By Kairis Joy Colter Burt
“Are you a boy or a girl?” A single question on a kindergarten playground sent a confident 5-year-old in the 1970′s spiraling into a life-long battle with insecurity. Girly clothes, bright colors, earrings, even nail polish did not offset what most people associate with masculinity: short hair. I had been told my naturally red afro, blonde highlights and all, was too short by neighborhood braiders; they couldn’t “catch the back.” What they said was, “not long enough.” What I heard: “Not good enough.” More heartbreak came with knowing these same unattainable braids were the one thing that was supposed to “make it grow.” In a charter school, with only a handful of other African American children, I assumed a lack of popularity had to do with my appearance. Black, White, Latina, or Asian, all of the popular girls had pretty hair. The rule was unspoken but that didn’t make it any less true: From kindergarten to college, girls with longer hair were treated better.
The world seems to function by the values of 1 Corinthians 11:15 taken out of context. It would seem, on the surface, that a woman’s glory comes from long hair, making her appear ‘angelic’. Millions of women are held hostage by the notion; entire economies thrive because of it. But the Bible doesn’t describe angels who look like women anywhere. Human hair is compared to goats mostly (Song of Solomon), and once to eagle feathers (Daniel 4). God’s is compared to lamb’s wool (Daniel 7). That’s what He gave me too. Knowing that God does not make mistakes, I kept searching. I found a comforting translation in the International Standard Version:
14Nature itself teaches you neither that it is disgraceful for a man to have long hair 15nor that hair is a woman’s glory, for hair is given as a substitute for coverings.
God had not, after all, condemned my tresses to be genetically less than His standard of beauty. Maybe some people won’t understand my need to search so deeply. But I was coping with a borderline hair obsession. And I’m not alone; Stylelist.com reports women will spend $50,000 on hair products over a life time.
I had taught myself to braid at the age of four. By 1976, I had decided that NOBODY’S hair was ever going to be “too short” to braid as long as I had the use of my fingers. By 1982, I had paying clients. Competitive by nature, I studied magazines to be certain there weren’t any braided styles I couldn’t offer my growing clientele. From the Bay Area to New York City, satisfied customers made referrals that kept business steady. I tried to fill the hole in my soul by helping other women find healthy self esteem. Connecting their inner beauty to their outer became a purpose born passion. Still, though hundreds of women left smiling, the girl in my mirror did not smile back. She still heard the echoes of teasing voices in her mind. One question kept her imprisoned in the past: Are you a boy or a girl?
Thirty-five years after that life altering playground encounter I heard about 5-year-old LaNesha. Addie, a friend, was telling me how much she loved volunteering in the preschool at Mustard Seed, the local school for homeless children. She had a favorite, a little black girl who was often sad because she was teased. Her hair was short and she wore an afro. She was called ‘a boy.’ A lifetime of memories flashed through my mind in a fraction of a second. I had to do her hair! I made the declarative statement and my dear friend was on it immediately. This girl had my heart before I ever laid eyes on her.
Two weeks later I was ushered into a tiny office at Mustard Seed. The children were at lunch so I had a few minutes to take in my surroundings. Outside of this haven of bright colors, books, tiny chairs and smiling faces lay a harsher reality than most of us have experienced. Old industrial warehouses had become make-shift walls surrounding downtown’s only public “restrooms.” Portable toilets, sometimes locked, sometimes not, were not the only source of relief for hundreds, if not thousands of homeless men and women, the indigent, and the mentally ill. This area, called Friendship Park, was centrally located between area shelters. The folks who come through on weekdays could count on a brown bag lunch, and a place to sit after walking all night long. For women and children, a day shelter called Mary House also offered showers, breakfast, lunch, feminine hygiene products, and diapers. Loaves and Fishes, the area’s oldest and most well known provider of needs for those on the periphery of society, has served millions from this parking lot through various programs like Mary House. But somehow the number never dies down. In this current economic state, they are on the rise. Coarse language, foul smells, shopping carts, and abject poverty decorate this concrete dead-end street. Sharp gray stones and pebbles strewn about are the only permanent witnesses to these human throw-aways; our society’s disposable people. Laughter and greetings, exchanged between those who had been coming for years broke, through the sense of hopelessness in what is essentially a community of homelessness. The transformation from the world outside to this happy room where I was to meet LaNesha was nothing short of amazing. I could only hope to offer the same to a child who but for the grace of God…
The staff was so excited for her! They introduced me as the lady who came to make her hair ‘pretty’, and wasn’t she ‘so excited?!’ After making sure we had books and juice and were comfortable they left us to our work. They sat in the room just outside of the office and watched what I knew was an unfamiliar process. A comb, a heavy oil, a spray bottle and two hands were all I needed. With the exception of one male teacher, there didn’t seem to be any regular staff of color. I shut my mind to the discomfort of being on display. I had a job to do. “Hold your head down.”
Psalms 23:5 (Aramaic Bible)
You have prepared tables in front of me opposite my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil and my cup overflows as if it were alive.
Matthew 25:40 (NLT)
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
Luke 12:7 (ESV)
Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Her first question was if I was going to make her hair long. I was speaking as much to the little girl inside of me as I was to her when I answered. “Honey, we don’t need somebody else’s hair to be pretty. You’re pretty with your own hair just like me, and just like Ms. Addie.” Ignoring our audience she settled back in her chair. She was ready. For two hours we talked, read books, picked beads to adorn her twists, and discussed favorite colors. The scene of a little girl sitting between the knees of a mother while she got her hair done could have been anywhere in the world, during any point in human history. Only the occasional slamming door of a portable toilet brought us back to this reality. I hated for it to end. But eventually it was time for her to see herself in the mirror.
Deuteronomy 2:7 (NIVUK)
The LORD your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast dessert. These 40 years the LORD your God has been with you and you have not lacked anything.
Kairis Joy Colter Burt
Co-Editor & Contributing Writer, B.L.O.G. Magazine
At 40-something Kairis is a divorced, single Mother of three biological children, and three more born in her heart, preschool to college aged. She’s a Labor Coach, a professional birth Doula who approaches the world from that viewpoint; holding your hand, reminding you to relax, breathe, trusting God with your purpose, no matter what your situation is giving birth to. She’s a volunteer teacher for homeless women, a project manager for a pregnant teen mentoring program, on two non-profit Boards, and a praise dancer. She also has a passion for natural beauty; a self-proclaimed, self employed natural hair artist, escaping only to coach laboring women at whatever hour a baby decides to enter the world. Doulas, like Brides of Christ, are on-call 24/7.