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Every Fashion Week without fail, it's the same thing. My last-minute online shopping means I'll be cutting it close waiting for a package to arrive before I leave for New York Fashion Week. Last year, it was a pair of Supreme slides I scored on eBay that were taking their sweet time arriving.
This year, it was a far more important accessory. It was one day before I was supposed to fly out, and even after upgrading to priority shipping, my Afro wig had yet to arrive. Everyone in my office was on high alert and I had sent the Afro sales folk about nine emails so far.
I thought and over-thought the whole wig thing before I made my purchase. YouTube reviewers warned that this particular style could make you hot enough to break a sweat, but that sounded perfect for my snowy week in NYC. More importantly, my little wiggy would offer a much-needed break from my recent hair drama. I had just done the "big chop" a few weeks prior, cutting off most of my chemically straightened hair. I wish I could say I went natural for all the good reasons like self-acceptance and an overall healthier lifestyle, but that'd be a lie. The truth? My hair was breaking off. I was learning the hard way how damaging relaxers can be.
A wig was the perfect plan. I'd be warm and toasty and wouldn't have to deal with my lack of natural hair expertise for a whole week.
Unfortunately, I was pretty clueless when it came to styling my natural hair. My Bantu knots and twist-outs were met with marginal success. I would totally nail Whitney Houston "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" hair on one day (hell yes!) and on the following attempt, end up with a dried-out half curl/half poof (hell naw). I needed something consistent for fashion week and my own handiwork wasn't gonna cut it. A wig was the perfect plan. I'd be warm and toasty and wouldn't have to deal with my lack of natural hair expertise for a whole week.
About nine hours before I was supposed to leave, the wig finally decided to show up. I tried it on to see just what the hell I had gotten myself into and good Lord, the thing was HUGE. I tried to play with it, scrunch it and tuck it, but it was still pretty massive. What I thought would be some cool, realistic version of my hair in the future was borderline costumey.
But by the time I landed in New York, I was happy I had listened to my friends and gone with the 'fro. It made for a comfy in-flight pillow and I was warm enough that I didn't need a hat. On the way to my first show, my hair got caught in the rear-view mirror of the Uber—that's how big this thing was. As soon as I untangled myself and hopped out of the car, it started. Snap! Snap! Snap! Snap! Street style photographers.
This is my third time at NYFW and I have never been photographed. Ever. I'm not complaining. I'm there to write and to work, not to get my picture taken. (Full disclosure: I'm camera-shy anyway.) So I grinned, tucked my head, and picked up speed. Surprise, surprise, this is exactly what the photographers don't want you to do. (Hey, I'm from LA, I thought it was a paparazzi kind of thing. Yeah, it's not.) You're supposed to pause, adjust, show off your accessory or something, then keep walking. I got schooled pretty quickly when one particular photographer yelled, "Stop! I'm trying to immortalize you!"
Every day went on like this. I would be exploring the city, or wandering around trying to find a cute place to get coffee, and I would hear it. Snap! Snap! Snap! Snap! Sneaking into a movie theatre alone on Valentine's Day to see Fifty Shades: Snap! Snap! Snap! Snap!
They were feeling me and my kinky texture but I knew it was all a big, fluffy lie.
Other natural girls were giving me the approving head nod, and a group of cool people wrote large 10s on napkins and flashed them at me as I crossed the street. I made friends with a few street photographers, and a fashion insider at a Tommy Hilfiger party loved my hair so much she asked to take a picture with me. For an awkward writer from Los Angeles, this was not life. My new hair was fun and a nice boost to the ol' ego.
I was sitting and waiting for the Michael Costello show to start when a photographer asked if he could take my "portrait." Within seconds he had uploaded it onto a natural hair care brand's Instagram page. Orange bubble, orange bubble, orange bubble—new followers. Peeking at their profiles, I felt like a fraud. The more compliments I received, the worse I felt. They were feeling me and my kinky texture but I knew it was all a big, fluffy lie.
One of my new Insta-friends shared a post about natural-looking extensions and wigs. The comments on the pic were less than positive, to say the least. The consensus being: you don't fake the 'fro, you earn the 'fro. "Being natural is about being real, not fake." Ouch. "Great, now all of us who grew out our hair have to hear, ‘Is that a weave?' Smh fakers." Double ouch. "What's the point of getting a natural weave when you can get the look by just taking care of your own hair?" Well, I'm trying! "Growing my natural hair after doing the big chop taught me a lot, anyone who tries these weaves is really missing out on a life-changing journey." "Being natural is about accepting yourself. This trend is exactly the opposite."
The people had spoken. There was no separating natural hair from the natural hair journey. Kinky curly extensions were a way of cheating the entire experience. Wigs and weaves are styles, but natural hair is a lifestyle. The commenters had earned their 'dos through patience, trial and error, and finesse, while mine came in a neatly packed box thanks to sort-of-priority shipping.
There's this idea that to have natural hair you must be brave. You're a superhero who can leap over stigmas, stereotypes, and societal standards of beauty in a single bound. As long as silky straight hair is the status quo, the natural woman is a fighter. The natural woman is royalty. Well, where did a part-time queen like myself fit in? How real was real enough? Was there room in this movement for someone who did the big chop for all the wrong reasons? If my hair was fake, did I somehow not deserve compliments from people who thought it was real?
This shit was stressing me out. Whether they meant to be divisive or not, the commenters were coming from a very real place, and I hadn't kept it real for about six days at that point. "As soon as I get back to LA, I'm throwing this thing in the trash," I thought. I estimated it would take me about four to five years to get hair like my wig, but I was ready for the journey.
If the natural woman is royalty, where did a part-time queen like me fit in?
It's a good thing I never actually got around to throwing wiggy away. Back in LA, I needed it to hide an enormously unsuccessful, flat and lifeless braid-out while I made a quick trip to the beauty supply. I was debating buying a crème versus a custard when I was approached by a sassy older woman. She was 60 or so, with a head full of tiny white curls and one of those warm, booming voices. "Baby, I just love your hair," she sang.
I almost cut her off with my shameful reply. "Thank you, ma'am, but it's just a wig. A cheap one at that."
"Girl, I know!" she clipped. I could tell she was about to school me and school me she did. My feisty new teacher was a self-proclaimed hair expert and there was no style she hadn't tried in her day. She waxed nostalgic on a lifetime of braids, weaves, interlocks, straw sets, roller rods, wigs, and a brief run-in with a Jheri curl—making sure to stress that the only reason those styles looked good was because she made them look good. What she left me with was a refreshing notion that I absolutely needed to hear: It's just hair.
"Now lean on back in that light," she commanded. "I wanna take your picture."