Nonfiction: “Life’s Patches”
I am the only white, teen girl at the office of Teen Voices but such feelings of otherness are not unfamiliar. This afternoon we crowd around a small TV to watch Good Hair, a documentary about the culture of African American women's hair. Surrounded by cornrows, dreadlocks, extensions and relaxed hair of every length and style, my shoulder-length dirty blond hair stands out as brightly as my skin color. After nine years, however, I am proud of these messy locks.
When I was eight years old, all the hair on my body began to fall out. Despite what many assumed to be the result of cancer treatment, it was Alopecia: an arbitrary loss of hair affecting any person regardless of age or health. To my parents' horror, in a matter of months, my beautiful eight-year-old blond curls were replaced by an assortment of wigs, colorful bandanas, scarves, and headbands. I still cringe at memories of my soccer team mistaking my unwillingness to French braid my hair for stubbornness, and of my painstakingly hidden bald patches being revealed to curious third graders during our annual lice check.
As a foreign culture reveals itself to me through jarring statistics and startling interviews in the film, I am captivated by the complex implications and requirements of maintaining what is commonly referred to as "good hair" in African American culture. Once the film finishes, the teens around me volunteer personal anecdotes of difficulties they have encountered as they navigate through this world of hair. Although I had never chosen a relaxer or worried about my hair extensions in the rain, these were the only other people I had ever met who cared just as passionately about their hair as I did, and who struggled as much as I had. Despite the consolation of my family and friends, I still wonder if they view my concerns as adolescent narcissism. At Teen Voices, for the first time, I felt surrounded by people who saw the significance of one's hair not merely in its superficiality but rather in the way hair influences how people see themselves both in the mirror and in their culture.
I cried on the train home during my first week at Teen Voices, feeling out of place and rejected. But by the end of my second summer, I have become an essential member of the office community; my skin now glows with confidence instead of conspicuousness, and I've been given the title of the 'blackest white girl'—a title I hold onto with pride as I returned to my suburban high school to begin my senior year. Hearing the girls talk about the extent to which they try every day to fulfill their culture's aesthetic norms reminds me of the importance of self-acceptance—a value often stressed by sympathetic mothers, but usually forgotten in the midst of adolescence, regardless of race.
I am used to living with Alopecia. It is part of how I define myself and how I remember my past. I love cutting my hair to watch it grow back in a different way, reminding me that life is fluid and I am not a victim bound to it but instead the one who gets to decides how to shape and style it—bald spots be damned.
For more information on Alopecia, see:
To read another Teen Voices article on hair, see: "Love Your Locks: The Politics of Black Hair" in our print magazine, volume 20, issue 2, pp. 8-10.
Second photo by Anh Ðào Kolbe for Teen Voices.
Tagged as: alopecia, Good Hair, hair, nonfiction, Olivia Footer, teen editor