Narcissists, and internalized hatred
I’ve been meaning to write for a while about how narcissism is a gift that keeps on giving, but was prompted to go ahead and do so by something I only figured out a few days ago.
Some background is necessary. As I’ve mentioned here before, I really used to despise my hair, and considered it impossible to deal with. That’s one of the major reasons I kept it in a 3/4″ buzz cut for most of the time I’ve been living here (almost 6 years).
It’s super fine, there’s enough of it that it’s surprised hairdressers, and it tends to bush out. Once it gets more than about an inch and a half long–to past shoulder length–pieces stick out and swirl all over my head. It defaults to a fauxhawk, with multiple swirls on the sides of my head, until it gets long and heavy enough for the crown to fall over*. It snarls up easily, and every attempt so far at keeping it longer has ended up in its eventually getting seriously matted and needing chopped off. It just doesn’t do tidy and sleek. I have spent an awful lot of time and effort trying to beat it into submission.
In spite of all that, I decided to let it grow out again a bit over a year ago. By the time it was a few inches long, it was starting to tangle badly and getting multiple fairy knots (didn’t even know what to call them before!) a day, which catch other strands and make a huge mess if I don’t catch them quickly. I was hideously tempted to chop it off again. Instead, I had the sense to try to learn how to take care of it better; “get it under control”, as I started out thinking of it. Looking up what was causing the fairy knots (strands of hair coiling up on themselves), and hopefully how to prevent them, was what helped clue me in.
Lo and behold, my hair is not somehow Really Horrible, it’s just curly! I’m still amazed that I could get into my mid-30s before figuring this out, but hey, I’ve only grown it out twice. As it turns out, Andre Walker’s hair type 3a describes it well: loose, big curls, with some tighter curls and outright kinky sections at the nape of my neck (the snarliest, knottiest part). I knew it seemed wavy and really prone to frizzing–and got some definite curls when it was long–but that’s because I didn’t know how to take care of it. “Damaged Type 3 hair is usually frizzy, dull, hard and dry to the touch, with fuzzy, ill-defined curls”, as that linked page puts it. When it was growing out before, I used to blow-dry it straighter (“somewhat under control”), which made the situation worse all around.
The bits that start sticking out and swirling are just trying to spiral around, and the hedgehog bristling when it’s really short comes from all the curly root lift. Once it gets a couple of inches long, it’s not nasty and “stringy”, it’s trying to separate into curls! The texture of curly hair makes it not look as shiny–besides drying it out dulling it–so I used to spray weird shit on there to make it look “right”. I felt pretty silly not having figured all of this out before, but it does explain an awful lot.
There isn’t also the accumulated social garbage behind my hair hatred, but I was thrilled to run across some natural hair writing from Black women. I was both glad not to feel so alone (even if mine is more personal and not backed up by nearly as much racism), and sorry that there are so many people out there who have been taught to hate themselves like that.
Now I’ve gone over to washing with baking soda and a vinegar rinse, rather than shampoo**, once or twice a week, with water rinses between. I had been overly drying it out with frequent shampooing, and the dry, allergy-ridden scalp was pumping out a lot of oil–which made me dry it out even more! I am not combing it much other than with my fingers (before, I kept a comb with me all the time, to deal with the “stringiness”, which made it frizz worse), and have even started oiling it with coconut oil when it gets dry, rougher feeling, and flyaway (the way I thought it should feel before). I am staying away from heat and chemical treatments, not trying to make it do things it’s just not suited to doing.
Not surprisingly, my hair has been responding very well to kind treatment. It’s much less tangly, with fewer fairy knots showing up, and it curls rather than frizzing most of the time. I no longer want to chop it off, nor am I despairing that it’s not yet long enough to “get under control” by pulling it back. (Other than tickly hair ends and sensory issues, but that’s a different matter.🙂 )
Back to the narcissism. How did I manage to get past 30, really hating my hair and not even knowing why it was behaving the way it does? I was strongly encouraged to view it as an inexplicable Hair Problem, which I just wasn’t Trying Hard Enough to keep under control.
My grandmother is an engulfing | narcissist. I spent a lot of time with her growing up; not only did she watch me before and after school, my mom and I lived with my grandparents for about a year after the divorce when I was just starting school. My mom was the family scapegoat, so that was extra fun.
My mom also had the same kind of hair, and was taught that hers was a Problem. She never learned to take care of it properly, either. Talk about drying it out to keep it from looking “filthy, greasy, and stringy”, she would even use dishwashing detergent on hers once a week or so! Recognizing that I really hated having my hair messed with as a kid, she just kept it short enough not to tangle much. Still, I got so that I don’t like anyone messing with my hair, including professionals–another reason for the buzz cut, once I decided I had a right not to see a hairdresser regularly!
It just struck me a few days ago that my grandmother’s narcissism created this whole problem. I hesitated to attribute such bad motives to a lot of her behavior, but it fits too well. Lately, I’ve been trying to comb out some of the resulting snakes (very apt metaphor here!).
My grandmother has a different, straighter and not so fine hair type. She had no idea how to deal with my mom’s hair (or, later, mine), and did not bother to find out. It still hurts knowing this is so, but she resented being responsible for taking care of us, anyway. So she just blamed us for having Horrible Hair, and being such ingrates when she tried to Get It Under Control (yeah, I kept repeating that theme for a reason).
