Sunday, November 2, 2008



A week before my daughter’s dance recital, her instructor, Miss Debbie, pulled me aside. “We’re asking that all the girls wear their hair in a bun.”

I looked at Jasmin’s golden-brown mane that was pulled neatly into a single puff on the top of her head. Each perfectly spiraled strand was infused with the genetic code of women who came before my child, myself and every other black woman in our family tree. These weren’t the girl next door’s curls. “A bun?”

The fitter-than-thou fifty-something in a black leotard, tights and pink leg warmers looked me squarely in the face. “Yes.”

“I’m not sure if it will do that.” I knew I sounded kind of strange, sitting there talking about my then-5-year-old daughter’s hair as if it had a life of it’s own. But it did.

“Try.” Miss Debbie gave Jasmin a once-over before standing up to sashay down the hallway. I had no idea the woman was even half as narrow-minded as she had just revealed. I could have sworn I saw her do a pirouette before she went back into the classroom.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had this type of discussion about the “proper” way a female of color should be coiffed for something. In high school, the captains of my cheerleading squad insisted that we all wore french braids. Never mind the needs of Tiffany Williams, who wore her hair in intricately designed cornrows, or Mia Kim who wore her jet-black hair in a chin length bob. I hated the idea that this incident was the first in a series that would drill a negative idea into Jasmin’s psyche that something about her “ethnic” hair is problematic. And I didn’t appreciate Miss Debbie for initiating the conversation.

Later that evening, I called to my mother for a second opinion. She calmly reassured me that yes, Jasmin’s hair might be sort of “kinky,” but I could surely get it into a bun if I wanted to badly enough. I just had to get Jasmin to sit still long enough so that I could blow dry it straight and then flat iron it with searing heat so it would be straight enough to twist into a bun (easier said than done). It wasn’t exactly what I’d wanted to hear. You’d think I never made my mom want to fling the comb at the ceiling in frustration (on countless occasions) as I ripped myself from her grasp - mid-braid, mind you - and ran to the bathroom complaining of “chest pains.” I wasn’t about to send her grandbaby on Miss Debbie’s stage looking like the African American understudy of Little Orphan Annie, but the bun wasn’t happening. Less because it couldn’t than because, at that point, I was pissed.

Just like Jasmin’s curls defy convention, the person they grow from does, too. Unlike myself, who once longed to have have hair as long and silky as Dreamgirl Christie’s, Jasmin adores her kinky curls. She sees them as part of her beauty, not the bane of her existence. Even on the day she went to nursery school au naturale, unrestricted by the usual braids, headbands or barrettes, she faced her curious classmate’s criticism with confidence and common sense: “My hair is pretty! I like it just the way it is.” Currently, she’s campaigning to get me to stop blow drying and flat ironing my own hair because she feels I look “much prettier” when I just leave it alone. I’m not about to take beauty advice from a person whose personal style icon is Strawberry Shortcake, but I like the way she thinks.

I wasn’t so sure that my forcing Jasmin to let me straighten and “tame” her hair for a two-minute dance routine to “A Bushel and a Peck” wouldn’t send her a mixed message that something was wrong with her. Whether she grew up to wear regal dreadlocks or highlighted extensions a la Tyra Banks didn’t matter; a grown woman is free to change her hair as often as she pleases. What mattered to me most was that from an early age, my young daughter began loving herself for who she is, not the person society says she should become. From where I stood then, she was headed in the right direction.

The activist mom who sat on my left shoulder nudged me: “Go on girl, make Miss Debbie eat those words. How dare she hold your child to the outdated, platonic ideal of what a dancer is supposed to look like?”

But her counterpart, cynical mom, shouted from the other: “What are you going to do, hold a sit-in at the dress rehearsal?”

Then realist mom (the one who makes most of the decisions anyway) chimed in: “Of course not silly, it’s just hair.”

That night, after the kids were in bed, I put Miss Debbie’s red, white and blue Hee-Haw-meets-French Maid confection of a recital costume into a plastic bag and shoved it into a corner at the top of my closet. Maybe if Jasmin didn’t notice her costume was missing, she might not remember the performance. That way, if I woke up on the morning of the big day with butterflies in my stomach, and decided to take her to the Bronx Zoo instead, no tears would be shed - by either one of us.

About our MyBrownBaby contributor:

Meera Bowman-Johnson writes about pop-culture, parenting, politics and the place the three collide for The Root. She lives in Houston, Texas with her five-piece family band. This piece originally appeared on Anti-Racist Parent.

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  1. Still? I was the wearer of unacceptable Afro puffs in 1979, I can't believe this is still happening.

  2. I have had to deal with this issue with my two oldest daughters and I'm sure I will have to do it again with my youngest. I must admit that my radical side wanted to bring my girls with their hair as full and free as it could be. Fortunately, their teacher was young and understood when I explained that as hard as I might try their "buns" would have a slightly different look.

