Even though it’s been several years since I’ve seen TLC’s quintessential music video for their cautionary song “Waterfalls,” I remember it vividly. The ladies dissolving into liquid like T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The shoulder-shimmy dance embodied cool and was seen at the family cookout that summer. And don’t even get me started on the ladies’ abs. Theirs were so flat, if they had started a side business in which they let people use their stomachs as charcuterie boards for housewarming parties, they probably never would’ve gone bankrupt in the first place.
All those things—the dance moves, fit bods and computer-generated images—are timeless imagery if you’re a ’90s kid, but for me, another thing in the “Waterfalls” clip ranked above all else.
Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas’ impossibly perfect baby hairs.
For the uninitiated, “baby hairs” are wispy hairs located along the hairline. They are usually fine and are either brushed smooth and then slicked into place with gel or allowed to roam free and be flyaways. All the biggest R&B stars of the ’90s sported them: the aforementioned Chilli, Ginuwine, Missy Elliott, Brandy, etc. I was barely a tween during the baby-hair heyday—meaning I was the perfect age to be easily influenced by this fad. And while this obsession over baby hairs was probably slightly annoying to my parents, it was better than if I had been obsessed over trying to cash in on my virginity like it was a gift card to Barnes & Noble. So, you’re welcome, Mom and Dad.
Anyway, my mom would do my hair in the morning before school, and I remember her brushing gel into my hair to achieve a slick ponytail. When she was done and left the room, I looked in the mirror, took the brush and tried to push some of that hair toward the hairline so I would get the baby-hair look.
This was highly unsuccessful—mainly because I didn’t have wispy hair along the edges; rather, I had tight curls that would frizz up and resemble the tiny balls on a sweater that’s pilling. So there was a lot of me trying to drag those curls into smooth, long wisps with the brush and, along the way, roughing up my forehead with the tough bristles. I’d end up frustrated, push my hair back the way my mom had it, and head off to school and be jealous of everyone whose hair was different from mine.
Certainly, being a black girl who is unhappy with her hair is nothing new in America. It seems to be a birthright. Whether it’s the length, the texture or the color, there is always some “flaw” that we can fixate on, and for me, it was lack of baby hair, which I thought looked beautiful and—I’m cringing as I type this because I am much wiser now—was a sign of “good hair.”
Not that I thought my hair was necessarily “bad”; however, it wasn’t lost on me that while getting my hair done at the salon, I’d watch the beautician wrestle with my naps, and she often had a look on her face like she was trying to detangle a pair of Apple earbuds. I would think, “Man, if I had baby hairs, she wouldn’t make that face.” And if I’m completely honest, I also thought, “If I had baby hairs, boys would like me.” Of course, this is horrible but understandable.
The mid-’90s were just a few years before the neo-soul movement took root. We were all sold a bill of goods about how having black hair that was mixed with something else (Cherokee, because Americans seem to act as though they are the only Native American tribe that exists) was a way to make us seem different or stand out from all the other black people. I wanted to stand out. I wanted the boys to notice me, and it felt like that was the only way to do it. Although, now that I think of it, never once did a guy ask me out, only to inspect my hairline, see my lack of baby hairs and go, “Hard pass.”
The point is that as I got older, the hair standards for black women widened. Black women could have straight or wavy or kinky hair. Styles like Afros, dreadlocks or being completely bald—all looks I sported in my 20s—were all deemed beautiful again. Simply wearing my hair as it came out of my pretty little head was all that was required.
Maybe next lifetime I’ll have baby hairs like Chilli’s, but for this one, I’m happy with the naps that curl up. And whenever someone does my hair now and screws her face up while combing through it, I no longer feel bad.
Those tight curls are a symbol of strength, and I feel proud.
Phoebe Robinson is a stand-up comedian and writer who recently appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. She is currently a consultant on Broad City and is writing her first collection of essays for Plume Publishing, which will be published in the fall of 2016. If you live in New York City, you can see her and Jessica Williams co-hosting a stand-up show called Blaria (aka Black Daria) at Union Hall the third Wednesday of every month. Follow her on Twitter.