BY NYEDA REGINA STEWART
A few weekends ago, I sat in an orange-black chair for ten hours as a woman and her daughter combined my locs.
It’s been a year and going on three months since I’ve started my loc journey. Growing up, I always admired the suave of Rastas and dreadheads—the way their hair so gracefully swam down Brooklyn’s concrete floors, or swung in their faces with free spirit. There was something immaculate about this hair, this culture, this pride. It was different from wearing braids or twists. Those were only temporary. Dreads … these were permanent things. I knew that one day, they would become part of me as well.
Now, before I continue, I’d like to be clear about my word choices surrounding this hairstyle. “Dreadlocks” is the official term, but they are also known as “dreads” or “locs.” People have different reasons for calling them one over the other. Although I grew up using the term “dreads,” over the past few years, I began using the term “locs.” This is because of a common narrative that has circulated within the community: the term “dreads” was imposed upon the hairstyle by Western or European oppressors who saw this hair as dreadful and ugly. Because of this narrative, people have begun to rebel against the language, and have adopted the shortened version, “locs,” as a way to reclaim their hair and their culture. While I initially referred to my hair as “locs” for this same reason, the more I reflected on this, the more indifferent I became. Even though I have become accustomed to using this word to refer to my hair, I have no issue with using the term “dreads” either because that’s a term that I hear when around family or in other West Indian environments.
The style and the term were especially popularized by Jamaicans, specifically Rastafarians, and even more specifically, Bob Marley. While the hairstyle may be more widespread and acceptable in today’s world, when Rastafarians began locking their hair in the 1900s, it was looked down upon. Rastafarians were considered outcasts of and threats to Jamaican society because of their often radically political views and lifestyles. They critiqued Western society, or “Babylon,” for oppressing Black people and the larger African diaspora. Because Jamaica was under British colonial rule, its government was also taken under this light. Marijuana use is also common in Rastafari, and when found in possession of it, Rastafarians were often arrested. For some Rastas, wearing dreadlocks were a physical embodiment of their testimony against Jamaican society. But, the hairstyle was considered ugly by others and unfit for society’s standards. Alongside these connotations, dreadlocks were actively condemned, with authority figures such as teachers and police officers cutting off one’s dreadlocks or the hairstyle being banned in Jamaican schools.
While the style has become more normalized and valued for its uniqueness, its history expresses how deeply political dreadlocks can be.
In January 2020, I went to a salon a few blocks from my house to get my hair locked. I was uneasy as I entered. While I had visited the salon before, I had only gotten my hair done twice—both times by different people. I was an unrecognized face. In a sea of mostly West Indian people, this meant that I would be looked up and down before I could say a word. While this wasn’t an environment I felt comfortable in to get my hair done, I did not feel unwelcome. I had cultural familiarity. Dancehall music echoed from a hairstylist’s phone. Jamaican lingo was thrown around the room, passing from one mouth to the other. People ate West Indian food. And the general atmosphere assured me that I would be taken care of. I could handle the looks.
When I sat down, I felt apprehension build inside of me. While I was ready to lock my hair, the idea was still daunting. My hair was natural all my life. It was often styled in a puff, and when it wasn’t, in protective styles such as box braids, Marley twists, cornrows, etc. I would miss the versatility that came with having my hair out. Dreadlocks meant commitment.
I told the stylist how I wanted my hair styled —medium-sized locs parted in a C-shape. I sat in anxious anticipation as she worked through my hair.
Soon, she was finished. Then, I looked in the mirror. While the hairstylist did exactly what I asked her to, her tightly wound finger coil method left me feeling naked. I had forty, skinny locs sticking out of my scalp. No volume. There was a barber in the salon who had fully formed, past shoulder-length locs. He was also Grenadian, like me. During the entire process, he watched as the woman locked my hair. At the end, I felt somewhat ashamed that he saw what it had come out to look like.
I left the salon feeling even more belittled than when I had entered. People said that starter locs were the toughest part of the journey because your hair loses volume, length, and appeal. For the first few months, you just had to go with it. But, I wasn’t prepared for this level of embarrassment, especially as this was in preparation for my return to college after winter break.
When I returned to campus, I hid under headscarves for weeks. I knew that I had to find a solution.
Luckily, I was put in contact with Nikki, my current loctician, a few months prior. I was walking down the stairs of my sophomore dorm building when I saw Vivian, a custodial lady, mopping the floor. I said my usual hello and then paused. She had locs so she must know someone in the area who could do them, I thought. So, I asked her. She took a moment to think, reflecting that most of the people she knew started their own locs and that the hairstylists she knew of only did retwists. As some people came to mind, she gave me their name and number and we eventually exchanged our own. A couple days later, she reached out with Nikki’s contact, noting that she was the only person that she knew who started locs.
