Like most conservative, fundamentalist, literalist Christian folks, I grew up believing that getting your hair done was a sin—the only sin, in fact, that ever made God tell an angel to go to hell. For years, my grooming experiences were laden with guilt. I routinely went years at a time without getting my hair professionally done, until societal pressure would push me to give in to my urges. I couldn’t even enjoy all of the shocked faces at my high school prom because I just knew that if Jesus came back during the middle of a Luther song, I would burn in hell from the tips of my toes to the top of my perfectly coifed hair. I was caught in a continual cycle of high maintenance cuts, low maintenance care, trim, condition, rinse and repeat, topped off with five years of home hair care (if you can call what I did care). I treated hairstyling as if it were a bad habit that I desperately needed to break.
All of this is a prelude to a confession: I’m single. I’m saved (as in a born-again, my-name-is-on-the-list, goin-up-a-yonder Christian). And I have a sew-in. Unapologetically.
At my former church, I spent Saturday mornings (the time that many women spend in the hairdresser’s chair) with beautiful, dynamic, educated women whose heads were wrecks. We didn’t consider ourselves self-righteous; we were easy to be around and non-judgmental of each other. Together we prayed for the fallen sisters among us—the ones who missed a Saturday in sinful preparation for a Monday job interview. We also prayed for those who, in frustration, committed the most heinous sin of all: braids—the only hairstyle that the Bible explicitly denounces TWICE. We realized that they weren’t evil-hearted for their refusal to live by Christian standards: we prayed for an evil world that calls everyone to a standard of vanity that Paul and Peter both found appalling for women. More than anything, we prayed for the heterosexual men of God that our savior promised to send—men who would judge us by the content of our characters rather than the hair on our heads.
When we were teenagers making non-vanity pledges, we couldn’t have guessed that these promises would have such an effect on our romantic lives 10-20 years later. In fact, according to our worldview, our (lack of) hairstyles wasn’t the problem; the problem was with the sinful men who were attracted to the very vanity that God despised—the men who preferred long hair, short hair, natural hair—any style at all. We were convinced that we were doing the right thing and the rest of the world, though beautiful by man’s standards, was wrong.
I still respect the sisters who believe that and I believe that we serve the same God; I just no longer believe in their ethics of care. It is hard to live and thrive in a world that you know is gawking at your head. It’s hard to take the Bible as the gospel truth when black women are already policed in this society that is built on the fact of our deplorability. Do black women get a pass on the Bible’s vanity clause when they live in a society that demands it? Were not Paul’s words written to a people for whom “get up and go” hair was not a cause for consternation? What should black women do with their hair when we can neither cut it, style it, perm it, or God forbid, braid it? And were our ancestors living in sin for the hundreds of years that nimble fingers weaved intricate braids in the heads of women and men? I cannot serve a God who would turn someone away from His heaven for a hairstyle.
After all of these years, I’ve realized that the perfectly humble, holy hairstyle is not what I needed. I needed a bigger view of God.
For so many women, the biggest faith struggle is believing God for a male, heterosexual life partner. The women pray, serve, and refuse to apply makeup or comb their hair in hopes that God will send a spirit-filled, Word-educated man who was wildly attracted to their piety. Black women especially are attacked from both “the church” and “the world” about all the things we are doing that keep us single. The church says take off that makeup; men will think we are sex workers. The world, with the help of Queen Latifah, says we’d better not; men will think we are not nice or fun. The church says stay away from those demonic braids because they were a sign of sex work in Paul’s day. The world says get a sew-in—a style that requires braids—because real men dig Beyonce.
God is bigger than our understanding of Him. I have learned the limitations of my previous belief in the inerrancy of a text. Words, like any sign, are infinitely interpretable. Trying to nail down the single truth of a sign is an attempt by man to control a world that has always been out of control. Running from the hairdresser’s chair in a fit of guilt when she’d only finished half my perm felt better than coming to terms with cancer’s attack on my family. Walking the halls with my afro flat on one side made me feel righteous and important in a school that didn’t value us enough to give us new books. Shouting out of our hastily-done ponytails in church gave us joy in the face of the poverty we faced all week long. There are so many things that we cannot control; refusing to change my hair does not change this fact. It only blinds me to world-problems that I’d probably have the confidence to effect if I weren’t so caught up on this head of mine.
So hairstyling is back on the table for me. I have a sew-in. It’s luxurious. Underneath my sewn-in hair is a set of braids that would make my former Sunday School teacher speak in tongues. When my stylist patiently parted my tangled hair and gently braided it close to my scalp (but not too tight), I fell in love with her and refused to feel bad about it. My sew-in hides the sin of my braids, but one day I will feel bold enough to rock a fro-hawk or some other style that shows the extent to which I have “back-slid.” And that’s ok. I believe in a God who will love me anyhow.
That’s why I’m unapologetically single, saved, and sewn-in.