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I Love My Natural Hair. So Why Do I Unconsciously Pick It Out?

On my inexplicable habit of hair picking.

I Love My Natural Hair. So Why Do I Unconsciously Pick It Out
Illustration by Noopur Choksi

I don’t remember the first time I ever picked out my hair, but fourth grade is when the habit made its presence most known. I still remember the feeling of my bare scalp as my little ten-year-old finger glided across it, marking the path of newly cleared brush. I felt a confusing combination of pride and horror at my ability to pick out my hair with such thoroughness.

Fourth grade was an otherwise unremarkable, generally underwhelming school year. It felt like an intermission between fun-filled third grade and almost-in-middle-school fifth grade. As my teacher rambled on, I’d look out the window at the Bayou City’s lush green trees poking up from behind the houses across the street from my school, thinking and picking and picking and thinking. The woman who pressed my hair on a biweekly basis would soon lay hands over my bald patch, praying for my healthy hair to return.

***

Hair picking is not an easily detectable activity. In my mind, it registers that I’m picking my hair out only when I survey the aftermath in some set of mirrors rigged to see the back of my head. In the act of picking my hair out, it’s more like I’m just feeling my coarsely coiled hair against my smooth scalp. I might want to feel my hair while reading a magazine. While thinking of the answer to a math problem. While waiting at a stoplight. While talking on the phone. While vacuuming. While doing anything or nothing at all.

Like the waves that dance along the Galveston shoreline, my penchant for picking my hair is fierce at times, subdued at others. I’d love to correlate my hair picking with stress. For instance, I’d feel such a sense of relief knowing that the pressure of switching careers or the anxiety of paying bills explains my internal need to pick. I’ve Googled trichotillomania, the hair-pulling condition, and reviewed the list of symptoms so many times. I’ve taken these findings to therapists over the years, but like most of my Google sleuthing suggests, diagnosing trichotillomania is inexplicably hard to do. And instead of focusing on a potential diagnosis, my therapists have opted to work through my anxiety and depression in hopes of abating my need to pick. I’m left singing Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” but directed at myself. “Don’t touch your hair, when it’s the feelings you wear.”

At some point, my little sister started calling it “picking your polka dots.” She coined the term when she was just a toddler, already aware of the discomfort associated with the term “naps.” My best friend learned this terminology as we traversed the social minefields of middle school and high school together, and she’d gently urge me to stop picking my polka dots in college, too.

After swapping the stress of finals for the incessant demands of corporate America, my partner became my compassionate vigilante. “Aa! Aa!” he’d verbally swat toward my arm, bent in hair-removal stance. Or sometimes on a lazy Saturday on the couch, he’d ask, “How’s your patch coming along?” He was hoping for a report of reduced hair picking. We were two engineers trying to problem-solve for the root cause and subsequent solution.

At a family wedding, a relative asked my partner, “What happened to her hair?” His tone was sincere. My partner, well-versed in black hair care by that point, reflexively said that it breaks easily when styled with heat. Years later, he’s still not sure if he was trying to divert from the truth. He didn’t even conceive of “She pulls out her hair” as a viable answer.

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My partner shared this story with me long after that wedding, but hearing it made me panic in real time. How much of my exposed scalp had that relative seen? I’m constantly aware of the possibility of curious eyes. Can the person in boxing class see my bald patch poking out from beneath my sweatband? Is the tall guy standing behind me on a crowded train staring directly into my scalp’s bare abyss? Does my roommate steal a second glance at my exposed scalp while I’m making oatmeal in the morning? When I think about my patch for too long, I feel a breeze blowing across the newly barren prairie at the back of my head.

Over the years, I’ve gone from mowing the entire span of my neckline to my most recent habit of concentrating on the bottom-left square inch of my scalp. Most days I pick my hair out, but some days I make a deal with myself to braid it instead. I’ll braid then unbraid then rebraid my hair, each time tepidly patting myself on the back for not outright picking. I must have done this 100 times just to get through the first draft of this essay.

