Hair Stories: (Stephanie)

Photography by Vanessa dos Santos, Interview by Carolina Meurkens

In a society that values whiteness and one’s ability to approximate it, hair can be a battleground. In Hair Stories, we wrestle with what it means to love yourself through your relationship with hair and others’ perception of it. Through interviews with our editors, contributors and community members, we journey through what beauty means in different cultures and the narratives woven into our locs. Where do our hair preferences and grievances come from? What does our hair tell us about our family history, our culture, our people? In this series, we interview and photograph people from different diasporas, to get the root of their hair story. We ask them; what does your hair symbolize to you? 

This month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mixed Mag Food Editor Stephanie Eyocko about her hair journey. Stephanie is Cameroonian born, Texas turned and is passionate about locally-grown food and locally-sourced stories. Read our interview below, where Stephanie talks about her experience coming into her own through her complex journey with her hair.

I spent my first years in a blue house in Akwa Nord in Douala, Cameroon. By nine years old, I was living in North Dallas, Texas. My mother is Yambassa from Edea and my father is Bakoko from Yassoukou and by the patriarchy’s decree, I inherit my fathers village, making me Bakoko.

Growing up in the state of big thangs, everything including hair, was a ton of fun. I witnessed all kinds of hairstyle creativity: quick-weaves, swoops, braids, booty haircut, wigs. And because my mother is a jack of all trades, my hair was always braided up to the creative 10s, too. I would always have my hair ‘done’. And by “done,” I mean in braids. I never missed a beat and it was hardly ever my choice. It was difficult to have autonomy about my hair decisions. There was no room for that. My father had rules about upkeep, (rightfully so – as a father and an African dad at that… In this dissertation I will…) we had to be dressed nicely and braided up for all family and non-family events. And lastly, short hair was for boys.

When I would try to defy these unwritten rules, I was met with rejection: my hair in its natural state was not ‘good’ enough for the function.

I remember my mom doing whatever it took to get me braided up for an event: she would bake like 10 fish, fry plantain and puff puff and then proceed to have me sit in the braiding chair in the living room of our cramped apartment.

There was no way her baby was going to the function without fresh braids.

I loved the glamour associated with getting braided and the intimacy my mother and I shared as she platted my hair. My mom is a visionary in every way and she always gave me the creative autonomy to decide what styles I wanted as it was also a space for her to practice her talents. I had autonomy so long braids were involved. My peers would envy me that I had a mom who could braid hair and sometimes they’d come over and, too, get plated by my mom. I watched, as members of our community, sat in my Mothers braiding chair: the neighborhood triplets; women with short hair; women from Ivory Coast or Ghana, you name it. They sat in that chair and vomited stories of home, gossip, love and pain and most importantly ideas of what they wanted their hair to look like. I’d be right by my Mothers side, preparing the kanekalon braiding hair and handing it to her for each individual braid. Hours would pass before we’d finish the braids, put them in hot water and send ladies along. Some days it would take seven hours, some days four hours. Braided hair was all I knew. It was what I was offered as example of what “done up,” looked like and I accepted that as truth.

As a french speaker, if I were to translate “good hair,” to les bons cheveux and “bad hair,” to les mauvaise cheveux, I never heard explicit comments about “good” or “bad” hair as a young child. I will say, though, there was a dichotomy between “les cheveux lisses,” = smooth hair and “les cheveux durs” = hard hair. My hair was described as the latter but done so casually that I never really thought anything of it because no one ever made me feel explicitly bad about it. It was just a statement my parents or aunts would say when they’d comb my hair and there was nothing I could really do about it.

My mother is a beautiful light-skin woman who naturally grows light ‘soft’ curls. She’s also a lover of glamour. As a young child I remember going to salons with her and relishing in the process of washing, conditioning, putting rollers and revealing styles only she could pull off. It was one of my favorite ways to spend time with her and remains one of my fondest memories from my childhood. Watching others style her finer hair did, however, made me feel unworthy as my hair was not like hers and I wanted it to be. It was long, soft and what I considered healthy. In contrast my hair was coarser, ‘difficult to maintain’ if not in braids, and ‘needed’ perms.