She would take it out on us by being rough, never working out tangles first, but ripping a comb or brush through it. Yeah, that pulled out and broke hair, besides hurting like hell. Gods forbid that you should move or say anything while your hair was getting ripped out, or when a brush got caught in it and she kept trying to force it through the snarl. The whole thing was our fault, anyway. Why would anyone dislike having their hair messed with after this, even if they didn’t have sensory issues starting out?!
Not surprisingly, I was also glad to get old enough to be trusted bathing myself. My mom used to laugh about my grandmother’s miraculous ability to make a washcloth feel like a wire brush–easier to find dark humor than to recognize it as highly deniable physical abuse (14). Of course, I learned very quickly not to ask for someone else to do these things, because she would then insist on doing them and take it out on me by being even rougher.
We went around with impossible, sticking-out hair to irritate and embarrass her. The same with the way it got “stringy and filthy-looking” so quickly (with her added OCD problems, we were filthy anyway), and struck her as needing combed pretty much on the hour. Of course, all that over-washing and over-brushing made it snarlier and more flyaway. It became a major point of control for her.
My perceptions were not helped by having a couple of other adult control freaks keep carping about my unruly hair. Including one teacher who kept telling me to comb it, or even pulling one out and forcing it through my hair.
My mom tried to be gentler, but she despised her own hair, and considered mine a similar Problem. She didn’t grab me and forcibly mess with my hair, much as she disliked that, but reinforced the idea that my best option was keeping it very short and possibly permed, to keep it orderly and less painful to deal with. Not having learned what boundaries were, in a lot of cases, she felt entitled to comment on the state of my hair past any reasonable point.
Amusingly, all this focus on my hair helped me develop a hair perseveration when I was younger. I might have enjoyed becoming a hairdresser, if it hadn’t been for the whole “expected to chat with actual customers” bit.😉 I still considered it. Now I’d be at least as concerned about the standing up all day while dealing with all sorts of chemicals aspect of things.
I really had no other comparison point, to develop less hurtful attitudes.*** Now, at some remove, a lot of these things look unreasonable to the point of the insane, and it’s increasingly obvious that nobody deserves that kind of treatment, period. But, this was another fish in water situation.
I was forcibly reminded of this kind of thing about a month ago, when I got a bizarre phone call from a hair salon, reminding me of an appointment I hadn’t made. Heck, I haven’t had my hair cut at all in better than a year. I can only guess that someone picked up an old appointment book, since I had been there before, and identity theft for the purpose of getting your hair done makes no sense at all.
Still, my first thought was “Ye gods, somebody has called and made me a hair appointment without consulting me, again!”. This very quickly seemed unlikely, since my grandmother has galloping dementia and my mother is dead. Besides nagging to let us know that our hair was embarrassing her and we needed to get something done about it, my grandmother would make appointments without asking us. (With her hairdresser of choice, which could make for some interesting results!) My mom learned from that example, and did it more than once, herself. I wouldn’t have put it past her to have remembered that I took her to that salon while she was visiting, and decided to call them!
This is just one example of how narcissism can keep on giving. I am very thankful for having recognized it for what it is, so I’m able to look at some of the effects.
* Yeah, I have to suspect that this kind of hair growth pattern may have inspired the original cluster of “Mohawk” hairstyles in eastern North America. May as well work with it! Not to mention the Huron slur for the Wendat.
I also think that there is an additional (internalized) racist element in my grandmother’s focus on our hair. She may not have that type herself, but it hardly seems coincidental that my grandfather’s “horrible, trashy” openly Indian family mostly does. (I’m still not sure why they got married at all.) He used hair dressings and lots of combing to try to keep the “rooster tails” and swirls down, not that it worked so well; I don’t remember her keeping after him about it, though I’d be amazed if she hadn’t in a more passive aggressive way. She may not want to think of the perceived “trashiness” and “backwardness” as coming from her own scads of internalized racism, but it sure does look that way. She sure didn’t want our hair looking like Those People’s. (Another reason for the unfortunately classic “filthy” perception, I just bet.) Then there’s my biodad’s (partly Wendat) family, with a lot of the same kind of hair.
The similar hair thing was one thing I noticed immediately about this Kahnawake Mohawk woman; we could be easily be mistaken for each other on the street, anyway. It was almost eerie when I ran across the video.
** With the nice side effect of my “seborrheic dermatitis” mostly going away, while most (really drying) medicated shampoos had made it worse. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I might be allergic to something(s) in most shampoos, even with lots of allergies. This became even more obvious when I hadn’t used it in a couple of weeks. I managed to knock the cup of vinegar water over in the shower, so just used the same shampoo I’d been using before–and got a hideous scalp rash, with flaking and red scabby bits visible all around my hairline. Ouch. An awful “seborrhea” outbreak was one of the reasons I was willing to try just about anything to wash my hair, if it might improve the scalp!
*** That also applied to a lot of other body-related stuff. Much of the rest of it, including weight issues, came from projection (NARCISSISTIC PARENT TRICK #19).