(Classic disposable camera photo from the '90s in Janel's family's Bronx apt. -- photo of a photo)
Sundays were reserved for a special kind of ritual: wash day.
Once I saw my mother carry the straight-back dining chair to the center of the living room, we were minutes away from the hours-long regimen. A small assortment of black combs – wide-tooth to the itty-bitty kind (you know, with the razor thin tail) – lined the edge of the bathroom sink. The plastic shower cap, or sometimes large plastic baggie, sat next to whichever towel I picked out of the linen closet, as the hair trinity – shampoo, conditioner and oil treatment – awaited the first turn of the faucet.
“C’mon, Jen,” my mom shouted from the bathroom doorway. I’d slowly turn the corner from the living room, toward her voice.
With the growth of the natural hair movement and the advancement of products designed for natural hair, wash day has become a widely-searched term on Google in part due to the countless blogs, articles and YouTube videos centering this vital weekly/bi-weekly ritual. It’s equally as popular across social media platforms, displaying photos, reels and shortened-videos of the lengthy hair care process. Decades after the heart of my childhood wash days, it’s beautiful to see afro-textured hair and tight coils get the love they so rarely received as I came of age. Although I dreaded wash day, the care my mother poured into this regular routine taught me to appreciate my tightly-coiled, textured hair.
While the local beauty supply store was filled with its own magic, the kitchen is where a special alchemy occurred. Household essentials, like eggs, and condiments, like mayonnaise, got whipped in a bowl, placed on parted hair to restore nutrients, and washed out within 30 minutes. Though I could do without the pungent smell, mom, who got the tip from abuela and our lineage’s foremothers, knew the divination the simple recipe held.
When it was time to wash my ‘fro, she’d turn the nozzle, sticking her hand under the spout to ensure the temperature was just right. After switching from spout to the hand-held shower spray — a wash-day gem — she’d douse my entire head with warm water. As I kneeled over the bathroom tub, my mother would instruct me to close my eyes, so soapy water wouldn’t splash into them. I didn’t always listen, falling victim to the sting the suds brought on. Still, she’d patiently wait for me to stop fidgeting and complete massaging my scalp, then combing and washing my hair.
One wash day, I burst into tears.
I was beginning to realize the difference between hair textures. Unlike a few of my friends, a blowdryer wasn’t going to straighten my hair; that would require both a blowdryer and a hot comb. Also, there was no slicking my hair back entirely — unless I wanted kinks to start popping out at random. I mean, Jam! could only do so much. Crema, or relaxer, was growing in popularity among my girlfriends and I started longing for straight hair. My mother calmed me down, explaining to me that my hair was beautiful and that when I got older I could consider a relaxer. But, for now, our wash day would remain as is. She even referenced her own curly ‘fro, which was chemically straightened at the time, and how she proudly wore it in perfectly-parted puffs.
She’d share other stories with me as she masterfully gathered my hair into a braided style: bangs with plaits to the back, a crown, cornrows, two ponytails, maybe more; an updo — the options were endless. Bright Bo bo’s, or plastic barrettes, on the tops and/or ends of my braids sealed the deal. I can still smell De La Cruz’s sweet almond oil that mom would use to lock in moisture.
As I got older, transitioning from a girl to a teen, wash day took on a new form because I relaxed my hair. I swapped American Pride and Ultra Sheen for Mizani, and Emergencia here and there. However, when I transitioned (not once, but twice) in my early twenties, I reconnected with my tight coils and the hair care routine that nurtured me on Sundays. The time period between my first and second big chop — even many years after — was spent relearning and discovering my curl pattern. Not my heat damaged pattern, but my actual texture.
Similar to my childhood wash days, the time and care I dedicate to my hair continue to affirm my tight coils. They’re beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade the versatility or soft strength of my texture for any other. From the hot oil treatment I massage into my scalp to the twisting butter I smooth into my hair as I two-strand twist it, wash days are long but they continue to remind me of the self-love ritual started decades ago in my family’s Bronx apartment. Now, I rinse and repeat — with my own twist, of course.