Welcome to Hair Week on INTO! This week, we’ll be exploring the thing we love to hate the most: our hair. Queer hair is a whole thing, and everybody’s queer hair journey is different. Today, INTO contributor Johnny Levanier talks about his childhood buzzcuts in the family barber chair, Dep hair gel, and self-acceptance.
We called it “The Ice Cream Chair.” I’m guessing it reminded us of those high diner chairs you’d see in some Norman Rockwell version of an ice cream parlor. Or maybe it had something to do with the color. At some point, it had been mint green, but the vinyl had long since faded to a muddy turquoise, streaked with orange where tears revealed the cushioning underneath. The steel bars that made up the frame were also speckled with rust. All in all, not an appetizing sight. Nothing sweet about the Ice Cream Chair.
The high seat was the only thing that gave the chair its purpose. Otherwise, there was no telling what it was actually designed for. You could imagine everything from spoon-feeding a baby to pulling teeth. For our family, the chair’s height meant that my mother didn’t have to bend down too far whenever she took on the role of Barber—in addition to Cook, Breadwinner, and occasional Disciplinarian.
At some point, it had been mint green, but the vinyl had long since faded to a muddy turquoise, streaked with orange where tears revealed the cushioning underneath.
The chair always came out of nowhere. Some Sunday, after I’d wriggled out of whatever Kmart was passing off as church clothes, I’d head to the living room to watch cartoons, and the chair would be waiting for me. I never found out where it was kept in between haircuts. There was barely enough room for a family of three in our tiny apartment, let alone some clunky relic from the fifties. But without fail, every so often the chair would materialize with my mother standing expectantly beside it, armed with towels, an electric razor, and a mirror.
Everyone got a turn on The Ice Cream Chair. My sister would plant herself in a mode of stoic concentration, fighting to contain tears while my mother brushed through the tangles in her hair. My mother would choose one of us to don plastic gloves and massage this auburn goop around her scalp to dye out the greys. And then, there was me.
My hair was the easiest in the family to treat. Because I was a boy and fussing over your hair was supposed to be a girl thing, I always went with a simple buzzcut—No. 2 on the old razor. As a result, I went through most of my childhood never thinking much about my hair. There was literally nothing to think about. Instead, it was other people’s hair that I noticed—in particular, the boys at school and the stars on TV, all of whom were disproportionately White.
I should point out that I’m half Black, and my mother, my extended family, my entire community at the time was white. It’s fitting that I only mention race now as, like my hair, it was something I never had to give much thought to. It’s not like I was ever treated differently. As far as I could tell, I was just like the other kids. But there was at least one unavoidable way in which I was not.
At the risk of dating myself, I’ll share that when I was growing up, the spiky look was the hairstyle for boys. So I begged my mom for a tub of Dep hair gel, which she purchased (I imagine with the same puzzled suspicion she expressed every time there was some purchase I suddenly could not live without). But no matter how much gel I slathered on or how desperately I stretched my hair up, it would inevitably shrink back and gather into tight, sporadic curls. I quickly internalized that for whatever reason my hair did not behave the way it was supposed to. So buzzcut it was.
As far as I could tell, I was just like the other kids. But there was at least one unavoidable way in which I was not.
When I got to high school, things changed. We moved from the Bay Area to a Houston suburb, into a much smaller apartment. Somewhere along the way, The Ice Cream Chair was lost. I like to think that it was sent off to pasture in service of another family, but it’s more likely that it’s lying buried in a landfill, waiting for archeologists of the future to unearth it and identify it as a long lost torture device.
Now, my mom was too busy adjusting to the move and a new job to be bothered with our hair maintenance. I was also at the age where I was developing a furtive independence, looking for a part-time job so that I could save up for a car. I was also developing the usual teenage self-consciousness complexes, and my desire to actually look good was growing. A bald buzzcut was no longer going to hack it in the cutthroat world of high school. I was finally ready to work with my hair.
The problem was that I didn’t know how to do that. Growing up in a white family often means you have to figure out things like Black haircare for yourself. (I should point out here that I don’t blame my mom for being out of her depth in this area. She never planned on having to raise mixed-race children by herself, and she was very much preoccupied with keeping us fed and housed and healthy on her small salary. She did her best.)
The fact that there was overwhelming pressure from the authority figures in my life to change who I was attracted to or else face eternal Hellfire kind of took up a lot of my mental space.
There was another complicating factor: I was beginning to understand that I was gay. I come from a family of fundamentalist Christians, and now we were living in Houston, the home of megachurches with stadium seating. I don’t want to get into what it was like resolving my sexuality and my religion because that’s a story all on its own. Suffice it to say, the fact that there was overwhelming pressure from the authority figures in my life to change who I was attracted to or else face eternal Hellfire kind of took up a lot of my mental space. Whatever racial identity crisis I was going through ended up on the backburner.
That’s why when I developed a strange obsession with relaxing my hair, though I never thought much about it. For those who don’t know, a relaxer is essentially a reverse perm that uses chemicals to straighten hair. Once I knew this was possible, about once a month I would buy some cheap tub of relaxer from Walgreens, and I would spend an afternoon drenching my hair in this sulphuric slime. The results were not great. My hair would be straight for maybe a day, and by the next it would be frizzled, as if each strand had been electrocuted. But that first day always gave me just enough hope that I would keep trying. Because I was no professional hairstylist, I often left it in too long, burning my hair or parts of my scalp. Looking back, I suspect I might have done this on purpose. I hated my hair, and a part of me was punishing it.
From the outside, I imagine all of this looks painfully obvious. I was clearly struggling with growing up Black in a white community under the media’s overwhelming white beauty standards, and “fixing” my hair was how that struggle manifested itself. But at the time, it was like I was on autopilot. I was so used to not thinking about my race and so busy promising God that I’d never look at gay porn again that I never questioned why this relaxer was so necessary. The source of my dissatisfaction with my appearance was always just out of reach, as if I lacked the language to describe it. After all, no one else talked about my hair, not even to make fun of it. In many ways, I was really just doing what every other teenager was doing: developing my sense of personal style while taking cues from people that I idolized.
I don’t think there was ever a specific point when I got over all this. It was likely a gradual process of maturation. By now, I’m so far removed from it all that it sounds like a story that happened to someone else. It’s even comical—to think there was a time in my life when I so desperately envied the fauxhawk. I mean, come on. Nowadays, I’ve developed a hairstyle that is both natural and that works for me (and ironically, it turns out my hair was always much straighter than I thought it was—in my childhood, I just happened to use gels that exaggerated the curls). And I’ve been openly gay as hell for what feels like forever now. So happy ending?
But it’s actually because I moved on from that insecure youth so completely that I’ve only recently looked back and unpacked what was happening to me. It’s made me realize that when you have other things to worry about—like money, getting into college, and the fate of your immortal soul—it can be so easy to distract yourself from your own face in the mirror.♦
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