Help Wanted (Hair)

December 2, 2010

So, Mara’s been with us a month! I just sent in my first-ever foster care reimbursement forms today. She’s hopping around in the living room and brining me finger puppets while I write this. Although she’s congested and snorty, she’s doing well and she’s still a little lovey. 

What I want to write about here, though, is something completely superficial. Mara came to us with badly damaged hair. Her hair is absoutely gorgeous, no curl definition but just a glorious halo, but there are a lot of problems with its health. For reference, I’ll send you to Happy Girl Hair and say that Mara identifies Little R, the twin on the left of the header image, as actually being Mara herself (and those big, wickedly cute eyes are truly very similar!) but her hair texture is more like that of Little B, the twin on the right, and very much like Lee’s.

As far as the damage, though Lee hates when I say this, picture Mr. T and you have a pretty good picture of what her hair looks like. Her hair is long enough along the top for braids more than three inches long (and for people who aren’t familiar with kinky natural hair like hers, much of this post may seem a bit alien including that there’s no one standard way to measure length) but the sides and “kitchen” (the nape of her neck) where she had the most hair loss are at most about an inch and a half long if you stretch the coils to their full length and much, much shorter in the parts that were totally empty. She no longer has bare patches and she’s almost always great about helping me moisturize with spray (a/k/a “spray! yay!” hereabouts) and oils and humectants.

Her previous foster mom says that her hair loss was a result of her tugging on her hair, but I don’t think that’s entirely true and I think the foster family’s lack of experience dealing with highly textured hair was part of the problem. They took her to a coworker who could do hair and who’d put it in very small and very tight braids, which I’m sure she did fiddle with and which probably did lead to breakage. I have reason to believe they also left styles in for a long, long, long time and then detangled without detangler, which can also cause breakage. Mara didn’t sleep with a bonnet and was directly against a rough cotton pillowcase that drys out and breaks hair. I know they did try to use Doo-Gro and other products on her hair to the point where whenever they washed her there’d be a waxy ring around the bathtub, so none of this is meant to say they were neglectful or didn’t have good intentions even if they weren’t doing anything like what I would do. Anyway, for the last month Mara has had satin around her hair whenever feasible and lots of scalp massage and oil and so on and her hair seems to be thriving, but it’s also damaged.

I’m trying to add photos of her latest hairstyle, which she’s had for about the last week. I didn’t do it on hair that was wet from a fresh wash but just undid a previous style and worked with that. Lee’s favorite style is bantu knots and they do indeed look adorable, but Mara’s a star at sliding her little finger in and undoing the knot even faster than I can make them. I prefer the look of twists to braids, but again they’re easy for her to fidget apart whether they’re large or small, have a snap at the end or none. 

So this time I braided her hair and put beads and heart-shaped snaps on the ends. She loves being able to whip her hair back and forth and hear the clacking beads. She’s taken a few of the snaps out but is patient about having them put back and doesn’t seem to have actually ripped her hair by doing this, which is one reason I prefer snaps to rubber bands.

top view of Mara's head with her current braided hairstyle

The drawback — and I’m sure this is partly because I’m not the world’s best braider — is that even with braids she can tease out little pieces of hair. She likes to have her finger in her hair while falling asleep and I’m sure over time she has done some damage that way. She certainly has gotten hair loose from the various styles I’ve put in. However, she has so many little broken bits of hair that they’ve come out of the parts and braids on their own because they’re just not long enough to be held. So after a week of braids, even well-cared for braids, we’re at an unacceptable level of fuzziness. There are tiny coils all over her long-hair areas that are as short as her short areas:

the sides of Mara's head with short hair

So here’s the dilemma. Shampooing is still extremely difficult for Mara and she’s not a fan of sitting still for hair time, though once she gets the inclination she can be quite well-behaved. If these different lengths are going to mean I need to wash and re-braid weekly, that’s going to be something of a difficulty. However, I asked today whether we could get permission to cut her hair.

