters more now than ever. That girl stays in the mirror. I’m trying to hold off on the perm but I may give in. My mom permed my hair when I was seven. I lived. And I’m a blackety-black-black girl who loves her natural hair. My older daughter pressed her hair every day through high school. Today, she’s a blackety-black-black girl with a head full of glorious locs.
We all go through our hairstories. Our journeys are our own. Though I do have to keep my daughter safe and guide her well, how she wears her hair may be something I can give to her.
Except I don’t want to! I want her to love her curls and wear her hair natural like me. There, I said it.
Well, something interesting happened recently. She had her hair in braids as usual; and she took them down to get ready to go the salon. She looked in the mirror and then looked back at me.
“Can I just wear my hair like this? It’s cute, right?”
It was a perfect chunky twist-out. I hadn’t even meant to style it that way!
“Absolutely,” I said.
I think my daughter actually wants variety as much as she wants length. We’ve got some exploring to do.
Oh. Also? I bribed her. Hah! It's parenting. I told her she can color her hair. But of course, it would be super damaging on permed hair. She’s decided she’d rather get color for now.
So, if you see an 11-year-old somewhere in New Jersey with a swinging twist-out and a hot pink peek-a-boo, that’s my baby!
We'll revisit perms at another time.
(Photo: JGI/Jamie Gril via Getty Images)
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