Those thoughts of unworthiness transcended to early adulthood and acted as an initial catalyst to rebellion. This rebellion wasn’t planned. But I recall the very day Freshman year in college. In preparation for a pageant, I got a tightly sewed weave done. It was so tightly sewed that within two hours of completion I was already in the process of removing it. My scalp had scabs all over and ultimately, I needed to cut it. I was hurt. I felt ugly. I felt unlady-like. This happened at the onset of the natural hair movement where Youtubers were making videos about everything from 3B to 4c hair, hair butters and oils. I took scissors to my head and cut most of it off and turned to Youtube for guidance.

That was the beginning of my natural hair journey. I subsequently got braids afterward to further hide the shame but the fact that I could just cut my hair when I wanted to, stayed with me. Since then, I’ve cut it about 4x times, the most recent time being the most pivotal. I went over to the Black and Women-owned, Lady Clipper Barber Shop, and received the haircut of my dreams.

September 2020
June 2021

I remember just how in love I was with the haircut. I realized right before this haircut that I had been “hiding,” behind the weaves, the braids, the twists and living inside the scope of my imagination and not outside of it. So, I got a fade with designs on the side. I felt hot, confident and fierce with hair that was mine. Since then I’ve dyed it. What started as a deep SZA red has transformed to a fun dark blond. I feel so comfortable in this scalp, in leaving my hair “alone,” and changing it, if I so desire. For the first time, I feel like my hair cannot be weaponized against me — because it is my own weapon of choice. My weapon of choice for self-expression, for care, for me. Though sometimes, family members are shocked by my hair, or deem it ugly or ask questions like “why would you cut or dye your hair.” . But I’ve lost my sense of care: the connection I now have with my hair is too precious to give up.

These days, I look forward to doing my hair. It’s not a chore but a meditative practice I engage in weekly to cleanse and care for my mane. I start by using a clarifying shampoo (I love the Mo Know’s Hair scalp + curl clarifier or Olaplex No. 3 Hair Perfector). Before washing, I apply it to my roots and let it sit for 15 minutes before following up with shampoo and conditioner from Olaplex or MoKnowsHair. I proceed with Uncle Funky’s Daughter Curly Magic Curl Stimulator on wet hair and then I sit under a hooded dryer for about an hour. This style typically lasts anywhere from 7 to 10 days and all I have to do upon waking up is comb it out with my pick. I’ve also stopped doing a number of things to my hair like oiling my scalp (Oil repels water from your hair… It does not moisturize your hair or scalp) and washing my hair infrequently — all of which have contributed to healthy hair growth. I also get a haircut every 6 weeks, which helps support growth.

On any given day, you can find me drying my hair and writing. One of my favorite Sunday activities. .

Since my hair was always ‘done,’ adolescence teasing hardly ever involved my hair.  In my adult world, only once in a professional setting has someone said something about my hair. I was working at a private equity firm and of the older associates asked if I was going to be “all ready” for a presentation to a client the following day pointing at my hair as he said that,

In my early 20s, I went back and forth about wearing my natural hair out. Like my father, men I had previously dated made comments about the “un-doneness” of my hair in its natural state.  

Both of those experiences speak to the deeply entrenched patriarchal sense of ownership men think they have over our hair. And those experiences helped shape my own judgement of my hair.

The hair journey is precisely what it is: a journey. For me, it’s been a journey of self-expression, care, patience and unlearning. It’s amazing to think that once upon a time, I did not love something that came from my scalp. For many of us Black women we’ve been told by our family and loved ones what we should do with our hair or how we should style it. As if, this hair belonged to them. Taking ownership of this mane is the best thing I could’ve done for myself and I’ll never look back.

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