Build Up: Nappy, Smart, and Whole Lot Freer

Sol: John you know, you should- you should go easy. There are other things besides work.

John Nash (looks up, tears in his eyes): what are they?

I paused the movie. There were tears in my eyes too. I wasn’t sure of the answer. Even though I was 17 years late, the years hadn’t made the movie any less relevant today. Four-weeks in my Clinical Mental Health Counseling MA degree, I was bawling my eyes out alone, in my Chicago apartment. John Nash had said something else I couldn’t get out of my head: he just wanted to matter. All his searching, his sleepless nights, his endless window-math decors, were for one thing: to matter. Every day he was tormented by his friends’ and classmates’ achievements, placements, and publications. All he wanted in life was to matter.

I thought I was listening to myself. I’ve had many conversations over the years on my perfectionism and drive for success. One time, I cried because I got a 90% on a test, and my friend shook her head and said, “I’m scared for you. I’m scared you’re never going to appreciate what you do and who you are.” My neck snapped back. I laughed, “what are you talking about?” And she shook her head. She could see through me. She knew I understood exactly what she meant and had no intention of changing. I’m not sure I could.

Even more troubling, she knew I would never fully admit this to myself; that my perfectionism was a weed growing inside me, growing in the sinews of my very identity; and to unroot it now would mean tearing a big hole inside me; and I couldn’t very well go and rip myself apart like that, when all my life, I was striving to hold myself together one day at a time.

If I claimed my perfectionism was imperfect, there would be no way for me to fix it. So, I told myself this too, was just the way I was born and this too would eventually produce abundant dividends in my life—good grades, good mentions, scholarships, possibly free education, good jobs, good living situations… I would add good relationships to the list but by my last year in college I already knew that no matter how good I was at studying, I couldn’t be good at relationships in the same way. People weren’t straightforward facts I could memorize. There was no academic measure of friendship. It was one of those things that had to be experienced, and because experience was time consuming, it was one of those things I brilliantly failed at.

Ironically, I was still a people-person; always had been, always would be. Doxa The Extravert—it had been my title all throughout middle school and college. Yet, no matter how much I tried to keep up appearances, I wasn’t fooling anyone.

One of my new friends in the master’s program was quick to call me out in a text— “you’re so fake lol.” Even though she was joking, I knew she was serious. She’d try to hang out and I would finesse my way out of plans, mostly because of homework and plain old exhaustion.

Another day before class started, she told, “I have this book on busyness that’s really good; talks about how we unconsciously pile our plate because we’re addicted to work and it becomes an unhealthy habit that stops us from resting.” I said, “huh, sounds like a good book” and she laughed, “yeah, you should read it sometimes.” I rolled my eyes and told her I didn’t unconsciously fill up my days. I honestly didn’t have a choice. Work and classes took up all my time.

But she shook her head and said she’d just stop asking to hang out. She was done trying. I sighed and told her she shouldn’t be that way but all the while I was thinking, she should go on then. I would be fine on my own. I’ve always been a loner, and I will always be a loner. I don’t need people.

How unfortunate that these were the thoughts of a counselor-to-be. In psychology, we believe that people often hold deficient or twisted beliefs that must be unraveled before their behavior can change. But now I understood just why insight wasn’t always enough for change. I knew it wasn’t right to prioritize my work over people. I knew I shouldn’t strive for straight As at the expense of my sanity. I knew my worth wasn’t positively or negatively correlated with my grades.

But, like Karen Horney (the founder of feminist psychology who pretty much destroyed some of Freud’s sexist theories), I decided “if I couldn’t be pretty…I would be smart.”

So, by the end of the movie, when John Nash was receiving the pen accolades for his genius work, I was a mess of tears. The cost of his genius was too much to handle. The way his mind strained and buckled under the pressure of wanting to matter, hit too close to home.

I ran in the shower, turned the knob, and howled away; bent over, just screaming at the wet floor. It hurt so much I couldn’t speak. No words came out. I wanted to escape, and I didn’t know how.

