Lee hates when I take her picture. She scowls, makes horrible faces, just generally gets in the way, but I still persist. Still, it was pretty difficult when we had to put together a little scrapbook page during our foster-adoption classes and had incredibly few choices of photos of the two of us together and tons and tons of the animals. So this post is going to feature plenty of photos of Lee, but please take me seriously when I say that she looks far better in real life than she does in any of these. And the photos are all fairly small, but I’d be happy to send large versions to anyone who’d like more detail on any hairstyles.
See, Lee also doesn’t like sitting still to have her hair styled. For years, up to and including when we first got together, she looked like this:
Lee's loose hair, a sculped afro
She has hair that doesn’t lend itself to coils but hangs in a sort of wooly cloud (sometimes referred to as “cnapp” texture) and every morning she’d drag a comb through it and shove it into place as a sort of microphone-look afro. If she wasn’t at work, you’d never see her without her hat. She hated the combing, and once I was spending mornings around her I grew to dread it too.
Since I’d been looking into foster/adoption before we even got together and since as you know I tend to over-research, I’d already done some reading on how to style the hair of black or part-black children. It wasn’t a huge stretch to realize I could style Lee’s hair and keep her from having to mess with the combing every day. (I could probably have given her some better combing techniques, but she believes that conditioning does nothing for her hair and had no interest in changing, so I figured it wasn’t my place to push.) Eventually she let me try putting in two-strand twists and while I won’t show any photos here, I have pictures of many different sizes of two-strand twists we tried, as well as three-strand twists, which look fuller and more dense, and even the one time I added short yarn extensions to give her shoulder-length hair.
Then over the Christmas holiday in 2007 we decided she’d had enough and never wanted to comb again. I’d done lots of research on how to install dreadlocks (which we call “locs” in this house because it’s a differently politicized word, but I’m not very picky about the terminology) and she decided she was ready for them, which I hadn’t thought would happen so soon because she still was very focused on her hair being “tidy” and there’s no way to lock hair without a fuzzy stage.
Lee with dreadlocks: day one
I made Lee’s babylocs by simply twisting her hair. We kept it wet and I added some sort of loc gel (I think I used a mixture of Carol’s Daughter, olive oil, and shealoe) to each clump of hair I grabbed. I didn’t part evenly, but just eyeballed it. Lee’s hair is very thick and I knew she was never going to look “scalpy” enough for her parts to matter; nor was she going to be doing any intricate styles where the parts would show. When I had a strand of damp gel-coated hair, I just twisted it around my finger to make a coil and then palm-rolled a bit (the way I do that is just rolling it between my hands like making a snake out of dough) in a clockwise direction. The direction doesn’t matter, but that way I know what I’m doing and keep it consistent.
At first, we retwisted Lee’s hair every three weeks or so, because twists like these come undone easily. It would have been possible to start her locs from two-strand twists or braids, but I thought this would be the fastest way to do the original setup, though she does have one braid from hair that came loose between two locs and I braided it up rather than trying to bother to fit it back where it belonged and that’s my favorite loc! It turns out that her hair took well to the twists and her locs are round and healthy. I do think that braids tend to get bumpier because the hair is growing in several different directions, but much depends on the individual’s hair type as the process chosen to make the locs, and they all get to the same place anyway when they do lock up. This is the point where my yarn nerd self has to point out that locked hair is just felted hair, like a wool sweater that’s been sent through a washing machine. Warm water and agitation speed the locking process, and Lee and I both believe that if we had regular access to a shower she’d be even farther along than she is.
Lee's locs wild behind a headband
The above photo is from our trip overseas, so Lee’s locs were about six months old then. It’s most people’s favorite photo of her, because those wild, spiky locs really fit her personality. But she was still very worried about looking “professional” and wanted styles that would keep her hair down flat against her head. One good way for her to achieve this is to sleep with a silk scarf on her head, but that gets annoying and since I bought her a satin pillowcase to keep her locs lint-free at night she’s mostly just gone with that even though it doesn’t have the same loc-shaping effect. Every head is different, but Lee’s definitely started locking from her “kitchen” (the hair at the top of her neck) up and is loosest around her face, which is also the part that she wants to look tidiest for that “professional” look.
