I lost all my edges last December. Admittedly, I can tell you this because my edges slowly grew back in over the spring, filling in the patchy spaces around my hairline like the new grass poking up green across my lawn. Writing this is not a brave act. If it were, maybe I could have done it last January when everything was still dead. I am just bold enough to shrug off some strictures of feminine appeal, while acknowledging my failure to live up to others still makes me self-conscious. I imagine readers glancing at a recent photo on my Facebook page to see if my edges still look like winter. But spring and summer were good to me.
A few weeks ago, clothing retailer H&M debuted an ad campaign featuring little children fresh off the playground. The kids modeled the clothes seemingly without much primping beforehand: messy buns cocked to one side, tendrils framing their ruddy faces. But those were the white girls, or at least the ones with hair texture loose enough to call wispy and cheeks fair enough to redden. H&M caught a nice amount of flak online because one child, a dark-skinned little Black girl, had a rough-and-tumble hairstyle many Black viewers couldn’t jibe with.
I won’t reproduce her photo here because you know her even if you have not seen her H&M photo specifically. She is our little sister, our cousin, our playground friend. Or she is a girl you remember from third grade but never talked to… just talked about.
The most interesting aspect of that H&M ad turned out to be the dialogue it generated. There were Black people defending the little girl’s honor from H&M, and Black people defending the little girl’s honor from those previously mentioned Black people. One faction said H&M did her dirty by putting her out there with her hair looking like “that.” The other rebutted there was nothing wrong with how her hair looked. Each side argued vigorously for her injured self-esteem but neither agreed on what constituted the insult.
No one ever tells a Black girl where to find her pride once she has lost her edges.
My gorgeous new box braids sent needle pricks of pain all across my scalp. I took two Aleve so I could sleep that night, even though I’d taken some as a prophylactic before my hair appointment. I popped two more upon waking. The day after that, I made it to the evening without a tension headache, but I still couldn’t turn my head to the left without wincing. The selfies I took from that week show me half-smiling, but not from pain. I merely tried to look unaffected and as cute as I felt. I had expected the braids to cause some discomfort. No Black girl’s professional hairstyle — straight or natural — is quite complete unless every curl is snatched or gelled into place.
When I took my extensions out a few weeks later, my edges went with them. I was horrified staring into the mirror, watching my fingers explore the ragged coastline of my hair. Playing fast and loose with honesty, I wondered aloud to friends if postpartum shedding had struck once again. The baby was four months old, so it was plausible, but unlikely. I would have rather lost my edges from postpartum shedding than admit the truth: a braider I had found on Instagram snatched my hairline.
Two causes with the same outcome, but the shame hits differently. Why didn’t I tell her she was pulling my hair too tightly? I did. But at some point, we accept a level of pain as par for the course during beautification. We pray any damage is as temporary as the style. Black girls are trained early in beauty salons to smell smoke on themselves but to never yell “fire.” Stylists are the only humans alive allowed to pull a Black girl’s hair out and live to draw another breath. They do it in service of our self-esteem. And so shame covered me for willingly, painfully having my hairline ripped out because I wanted to look pretty postpartum.
No one ever asks a Black girl where her edges went. We cluck our tongues in pity because we have been there.
Somewhere in America, there lives a beautiful Black child with kinky hair whose Afro cannot be gathered upward into a puff. She does not have the benefit of a modeling contract to bolster her sense of her own beauty. Maybe no one has struggled to collect the strands of her hair and pull them through a tight band. Maybe they have done her the kindness of painless plaits, or two-strand twists. Or, God forbid, perhaps they have allowed her hair to frame her face freely, without an elastic stretching her edges toward a black hole from which they will not return.
Human fallibility makes it so beauty cannot exist without a foil. We may expand our societal definitions of beauty, push against preset boundaries we disagree with, but we are only redefining a standard after all. If everything is beautiful, then nothing is. We silently task each other to hide the ways we do not measure up. We judge girls whose slips show, who make their perceived imperfections available for public view.
I hate the term “struggle ponytail” but I have wielded it, and the last time was not during my childhood. It strikes me as the height of cruelty that Black girls taunt each other for the damage we sustain making ourselves “presentable”. A pro-Black aesthetic means we praise natural hair as good. We still implicitly assign that value judgment to thick, long, moisturized, and healthy-looking natural hair. How do we reconcile celebrating taut, wispless Black hairstyles knowing the damage they can wreak? The pressure to achieve beauty manifests as an insatiable hunger; maybe it’s not an accident of phrasing that we call hair that has surrendered to it, “ate up.”
The leaves are falling and my edges are still short. You might be able to see if you peer hard enough at the fuzz surrounding my baby locs. I am telling you this because the first part of rejecting shame involves reconsidering the offensive. My vanity didn’t allow me to write about my hair loss while my scalp still showed. But like the tiny spirals around my face, I see new growth coming.