When I think about my experience growing up here in Sioux City, I think about my five older brothers and sisters and my parents like this umbrella over the top of me that took some hits by the rain that I didn’t.
When my brothers and sisters came up, they were the colored kids down the street. When I came up. I was the Pierce kid down the street. She was okay.
What I really want to tell you about, and what I absolutely dread telling you about, is my hair. This beautiful mane of thick gorgeousness—full of emotional and cultural baggage.
Growing up mixed-race in Morningside, in the late ‘80s, there wasn’t much representation of my particular hair-type.
One thing which comes along with my particular pedigree—African American, Caucasian, and Native American—is this thick, strong-willed, curly hair.
You may find it hard to believe, but I haven’t always let my hair roam free like I do now. For most of my life, my hair has been pulled back into a ponytail, bun, or sometimes braids.
Even in my family, my hair was different. It could grow fast, forming tight little ringlets that would turn full Reggie Watts, minus the beard, if tampered with while dry. In addition to all of this, I am the youngest of six children—three boys, three girls. By the time I came along, when my mother combed my hair, my tender-headed screams of pain were met with an impatient, “I don’t have time for this.” So she turned me loose with a ponytail and focused on neat cornrows for my sisters. Painful cornrows.
My curls made an appearance all the way through third grade. That’s when I took part in the slumber party ritual called, “Let’s play with each other’s hair." I only had to play it once to realize this was not a good idea. Even though my hair's routine was clear to me—get it wet and use a wide-toothed comb—it was overwhelming for my friends. They said, “It’s so big. It looks like an afro!” Their comments hurt my tender feelings.
I concluded that it would be best if I kept my hair tamed and pulled back as tight as possible.
To make matters worse, around that same time, my Girl Scout Troop went to the Iowa School of Beauty, where we’d all be able to have our hair done any way we wanted. I was so excited for this. I absolutely knew what I wanted: a fishtail braid like Becky Schneider’s. I had been surveying my friends, who were almost all white, about their hairstyles I liked and wanted to try myself. A fishtail braid and fringe bangs made the top of the list.
When I climbed into the chair, I thought I saw something like fear flash through the stylist’s eyes. Despite this, I confidently declared, “I’d like a fishtail braid, like Becky’s.” The stylist replied, “Okay...” Then, she picked at my ponytail holder. Pick. Snap. Pick. Snap. Finally, sounding utterly exhausted, she asked, “Can you take that out for me?”
Just like that—pop!—went my balloon of excitement, Pop!—went my balloon of confidence that I would have a beautiful fishtail braid like Becky’s. I mean, really—how could she do a fishtail with my hair when she can’t even take my ponytail holder out?
Tears started rolling down my face as I took my hair down for her. It only took a couple of seconds of her timidly touching my hair for me to request, “Will you just put it in a bun?” To which she gladly obliged.
To this day, I’m still not sure of all of the messages I internalized during that interaction. But the biggest one, that I am absolutely sure of, is that, when it comes to my hair, I just don’t belong.
I don’t think for one second the stylist was trying to make me feel bad. I think she was just overwhelmed. It’s unlikely that she had ever encountered thick, strong-willed hair like mine. Hair that has snapped barrettes, hair ties, and combs. Yes, combs.
But at 9 years old, it was overwhelming to me for this aspect of my existence to overwhelm adults. I felt shame that no one could figure out what to do with my hair—even hair-care professionals. Because of that, I concluded it must be wrong.
It was too big, too much, too overwhelming.
And, in a lot of ways, these descriptions matched my personality. There are certain aspects of who I am that can get big and loud. I couldn’t have my hair do that, too. So I decided to quiet that particular aspect of who I am.
Through middle school, high school, and most of college, I almost always pulled my hair back in a bun. And never asked a stylist to touch it. To cut my own hair, I'd have a friend hold my ponytail and we'd just chop. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it really didn't.
Over the years, I occasionally released my hair when I found a new product that might possibly be able to control its whims. But each of those products I tried only made my hair crunchy and not quite what I wanted.
When I was in college, I did learn how to straighten my hair, which was an epic task that took four-to-five hours. I liked how it looked, but it simply took too much time to do it frequently.
So, with the exception of special occasions like weddings, when I committed an entire morning to straightening it, no one saw me with my hair down until I was 25 years old. Not until my sister came across a product called Mixed Chicks.
Mixed Chicks is a leave-in conditioner which was created by two mixed-raced women who realized women like them couldn't find products to wear their hair in a way they felt comfortable. Hearing their story, I suddenly felt I was no longer alone in this experience.
Honestly, I have no idea what’s in this miracle conditioner. It could be straight mayonnaise for all I care. What matters is that it was made for people like me and it actually works!
The other thing that helped me share my full-bodied hair with the world was finding someone who actually knew how to cut and style it.
Around this same time, a coworker with a mixed-raced daughter recommended a tall, talkative, beautifully tattooed, white hairstylist who knew what to do with hair like mine. She said that Christine would spend three hours on my hair. It would be washed, dried, straightened, then cut.
So I went and saw Christine. And she did it all as promised—confidently and proudly. Then had a cigarette afterwards.
And that’s how it been for the last seven years.
So that’s it. Two little things—a hair-care product that validated my experience and a stylist who irrefutably knew what she was doing—helped me overcome the feeling that my hair was too much. All it required was feeling known and getting the message that I do in fact belong here. My hair included.
Shelby Pierce is the co-host of We Are Not A Monolith, a news and culture program that focuses on issues impacting the African American community in Siouxland. Interviews are stories are featured on The Exchange, Siouxland Public Media's weekly magazine show airing Wednesdays from noon to one.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, August 4 at Be Yoga Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Little Did I Know.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.
This story was produced as part of an Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship, which supports media practitioners who want to tell stories of resilience in communities around the U.S. and abroad. ivoh is a nonprofit committed to strengthening the media's role as an agent of change and world benefit.