A Man, A Can, A Spatula: Why Black Men Have Hair Issues, Too

A couple of months ago I got a frantic phone call from a female friend at 1 a.m. "I need you to come over," she said. "It's an emergency." When I arrived, she informed me that her sewn-in hair weave, for which she had paid around $500, was coming loose, and she needed my help to take it out before she went to work the next morning. I sat with her for an hour, holding a mini-flashlight in my mouth while I performed surgery with cuticle scissors, carefully cutting the strings that tied her fake hair to her real hair. At that moment, I got it. Black women are serious about their hair.

Having had that experience, I didn't get as much out of Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair as I'd have liked, as "black women are serious about their hair" is pretty much the gist. I did learn lots of new details about the lengths to which black women go to transform their coarse coils of natural hair into silky, flowing tresses that bounce and behave.

But there wasn't much talk about black men, save for the financial commitment they often have to make to keep their women hair-happy. This was a disappointment, because while I realize that there's a yawning gap between the amount of drama involved in the care of a woman's hair versus a man's, I have just the same kind of kinky, curly, and, yes, nappy hair to deal with, and it causes me stress, too.

Granted, black men have the advantage of being able to wear short, natural hair styles. They require less maintenance, but they aren't maintenance-free, and black men can be just as beholden to their hair as black women.

A buddy of mine from college named Stacy prided himself on always having a fade that was crisp and tight as barracks bedsheets, so he was in the barbershop every Friday getting it touched up. But that's never been me. I'm proudly shabby and have cultivated a look I call the "Dignified Hobo." To see me, you might think I was homeless, but only due to a recent change of luck, and will soon be back on my feet. There is a social pressure for black men to keep well-groomed, both from potential suitors, as well as in the workplace, but I bend to it only slightly. (Fortunately the good folks at NEWSWEEK have never had a problem with my bird's-nest beard, or at least are nice enough not to mention it.)

Still, I too struggle with my hair on a daily basis—even though I don't have much to speak of. My hairline began to retreat in my mid-20s, so I gave in and started shaving it bald. I know that to most people that seems like I've liberated myself of the hair issue entirely, but I have as much trouble keeping the hair off my head that most folks do maintaining what they have. Black men struggle with razor bumps, the painful and unsightly rashes that breaks out when coarse hair is shaved and grows back. So instead of shaving, I experimented with all manner of hair-removal options to varied success. I started out using clippers, which are fast and convenient but don't achieve the closeness you want in a bald head. It just perpetually looks like your head was bald that morning but sprouted a five o'clock shadow.

Then I tried depilatories. I started with good ol' Nair, then graduated to Magic Shave, which is basically just Nair with a black guy on the bottle. I found them to be messy, smelly, and irritating. Mostly I'm traumatized from my first experience with Magic Shave. It now comes as a convenient cream, but when I started out it came as a smelly powder that must be mixed with water, applied to the desired area, then removed by gently running a spatula over it. A spatula! Because black hair is thick and coarse, a washcloth won't do the trick. Only after my disastrous first go-round did I carefully read the instructions that said you have to remove it with a plastic spatula, not the metal one I used. I had painful cuts all over my scalp that took weeks to fully heal. When it comes to depilatories, reading is fundamental.

Finally, I gave in and started to shave with a razor, every single morning. It was the only thing that consistently did the job. But the learning curve was steep, and only within the past year have I cracked the code. I think of the three sectors of my head like members of a cast of a Hollywood movie, and I'm the director. I can abuse the top of my head like it's an extra—going over the same spot three times, shaving against the grain, you name it. The sides of my head I treat like a relatively famous character actor. I can push it, but only so much. But the back of my head, that's the Page Six-bait, A-list super-diva who won't come out of her trailer if the 13 almonds that comprise her breakfast weren't soaked overnight. If I'm any less than gentle with the razor on the back of my head, I'll get a constellation of itchy whiteheads. I have one even as I type this.

To rid myself of razor bumps, I have used a variety of concoctions, at price points high and low, formulated especially for just this purpose. Most of them feel like pouring battery acid on my skin. The current product I use does the job, but as I squirt it onto the cotton round I give myself a little pep talk, which I repeat with each swipe. I probably wouldn't believe in the idea of redemptive suffering if not for having to treat my razor bumps.

I don't mean to sound like I go through any more hair stress than anyone else does, merely to say that everyone struggles with hair in one way or another, and in conversations about hair, men usually wind up left out. Does it consume us as much as it does women? Certainly not. But we men go through a lot of trouble to look nice. It wouldn't kill you to notice every once in a while.