Basically, I’d like to give my baby a Big Chop. As her hair gets a little longer, I’d like to make it all one length so it can grow out in a healthy and consistent way. But that would mean that for a while we’d have a three-year-old with hair too short to braid or twist. (I’d probably style it in coils, mostly, perhaps with something like the Nu Dred tool and wouldn’t just leave it loose, but I’d be able to moisturize in a much more hands-on way.) This would also be a three-year-old who has two moms and who likes to wear jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. I don’t think she’d have a hard time believing she’s cute with short hair and we don’t mind if she prefers clothes from the boys’ department, but I’m just putting this out there because I might be setting her up to get some bigoted responses.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like some reassurance that being the white mom of a little girl with short hair wouldn’t have people assuming I don’t respect or know to care for her care to a greater extent than being the white mom of a little girl with some long hair and some very short hair that’s hard to keep styled. Lee refuses to care or weigh in much and says this is my thing, which is really unhelpful to me. She doesn’t mind when Mara’s hair looks messy and says it’s fine for a little girl, that little girls don’t need cute, tidy styles and that no one cares. She may not care, but I do. And she’s not opposed to the short style idea.

And it’s not all about me, I swear! At some point, we’re going to have to even out Mara’s hair just so we get rid of all the broken ends. It’s just a question of whether we do it when the short parts are two inches long and the long parts are, say, six stretched or when the short parts are six inches and the long parts are ten, meaning a few more years of this awkward multi-length thing. I’d really like to cut Mara’s hair and she was excited about the looks on the Nu Dred website. I’m pretty well set on that plan because I think this would be the best for her hair health. But I’d like to hear what others think, too.

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  1. First, I think it is totally reasonable to be concerned about what other people think about your daughter’s hair, as a white mom. I am – our J already has a hair care budget that outspends mine and she is just over a year.

    I don’t have a partner with hair like J’s, so I took her to a salon in our city that specializes in natural hair to get their opinion on how to care for it in her baby stages and what to use on it. I found once someone there, a person with hair similar to J’s who did deeply care about hairstyles, advised me to do some cutting in order to even things up it was easier for me to feel confident doing it.

    :) good luck, it seems like you are doing great.

    • Thanks, Alissa. I deliberately didn’t put this in the post because I didn’t want to bring out the product junkies, but we’re looooving what Oyin Handmade stuff does for her hair.

  2. I’m cringing imagining what those detangling sessions may have been like at the foster home. Oy.

    I’m speaking here as a white woman (as you know) but I think you could definitely pull off the short hair on a 3-year old without it looking like a cop-out. I would personally choose to always accessorize it: soft cloth headbands that won’t rub too much on her hairline, a pair of cute clips on either side of a short center part, a flat twist across the front, etc. Just to emphasize that I didn’t cut her hair to avoid styling it. Because I also care a whole lot what people think. :)

    I’d do it now rather than wait a few years. But that’s just me.

    • Yes, definitely accessories! I already have several cute bra strap headbands for her and it would be easy to find more. She loves any clothing she chooses herself, so as long as they’re neutral, that could work.

  3. Her hair sounds a lot like Nat’s and try as I might, I could never get it past about 3 inches. We used to do jump braids most of the time, but I was beginning to worry that the parting and braiding was going to pull it too much (I used to part in different ways every time I did her hair to try and prevent loss). I was relieved to finally get her hair locked, which I am convinced will be gentle enough and strong enough to grow nice and long. She is a bear about wearing anything on her head to sleep and her old silk pillowcase is torn to shreds, I need to get her a new one. Meanwhile, I reroll almost weekly with a non-wax hair dress from Carol’s daughter.
    All this but I suppose you can’t loc her as a foster child and 3 is a little young for it anyway. The jump braids are fun though and give the illusion of longer hair and seem to stay neat just a tiny bit longer. Nat used to love to swing her pig tail ends in their snaps. I’m going to get some pony beads that will fit her locs soon.

    • My Lee goes back and forth on locs for kids. I think if Mara ever really insisted she wanted her hair like mama’s, we’d go for it. But no, I probably wouldn’t want to do it while she was still in care even if her worker okayed it, because workers change and there is still a stigma.

  4. I think a lot of this varies by locale, too. What would folks at church say? If they would be understanding & welcoming then I’d go with it.