Since I was going home for winter break in the next few weeks, I didn’t reach out to Nikki until I returned back to campus with the forty, skinny locs sitting on my head, hoping for some sense of relief.
Nikki took those 40 locs and made 83. She gave my head a sense of fullness. Finally, I was able to release my hair from the headscarves. This was in February of 2020.
Then, it was March. I went home for spring break.
Then, I was home for good.
In some ways, the pandemic provided my locs with security. I didn’t have to and couldn’t see anyone beyond my household. My locs had the time and space to take its first steps. For five months, I went through this process of learning. What do I do with all these products that I can’t put in my new hair? What products can I put in my new hair? How do I wash it? And how often? Do they look like real locs yet? How do I make them grow faster?
These questions filled my head. They still do.
As I type this, I’m entering a new phase of my loc journey. The funny thing is that I’m seemingly going back to square one.
Over those five months, I realized that my locs were too thin for my liking. I wanted them thicker, but I was scared of what they’d look like. So, I left them alone.
Then, when I returned to college in late August, I began rope twisting my locs. I would leave them in that style until they unraveled or were due for a retwist. I liked the look, but still, I wasn’t ready for it.
Again, this is a loc “journey.” Although it is fun, it is challenging at times, especially when it comes to making any sudden changes almost a year into the ride. What if I messed it up by envisioning a look that would leave me feeling naked again?
Pinterest, Instagram, and Google Images became my safe haven. I was in constant search of “thick locs,” “combined locs,” “jumbo locs,” etc. I was looking for someone who reflected what I hoped my hair would look like in a few years. Images were bookmarked and saved.
Still, it took me months to warm up to the idea of changing my hairstyle. Locs are permanent. To alter them in any way meant that I had to be fully certain and confident in my decision. My anxiety around combining my locs also went hand in hand with beauty expectations. The images that I lingered upon online were pictures of people with long, thick locs, locs that had passed the baby stage and grown into full adults. I knew it would take a while to reach that point and I feared feeling unattractive with short, thick locs.
But, I loved the look. I loved how they took up space on people’s heads and the space around them. I loved that they gave a bolder image of oneself when styling, since one thick loc can make a more distinct statement than a skinny loc. In short, combining my locs felt like a powerful expression of self-esteem.
Between the time I returned home for Thanksgiving break until February, I hadn’t gone to a loctician. This is partially because my loctician lives in New Haven and even though I was there for a couple months in the fall, I wasn’t ready to go to her. Going back to Brooklyn put a pause on things because I didn’t trust anyone else to do my hair. This left me in a limbo state for months.
Then came February. I was back in New Haven and excited by the prospect of finally combining my locs. The pandemic and restrictions enforced by my school kept me in my limbo state for longer than I would have liked, however. For the first month of being back on campus, I could not leave the premises. This left me frustrated because I had prepared to get my hair done as soon as possible when I returned. Either way, I told myself it would be worth the wait.
And it was. Even though I didn’t schedule a hair appointment immediately following the end of my quarantine, I got it done soon after—in April.
Nikki informed me that the combining process was an all-day process. So, I prepared. I picked up brunch from the dining hall, ordered food to eat for later, packed my bag with snacks, water, and my laptop to do schoolwork.
We ended up starting in the early evening and putting a pause on the process close to midnight. I would have to return to the orange-black chair the following day for the process to be complete.
As I looked at my half-done scalp in the mirror, I wasn’t sure what to think of my new look. I couldn’t get a clear image of how it would look since each loc is unique on its own. I had left some locs out so that they wouldn’t be combined; others were twisted together. This meant that there were some skinny locs among the thick.
But this was only half of the process. I would be able to fully take it in tomorrow.
When I returned, and the process was complete, I was filled with so much joy and gratitude. And I was so relieved that what I had envisioned was what I saw before me in the mirror. My new, thick locs reflected a new definition of beauty for me, one that was unafraid of challenging what it means to be beautiful as a woman. It also reflected a deep relationship to radical views. Even though I am not Rastafari, I agree with many of its sentiments. If I am seen as being part of this community or these ideas, simply because of my hairstyle, I can only smile with pride. My thick locs have only made me louder.
This was exactly the look I was going for.
Nyeda Regina Stewart is a writer and creative director from Brooklyn, New York. She is currently fulfilling her Bachelors in African American Studies at Yale University. Her work explores surrealism, radical worlds, and Black cultures.