Lee's locs in two-strand twists (fall '08)
To that end, I put Lee’s hair in flat twists (like french braids, but using two pieces of hair rather than three) that she wore for a few weeks last fall when we were still taking our foster-adoption prep classes. This is an easy style and after we undid the twists, her hair stayed separated. Much of the maintenance of locs involves keeping the clumps of hair separate from each other so that at the root the locs don’t combine. She’s supposed to “pop” them after she washes her hair, running her hand down to the root to make sure each one stays separate, but in reality this doesn’t happen very often. Instead every month or so I get called in to do maintenance.
Lee's hair in small flat twists at the front
I did end up retwisting the front of Lee’s hair last night and applying a lot of olive oil to the rest of it for shine and conditioning. Nowadays I use a mixture of honey and olive oil to twist so that I’m not adding anything too heavy and what’s in it will wash out and keep her locs from having excessive buildup. The time before, though, I had just done the front part of her hair in flat twists and left the rest loose (shown above) so that she can keep her hair out of her eyes and off her face. Because of the haircut she had — cut by a white stylist friend of hers who hasn’t worked with black hair otherwise and worked on it dry and sort of hacking at random as best I can guess — some parts are much shorter than others. Because Lee somehow thought she wouldn’t have to deal with her bangs if she cut them short, they’re now extra short and we’ve had to restart the locking process. Locs seal from the bottom and in time get tighter toward the head. That’s why there’s generally a tiny afro at the root and then the tightly interconnected locked hair on the other end. Lee kept this style in for over a month, though we did wash and clarify with baking soda and then apple cider vinegar to keep her scalp from itching.
Lee's unstyled locs, Christmas 2008
Lee with her locs under a hat
The photo on the left is Lee’s hair on Christmas morning, only one year into her loc journey. Her hair — like most cnapp hair, in my opinion — is GREAT hair for locking. It’s done incredibly well and now I don’t even usually retwist the back 80% or so of her head because it’s so well locked it separates on its own. (Essentially, she’s “free-forming” back there, though her front still gets direct attention.) And after all these months without daily comb attacks, the hair around her hairline has grown in beautifully and is almost long enough that it can be incorporated into the closest locs, too.
The photo on the right, though, is how Lee’s hair looks today. Even after all the work I did to make her look beautiful and all the complaining she did about having to sit still for what turned out to be less than 30 minutes, not to mention how apparently if I even looked at her hair it made her head hurt, even so she chose to wear a hat today. She even wore it to work, because her loc journey has made her more comfortable with the idea that there are many ways to look “professional.” She has two hats I’ve made her plus this one I’ve bought, and she wears her regular pre-loc hats too. I accept the reality that I’m going to have a scowling partner in a hat showing up in most of my pictures, but I love what’s underneath the hat and the scowl.
Lee used to have a very bad perception of locs, considering them unhygienic and unprofessional. She’s been so impressed with the positive reaction she’s gotten from students and coworkers about her hair, though, and now she’s an evangelist telling people how much washing helps the locking process (though she still doesn’t wash as much as I’d like her to; I keep threatening to send her to pay for a professional loctician and then see if she’s more interested in listening to my free advice!) and making them feel her hair to understand how healthy it is in its shiny compacted state.
Despite my complaints about her restlessness and whininess during hair sessions, I love them too. It’s incredibly intimate to have my hands in her hair and our bodies close to each other like that. It’s something I’d love to do with our child someday if that ever becomes an option, though obviously the dynamic would be quite different and not romantic! We’ve discussed children with locs and I’ve shown her blogs like Everything but the Kitchen Sink and Party of 5 where white moms have given their black adopted children locs, as well as black women I know online who’ve done the same for their bio kids. She was bowled over by the cuteness and would now consider it as an option at any age (at least for kids who are able to handle maintenance and frequent washing) and we’ll see what happens.
Lee isn’t yet a do-it-yourselfer about her hair and I don’t know if she ever will be. It’s always going to be my job, but it’s a job I take pride in doing well. I’ve learned a lot and still have plenty to learn, but it’s been a great process. I love thinking and talking about hair and am happy to answer any questions or give any advice that I can. I am just a white girl, as Lee likes to remind me, but she also tells everyone how proud she is of all I’ve done for her hair and her life. We’re a good team.