Pain was holding my skull and splitting my body in half, inch by inch but I was too tired to fight back. I just cried and cried as my flesh split, bones cracked, cartilage and muscles stretched—

And then it happened.

The Revelation.

Just like that, I knew how to conquer the pain. I grabbed my towel, ran to my hair drawer, scrambled around till I found the shiny, long, silver scissors I had bought to trim my hair, ran back to the now-steamy bathroom, wiped the mirror with my hand, and began chopping away. My red eyes dried up as my resolve grew. When I was done, the floor was a carpet, lush and black with my 4c curls.

My jaw stuck out, my thick eyebrows stuck out, my round forehead stuck out, but I didn’t care. The world could go to hell with all its ideals—after all, that’s where the impossible, self-destructive beauty standards came from to begin with. I admit I had a flicker of doubt as we so often do when we change.

Will I regret this? We ask ourselves, when deep down we already know the answer: no. There is no regret, no going back, no looking back, when one has made the decision to cross over the bridge and throw the lighted matchstick behind, as an added measure.

My curls lay on the floor burning but I didn’t care. Instead of grief, I felt relief.

Little did I know that a week later, Nappily Ever After would float down on Netflix like a prophetic affirmation from God Himself. Vi, the main character, shaves off her head in a drunken stupor when she breaks up with her boyfriend because he gives her a dog instead of a ring for her birthday. Then she wakes up the next morning, screaming, and calls her parents. She tells her Dad, between sobs, that she’s so tired of working hard to be everything her boyfriend wanted her to be, without success.

And this is where God spoke to me through her father and I began to cry: Of course you’re tired baby girl. Look, you think that this is just something you did on a whim? I think you’ve been building up to it….and you know what? You gonna be okay…You’ve just gotta soldier on. And, look, you’ve got the head for it.

After the credits rolled, I sat there on my friend’s futon at 3am in the morning, facing the millions of lights shining in the skyscrapers and busy streets. After barely a month in Chicago, I was already so different, and God wasn’t surprised. We move because we must leave our old ways behind, not knowing what “new” looks like; just knowing it is worth the risk. We move when we must change, and we change because life is about movement; about growth; about leaving past expectations, traditions, roles and identities, to reinvent ourselves.

For me, this meant cutting off the weight and burden of past Black Hair Traditions I carried for years: Straight Hair Is Beauty. I had burned my scalp with perms, fried my hair with flat irons, and tore my hair up with weaves and extensions, but I still wasn’t enough. The world— both the outside cultures and my own people—looked at me and said, gurl, you need to do something with that hair.

So, I cut it off, and who knows, maybe it was an unconscious act of revenge too.

Of course, straight hair wasn’t a sin or a betrayal of Blackness, but it just wasn’t for me. And it took me 21 years to realize this. I was made to rock the nappy, curly, kinky, twisted, tight curls on my head. And I sure wasn’t turning back.

The road to my Ever After was long and full of self-hate, turmoil, anger, and hopelessness, but I made it. What’s more, I made it without Prince Charming Charles III. I decided if I couldn’t be beautiful in the world’s eyes, if I couldn’t be beautiful to modern men, then screw it, I would just be me.

Nappy, smart, and whole lot freer.

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Doxa J Zannou

Doxa J. Zannou is a zealous writer from Benin, West Africa. Her short story "Carved In ice" was shortlisted and published in Broken Worlds, a dystopian collection by Almond Press. She has been published on literary websites such as Young Poets Network , Eye On Life Magazine, and FIYAH Lit Mag. She graduated from Eastern University with her Bachelor's in Psychology and Creative Writing. During her years at Eastern she was published in its newspaper and literary magazine, Inklings. She is currently studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling in graduate school.

One Comment

  1. ..and I bet you realised that once you started being “me” the whole world fell into place?

    There is so much in here that I can relate to — particularly trying to gain acceptance from a world where acceptance is hard to come by. I worked it out in the end, just like you did, that if I accept myself, then that’s all I really need!

    Good post!

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