No pain, no mane

With a cautious look to the left and then to the right, I stealthily stepped out of the beautician’s clinic—now to be known as the torture chamber—relieved that no one I knew had seen me.

I crept over to my car and despairingly slunk into the driver’s seat. Safely inside, it was only then that I was brave enough to take off my sunglasses.
I didn’t recognise the woman whose reflection I saw in the rear-view mirror.

My face was puffy and full of bumps where the beautician had enthusiastically and painstakingly removed every morsel of dirt from my skin during what’s known as a deep-cleanse facial.

For those who don’t know what that is: after thoroughly washing the face with all sorts of tingly, sometimes scratchy exfoliant lotions and creams under a constant waft of warm steam, the beautician will then squeeze out by hand every individual blackhead, whitehead or pimple on your face. It is excruciatingly painful.

It’s not just vanity that drives me to have this treatment once a month. The daily TV facepaint is so heavy, providing what is known as maximum coverage, that if you had Mount Vesuvius growing on your nose, no one would notice.

The downside is that it leaves the skin clogged up with so much gunk that a deep-cleanse facial at least once a month is the only way to preserve a glowing and smooth complexion. The price we pay for beauty.

It seems to me that black women pay the highest price for beauty because on top of all this we have that interminable struggle with our hair. Everyone say “amen”.

Now this is a serious and sensitive issue—not only because of the much-debated politics of straight hair versus afro or fake versus real. But I don’t want to get into the politics. It is the sheer logistics of maintaining, treating and styling our hair that I find staggering. What we also don’t talk or write about is the physical pain involved in keeping our hair in check.

Once you find a good hair person you have to stick with them, because to start up with a new stylist where you have to explain your torturous history with chemical relaxers, weaves, wigs, et cetera, is tiring. Most importantly you run the risk of the new stylist causing you grievous bodily harm if they are not already acquainted with your pain threshold.

For a few weeks, I’d managed to spare my hair any straightening or plaiting by wearing a wig. It looked great on camera, but in person I looked like I had a furry animal on my head.

Desperate to style my hair a few weeks ago, I went to a new salon because the one I usually go to was closed for the day. I wanted my hair plaited into simple cornrows so I’d look decent on TV yet not scare young children during the day. Cornrows with hair extensions involve pulling the hair very tight in the front along the hairline so that the plaits last longer and look tidy, so I wasn’t perturbed at the wincingly painful tugs as the hairstylist did my hair. The little teardrops that involuntarily crept out of the corners of my eyes as she deftly moved around my head were something I’d endured for many years with this particular do. From prior experience I knew my head would be sore for a day, but by morning the pain would’ve abated and I’d be looking fly, right?

Alas, it was not to be, despite the numerous compliments from colleagues and friends. That night my head pounded so hard that I could barely sleep. By day two I was taking painkillers every two hours and my smile had turned into a half grimace because grinning caused more pain. But I decided to brave it. I looked good.

It was on day three when my forehead started swelling and my hairline looked like it was receding that I decided to yank off the plaits row by row. What had taken two hours and cost me R400 to do was gone in 10 minutes. The relief to my poor scalp was immense.

As I massaged and soothed my head, I wondered how many of us face the same struggle. The pressure to look good is enormous, but for us sistas it comes with the additional baggage of being judged on why we choose to straighten our hair instead of keeping our locks in their natural curly state.

Growing and maintaining an Afro is no child’s play either. It is burdensome and time-consuming. One has to constantly carry around an Afro comb in case one side becomes more lopsided than the other. There’s just no easy way to look good. Whether you keep it straight or natural, after three months or so, the questions always arise: what will it be this time around? Will it be plaits, singles, weave, bumper curl, Brazilian? The list is endless, but one thing is for sure; you are bound to spend at least half your day at the hair salon and it’s going to cost you a helluva lot.

Eish, to be a black woman.

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