    • I’ve asked around a little bit. I was informed tonight that one woman in the congregation has offered to french braid her hair for us for free, but that’s an offer she extends to all foster kids in the congregation and so I didn’t take it as a signal that I’m especially inept right now.

      The fact that a lot of them who are now butch talk about how much they hated cute hair as a kid makes me think that if we can convince them she’s happy, they’ll accept it. (Not that I’m saying Mara is butch or will end up a lesbian! But she’s in tomboy mode now and that’s fine and is maybe more fine at our church than at others.)

  5. First, can I say THANK YOU for the NuDred link?! I never heard of that, and I went and watched the video and ordered one for V. She might not let me braid or twist or loc, but I’ll bet I could get in enough time on a good day to at least do that.
    Having 2 girls with locs and one girl with 1/2 inch long hair, I can say that I have had (black) people stop me when I have just V with me and “give me advice” on how to do her hair. Because they obviously think since hers is short, I am white mom who does not know how to do black hair. When my kids first came home, that would have made me cry. Now, I can let it roll off me (ok, really I just grin and SEETHE that people make assumptions).
    From a practical standpoint, it would be easier to cut her hair now and get it healthy all at once.. that would be my preference. One of my girls had inch long hair when she came to us.. we just used lots of pretty headbands.

    • It seems like it could be a good attachment thing, too. I find hair time very intimate. I hope it helps! Blogger Lee linked below just won one from Keep Me Curly and has used it on her boys, which is what brought it to my mind.

  6. I cried when my son cut one of his sister’s afro puffs in half and we had to take her in to get her hair cut. My husband thought I was brain dead. In his mind, it was just hair. It would grow back. Uh, I am a white woman raising a black daughter. I am concerned with what others think too. For the same reason, I was anxious again when I decided to loc her hair (in fact, my decision took way longer than it should have).

    But, I do think it would be wise to cut off any unhealthy hair. Because, in my experience, it is either cut off or it breaks off.

    • Thanks, Julie. Maybe because she was growing up as an athletic little protolesbian in a conservative town, my partner early on took certain aspects of the “who cares what other people think of how I look?” mantra to heart and she has brought that along to Mara, too. When we started her locs almost three years ago, she didn’t think she’d be able to handle the lack of tidiness during the locking process. Now, she’s practically free-forming because she’s decided fuzzy roots are more comfortable than sitting while I retwist.

      Your daughter looks gorgeous, by the way! As does your son, but I am falling into the double standard there.

  7. I think you actually have an advantage that I don’t because your partner is black. I would *never* do the big chop because in my area it would be perceived that I was clueless. I would have to trim it gradually over time which I think is more of a pain. (which makes me glad it isn’t my issue LOL) I think you are safe doing a chop as long as you accessorize as someone else suggested. The nudred is great and it might also be super for stimulating her scalp–KC adores the feel of it and it twists up his hair really cute. My mom could not believe how fast it twists up. Ideally i should do it a couple times a day and that isn’t happening, but it looked great for the feast. And the same sites that sell the cute snaps (i used to use those too, but Lissa actually pulled on them and caused breakage) sell cute barettes. When they are young it is hard for any style to last long. Lissa’s hair took 6 hours of braiding the other day and I will be veeeeery lucky if it lasts us through the holidays. She is just a busy wild child (meant in a good way) and her hair shows it. She does at last have a sleep cap she doesn’t hate though and that is good. Found the info on the same site you frequent. LOL

    • Thanks, Lee. I appreciate your advice and, yeah, I hear you about having a cute and active little girl who lives live literally head-first and the toll that takes on hair!

    • And I was really, really hoping my Lee would get excited about the cutting plan so I could cite her culturally superior judgment, but no. She thinks if i’m the one doing the hair and I’m the one who wants it a certain way, it should be totally my call.

  8. I’m gonna reply really quickly before I am swayed by others comments.

    Judging by the pictures, I think her hair looks fine. It’s really cute and that’s just what highly (and even loosely) textured hair does. It’s also very likely that her hair will grow at different rates, so that when you cut it evenly, it can soon end up drastically uneven. I have hair that’s bra strap length, and it’s still very uneven beyond the parts that’s due to breakage.

