Gabby Beans is an actor based in New York City. We met on a hot summer day in the city to muse about hair and identity and her experience with going natural. Read her story below. -- JB
ON LIKING HER HAIR
I would say right now, I love my hair, but it has been a big process to get to that point. There are things I would definitely change about it and things I can get a little nit-picky about, or harsh on myself about. But right now, I do like my hair.
HER HAIR EVOLUTION
From a very young age I was very tender-headed. I would literally run away from my mother when she tried to comb my hair, and so being at her wit's end, she decided to start perming my hair. I started when I was 4, and stopped getting perms when I was 8 or 9. My mom would put in perms and then take a hot comb -- a metal comb that you warm up on the stove -- and she would rake it through my hair to straighten it. I remember hating getting my hair done because it's inevitable that you'll get burned and you smell your hair burning, and it's just horrible.
As I got older, my mom got sick of perming my hair, so she put braids in with extensions. That lasted until I was in middle school because I got sick of having braids and answering questions like, "Is that your hair?" Then, I started doing this thing that's kind of like a Jheri curl -- it's very embarrassing to admit that -- it's called a wave nouveau. It's a hair process like a perm but instead of being straight, it's curly. You have to keep it wet all the time, put all this product in it. I kept that in middle school and half-way through high school.
My hair wasn't growing, it was just really screwed up. I didn't really know what was going on and I didn't really care. Then I moved to Germany. It was really hard to get my hair done because there was only one black hair place in Stuttgart, which was two hours from where we lived. I was getting really sick of having to go all the way to Stuttgart -- we lived in Munich -- to get my hair done.
(She then describes a conversation with a friend, who told her about a black American woman in Munich who did hair. The friend recommended she ask the woman for help.) I email her, and I'm like, "Hey, I have a wave nouveau, can you do something for me?" She's like, "Yeah, I'll do it." I go in, it's great, I only have to take a 30-minute train ride. She starts doing my hair, she's looking at it like, "Wow, whoever's been doing your hair has not been processing it enough. It's not the right texture it should be with this chemical process. So I'm going to make sure it's smooth." I was like, "Great! It's going to look even better." She finishes and my hair is just resplendent. It's so soft and shiny -- it's never looked that good. Fast forward a week, I'm in the shower and I'm pulling out clumps of my own hair -- literal handfuls of my own hair -- and I am absolutely distraught. This is my sophomore year of high school, I'm already feeling awkward, and now, I'm pulling out handfuls of my own hair. I didn't even realize it was because of the processing. It was so much hair, I thought I had alopecia or that I was sick. But it wasn't coming out from the scalp, it was just breaking off, because she had over-processed my hair. One side was about three inches shorter than the other. It was a Quasi Modo moment. I decided to get braids again until my hair grew out.
On and off from 10th grade to basically this year, I wore braids. I kept my hair natural and every three months I would put in different braids. I experimented with different styles -- twists, larger twists, smaller braids -- but I never really addressed the main issue with my hair, which was I didn't know how to take care of my hair in its natural state. I had never been taught.
ON WHEN SHE DECIDED TO GO NATURAL
I had a partner who liked my twists, but he asked, "Have you ever just worn your hair natural?" And I was like, "I don't have time for that." It's work intensive -- less so now, doing it, than I had thought before -- but at the time I was very intimidated. He was like, "You should just try it for a month, and see how you go." Even though that partner and I are no longer together, I have to thank him for that because it gave me the courage to 1) feel like I was just as beautiful with my natural hair and 2) I had someone cheering me on while learning how to take care of my hair.
Now, my hair is natural. I'm learning everyday how to take care of it. It is a challenge -- it's like learning how to ride a bike as an adult or learning a language as an adult. It's a lot of trial and error, but that's it. Now I'm just going natural, 'fro out.
ON HAIR AND IDENTITY
I can sort of keep time or go through the phases of my life based on what my hair was like. When I think of a certain style I had, it's sort of inseparable from how I thought about myself and who I was at that point. It is important to my identity, but I think it's changed. In accepting myself more as I'm growing older, I've also come to accept my hair. I think before, I wanted my hair to be a social signifier for something I was missing in my life. When I had the long twists, I didn't feel feminine enough, and I felt like if I had long twists, that would signal femininity and help me create this identity that I'm cobbling together from different things. Now that I'm more chill, even though it is part of my identity and I want to look nice and put together, it's not so serious anymore. I don't stress about my hair the way I did when I was younger.
ON STEPPING OUT WITHOUT BRAIDS FOR THE FIRST TIME
It was terrifying. Unfortunately, the way that black women's hair grows out of our heads is inherently political, even though that's trash because it's literally just how it's growing out of our heads. I was worried about that aspect or people at work making comments, and people in my life not liking it, or saying to me, "I thought you looked better with your twists." That would mean someone liked me better a little more fake -- not to say that wearing twists is fake, but it's a difference between what's coming out of your head and what's added.
Being an actor as well -- What are people going to think about it? Am I still going to be cast-able? Quickly you realize people don't give that much of a shit. You realize people are not really as invested in any of your problems as you are. It becomes very liberating.
-- As told to Untangled in New York City. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Photos by Julia Brucculieri.