When I was a kid, I used to beg my mom to let me wear a towel on my head at the grocery store (this is the kind of story that gets trotted out to my horror at family reunions). My desire to look like women I saw in TV commercials had officially become shameless. They'd do things like tie their hair into a knot and yank it, or swish it over their shoulders in slow motion, leaving me practically drooling in front of the screen. My natural black hair couldn't come close to performing all the magic tricks (I was still blissfully unaware of extensions and special effects at that point). My mom, ever the open-minded parent when it came to bizarre yet harmless requests, let me do it without a second thought. I paraded down the aisles of the supermarket feeling like a stunner. That was only the beginning of my quest for long hair.
Besides boob-length hair being straight up beautiful, I was convinced from a young age that the longer, the better. Growing up in Miami, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me, despite the city's diversity. I developed a beauty ideal that had me straightening out the kinks and setting my sights on the longest lengths I could reach. I choked down biotin pills while testing various hair masks concocted from ingredients in my refrigerator. They'd always help a bit, but the constant heat made my split ends ruthless. To my frustration, my hair never got longer than grazing my bra strap. What’s interesting is that my family doesn’t subscribe to the notion that long, straight hair is superior. The women who brought me up all proudly sport natural hair. But to me, my hair was inextricably linked to my femininity—a pretty face wasn’t enough without masses of hair surrounding it.
Fast forward 20 years to me in front of my boyfriend's bathroom mirror, snipping off my parched ends with his beard scissors on an impulse. The hair I'd been holding onto for way too long, convinced the technical length it gave me meant something, was in the sink in front of me. I gazed at my new just-past collarbone cut, waiting tensely for the wave of emotion to hit. And it did, except to my surprise, I felt fantastic. It was like I had done a month of intense deep conditioning followed by a glaze at the type of upscale salon where a French man offers you free champagne. Simply shearing off those ends made my hair seem doubly as thick. The longer I looked at myself, the more I felt like I could have been written into Clueless—there was something sexy and '90s cheerleader-y about my new style. I played with it, falling more in love with each passing second.
It's true what they say about hair that's actually healthy: It grows. Two months after my quasi-chop, it was basically back to its pre-cut length. But instead of the trademark Garnier Fructis commercial movement, my hair was more of a uniform, stiff sheet. Struck by a midnight urge, I ventured out to Duane Reade and bought the only pair of hair cutting shears they had (I’ve stopped going to stylists completely over how they react like I’ve released the Kraken whenever I let my curls out of a bun). I got home and ripped the scissors out of the package, their super-sharp blades glinting seductively.
I turned to beauty guru Carli Bybel’s YouTube tutorial about how to cut layers into your own hair. I wanted the swooshy effect that comes from pushing layers back off your face, only to have them fall back into it. Bybel’s instructions can be summed up thusly: section off a small triangle of hair a few inches wide at the top of the head, then cut. Grab a wider triangle underneath, and snip that, too. Then grab locks on the sides and back, cutting the ends on a diagonal as you go to achieve a layered effect. Leaving the bottom half or so of hair untouched except for a slight dusting or trim helps maintain thickness.
I got a surprising result: my hair looked exactly like I wanted it to. Full of body and movement, and endlessly hotter than it had been when it was longer. Now I ward off damage by putting a pre-shampoo treatment of coconut oil on the bottom half of my hair, then lathering up with OGX’s Kukui Oil Shampoo. Then I slather on Miss Jessie’s Rapid Recovery Deep Conditioning Mask for at least 15 minutes before I rinse. During the straightening process, I section off my hair, spritz John Frieda Thermal Protection Serum all over and comb through with a wide-toothed comb to make sure it’s evenly applied. I smooth OGX's Brazilian Keratin Therapy Anti-Breakage Serum over each segment because it makes my hair way easier to straighten and adds some appreciable shine. After blowdrying, I flat-iron 1-inch pieces and curl the ends under to emphasize the layers, then I’m ready to go. Am I completely rid of wanting ribcage-skimming hair? Of course not; I’ll always think it’s lovely. But for the first time in my life, I feel like my hair is both gorgeous and healthy. If 5-year-old Zahra could see me now, she’d be pretty thrilled.
The author photographed by Tom Newton.