    If it were me (and even taking to account that you very much care about neatness), I would wait until her hair is longer and do steady trims. OR continue doing hairstyles that hide the different hair lengths.

    I know it’s super frustrating to spend time on a style that doesn’t last, but if it’s any consolation, my child’s hair won’t stay in a style for 24 hours so I have to do it daily.

    Even still, if you decide to BC her now, it won’t be the end of the world and I don’t think people will give you the side eye. That usually only comes when a child’s hair is obviously dry as hell, matted, and/or linty/dirty. I know that if Mara is sporting a TWA, it will be none of that.

    Feel free to shoot me an email if you have specific questions, but I know you are adept with highly textured hair and I should probably be taking notes.

    • Thanks, lib. I appreciate that you’re willing to go against the grain and I know you know hair! I’m leaning pretty heavily toward cutting now, maybe not to all one length but below as much of the damage as possible. But one of the driving factors is that while I haven’t gotten major critical comments on her hair styles, a lot of people have asked about her bald spots and there’s no style that will totally hide them, though that’s what I’ve been trying with braids and twists. I don’t know what the kids in preschool or their parents will think and that can’t be our main consideration, but I’m trying to balance a lot of things.

      I do think her hair looked cute in that style and it was plenty tidy for my preferences, but within a day there were little bits sticking out all over that had worked themselves free, and that’s increased every day. I’m just afraid they’ll be damaged more if they’re not protected by the style.

  9. I would leave it as is and trim as I go…granted, I live in an erea where everyone and their mother would stop me if her hair was cut really short so I’m sure that sways my opinion!LOL! Once I was in the middle of “undoing” her hair and had to run to the store and my friend (they assumed she was the mom since she’s black!LOL) got an earful from an older lady. I pretended she was too…call me chicken!LOL! We still laugh about it.

    I would do twists instead of braids at this age only because they would be easier (and less pull on the hair as you are undoing them) to take out and less stress for me.

    Having said that…there’s something to be said for doing the cutting (fresh start) now than she’s younger.

    My kid is now 12 and I still do her hair (haven’t gone the “perm” route yet and she’s opposed to locs) but now we do flat braids and thin braids …believe me…you’ll get faster! ;)

  10. I vote for cutting it and nursing it to be healthy hair of whatever length. For me the major factor was

    “and she was excited about the looks on the Nu Dred website.”

    If it does continue to grow at different rates after the big chop as suggested above, then you’ll know that for the future.

    Of course take this comment with a grain of salt since I am very against letting scissors near my own hair even though I know I am in need of a serious trim. Maybe if my own mother had instilled in me the idea of cutting off damaged bits being a good thing i could get passed my hair cutting phobia

  11. Thought I would just chime in on her tendency to pull her hair at night. Have you tried giving her a fidget item? For night time, a silky blanket or a doll with realistic hair to pull instead. For daytime, some silly putty or a squishy ball. Maybe it’s a stress thing or maybe a self soothing thing, but it might could be redirected?

    The other commenters know more about hair than me, so I’ll leave that alone. Headbands would be so cute though, and you could add clip on flowers or ribbons to tone down the tomboy look.

  12. Hi, Im black and white, Im a cosmetogist. My hair is manageable but i also have delt with hair that isn’t too manageable. I would recommend cutting it all one length because if there are split ends they can get stripped all the way down to the root to where she will need to go completely bald to rid of the split ends. Cutting the split ends now ill give the hair the nutrients it needs to grow. The products arent going to work on the hair if its damaged. I would also like to add that shampooing her hair once a week may also be too frequent since african americans don’t produce “sebum” oil the way other races do.

  13. i would also like to add that braids are VERY good on hair. Makes your hair grow faster some say. It may seem if they keep the braids in a long time that a lot of hair comes out when take the hair out of the braids. That is not true. On average a person loses 100 strands of hair a day. So it may seem like the braids made a lot of her hair come out but that was hair that was meant to b shed.

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