***

During middle school in the ’90s, I quickly learned that healthy hair was a valuable social currency, however narrow the definition of “healthy” was for black girls at the time. Natural hair wasn’t widely accepted in the ’90s, but I quietly fought for my preferred natural hair while enduring inquisitive, dismissive stares at my struggling permed locks. I would have killed for the natural hair I have now back in middle school!

Despite the self-created bald patch in the back of my head, I have an otherwise full head of natural hair today (when I check out in grocery stores, cashiers compliment me on my natural hair). The liberating journey from assimilating perms to today’s celebration of natural hair is a historical moment I’m so grateful to live in. But it feels as if I’m watching this progress from behind the bars of my own prison cell — because all the love for my natural hair hasn’t stopped me from picking it out. Each time I catch myself doing so, I wonder if I’ll be able to stop before I pick out so much of it that the inquisitive, dismissive stares return.

When it comes to the awe-inspiring versatility of natural hair, Lupita Nyong’o recently told Allure magazine, “It’s like clay in the right hands. Clay can be dirt in the wrong hands, but clay can be art in the right hands.” I want so badly to create art with the rich clay on my head, but my wrong hands stand in the way.

Black women are supposed to be queens of hair care. Queens of expressing ourselves with our well-cared-for edges. But my hair-picking habit has transcended all black-hair-care standards: perms, press, natural hair alike. Whenever I hear black women talk about protective styles, like braids or wigs, I shake my head. Protective styles make it easier for a black woman to let their hair rest and grow, to not have to tug and pull it every day. The irony is that I rely on these protective styles to protect my hair from my own destructive fingers.

***

In no culture is a woman celebrated for her dexterity in removing hair from her own scalp. In church growing up, women loved to beckon (and butcher) the Bible verse that says a woman’s hair is her glory. (It actually reads, “But if a woman has long hair, it is her glory. For her hair is given to her for a covering,” which is a very different thing.) These women used “A woman’s hair is her glory” as a catchall phrase for the badge of honor their hair afforded them. It was outward proof of being blessed with vitality and the financial ability to style their hair in a societally pleasing way. These women would utter the phrase while posted under a hair dryer for hours, withstanding oven-air blasts for hairstyles worthy of all this “glory.” They never said anything to me about my patch of missing hair. Perhaps they didn’t notice it, but it is more likely that they just exercised a common Southern Baptist approach — denial.

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Sometimes I sit at home with a head scarf on, then I’ll take it off, pick some hair, and put it back on. Other times I fantasize about shaving all my hair off, until I realize that the moment my kinky hair starts growing in, I’ll just start picking it again. I’d have to commit to a life of voluntary baldness to physically combat my hair picking.

I recently told my therapist that, sometimes, picking out my own hair feels like a perverse ritual to end the day — candles lit, with Love & Hip Hop playing on TV. I don’t sip a glass of wine, put on a face mask, or do some other Instagram-worthy ritual. I pick out my own hair. “I have to laugh so that I don’t cry,” I tell her. My therapist nods compassionately, like all good therapists do, but she doesn’t illuminate a specific cause or offer a solution. Perhaps that was intentional, because the lack of explanation has inadvertently thrown me into a state of acceptance.

Life continues to throw positive and negative curveballs, and I’m growing to accept that there is no correlating theory to my hair picking. Resting in this acceptance, I’ve noticed I pick out my hair a little less often. I notice both my arms relaxing in front of me instead of one bent behind my head, going to town on my scalp, and I smile to myself.

Jennifer Epperson is a proud Texan living in New York. She has written for Lenny Letter, Man Repeller, Estia Collective, and Blavity and writes sketch comedy for Magnet Theater in New York. Follow her on Twitter @comeonjennfoo for her strong opinions about laundry-delivery services and other pressing issues.