  3. hello darling,thanks for your lovely comment on my tight review post.My dear I am glad that you stood for what you believe. At the end of the day,thats what your daughters hair is,why should it have to be changed for a performance when it does not in any way affect it?
    stay blessed and inspiring.

  4. I would love to know what the ending to the story is-what did you decide? All I can say is wow!And those are just the smaller daily things, that definitley can add up over weeks and months...

    Thanks for commenting on my blog and let me tell you how psyched I am because when I saw your name and read the names of your children I felt like I knew you from somewhere-I read your parenting column monthly and it's something I look forward to-you're advice is always spot on and great. But let me tell you, you look different than your picture-I just pulled out this month's magazine to look-you are still gorgeous in both pictures. I get that too about my picture b/c I write a column for a local newspaper and people tell me all the time that I don't look like my picture-LOL! Take care!

  5. Meera I too am curious about your final decision. It is so crazy that things like this are still going on. You would think that we have progressed to a place where all hair is acceptable. The world is changing and soon there will be a lot more of us with curls that cannot be tamed into a "bun." I hope the "establishment" catches up with the rest of the world.

  6. Oh, dear the 'Pecola Effect' revisited.

    Brilliant post, it highlights many of the issues I have had to deal with during my almost thirty-seven years on this earth.

    Greetings from London.

  7. I totally agree with your post. My daughter's hair is short and she takes dance too. I was unable to get it in a conventional "bun" so, we improvised...a ponytail. And yep, it looked way cuter than those other girls who had their hair pulled back so tightly that it looked painful.

    When will society learn???? Oh, that's right, when we elect Barak Obama tomorrow night :-)

  8. Great article and I love that the little one loves her good-n-kinky hair.

  9. Too cute! Stop by and leave a voice mail shout out on my page!

  10. I loved this post and I love your daughter. Mama must of taught her good, huh? You just spoke my deepest fears about traditional dance classes. I don't want anyone telling my baby that she can't rock her afro puff, or that her body type isn't right.

    As beautiful as natural hair is, even our fellow sistas will be quick to tell us, "oh, you need to put a perm in that stuff". Whatever!! My little Miss Missy will be happily nappy for as long as I have anything to do with it, lol.

  11. Why on earth couldn't her "puff" be a bun? Unbelievable! Take it from someone who has the most out-of-control hair...I would SO love to go au natural but the 500 different textures of my hair must be blow-dried so that I do not resemble a matted sheep dog! I am so glad to see that she is loving her locks at such an early age! Bravo!

  12. This brings back painful memories. I was one who loved my beautiful brown skin as a child and there was nothing that could make me feel any different. But, I did have an issue with my hair, and that is something I too am currently writing about. The fact that something like this could still be an issue today...scary! Why don't some just get that we're beautifully different?

    I love your daughters strength. She is one sharp cookie.

  13. OK, first off - I'm still laughing at the "African American...Little Orphan Annie" reference - hilarious!!

    Great post! I recently resorted to pressing my 4-year-old's hair, and it's controversial in my own mind (never mind society's thoughts).

    Kudos to you for making a decision that worked for you, insteading of bowing out like we sometimes do (at times, I guess that's necessary)!

    I decided to press my daughter's hair because she was literally in pain every time I went to braid the child's beautiful head of hair. I will NOT perm her hair, but I'll press it every few months to make it easier for both of us. Truth be told, I need to do a better job moisturizing her hair so that it's easier to manage.

  14. The puffs are PERFECTION and top any ol' bun!!!

  15. I've found that *dance* is brutal. They are 5 yr olds. Is it really that important to have *buns*? It's hair.

    Personally, I would have put her hair up any way it likes to be and took her to the recital. Puff and all. I probably would have made it extra special puffy! What is she going to do, kick you out because you don't have the bun?

    Some people need a whalop in the head!

  16. Your daughters should never have to change who they are to conform to what an ignorant dance teacher dictates. I love her puffs, they're adorable. She is perfect and gorgeous and I hope she sees herself that way for the rest of her life.

  17. That baby is beautiful and so is her hair!

  18. It's crazy how hair is such a soft spot. I remember growing up I would wear my hair in braids and plaits, but I always wished I had long silky straight hair. I got my chance to straighten and press my hair, but I never felt like myself until I met my husband (he's white) and he always told me how beautiful I was with my natural curly kinky hair. He never wanted me to change who I was. Now I love my curly hair and even got the nerve to chop it off almost down to the scalp about a year ago.
    It's great that you daughter has confidence in herself and stays true to herself. I don't think one moment of bun-wearing will damage that because it seems like you are doing a great job as a Mother to not let that happen.

  19. That little girl of yours is the cutest thing ever!

    How does the story end? Did she go to the recital or the zoo? Did she wear a bun or the lovely, curly puffs?

    It's wonderful that your daughter has so much confidence in herself already - you must be doing a great job as a mom!


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