On February 4, Louisiana-based TikToker Tessica Brown posted a video showing the world that her hair had been stuck in the same, slicked-down ponytail style for a month. Her hair, almost like an action figure's, was fused completely to her scalp after she substituted a can of Gorilla Glue Spray for her usual Got 2b Glued Blasting Freezing Spray — an actual hairspray — to finish off the sleek style. At that point, Brown says she'd washed her hair 15 times and it absolutely wouldn't budge. Her edges, which as many Black women can attest are quick to come undone with the most minimal disruption, showed no sign of loosening, even as she rubbed her hands over the area. Her carefully sculpted swoops were frozen in time, an unpleasant reminder of the mistake she had made.
In the video, Brown's large, round eyes are heavily lined and her mile-long lashes curve up and out to the side — her makeup is reminiscent of the '60s glamour Diana Ross exuded. It's clear that she is a woman who invests in her appearance. "Stiff where?" she asks, invoking that now-viral internet meme of a young girl playing in a bob wig. "My hair," she responds, her voice swelling with matter-of-fact exasperation.
Brown posted a second video of her applying shampoo to her hair and wiping it off with a washcloth to illustrate the dire straits she's in. "You wipe it off and nothing happens. This is the life I'm living at this point," she explains, her voice breaking as she holds back tears. Her anxiety is palpable and was certainly felt by folks watching on the internet. "The stress that this is causing ME," a comment below her second video reads. "It's been 4 hours and I'm more concerned about this than my actual job," another person wrote. Chance the Rapper took to Twitter to express his concern for Brown. "When I watched the video the second time it was hard to laugh cause I could tell shorty genuinely didn't know she had put one of the worlds most powerful adhesives in her shit," he wrote. "I hope she recovers well."
By Friday, February 5, Brown provided us with an update: "I put coconut and tea tree oil on it and put a plastic on it," in hopes that the natural remedy would be enough to break down the man-made chemicals that had her follicles and strands in a vise. No luck. On Sunday, Brown posted a video montage of her being attended to by an ER nurse, which cut to her sister, clad in plastic gloves, applying acetone on a cotton swab to her hair. Brown later said that the nurse told her the process of getting the hair unstuck would take at least 20 hours. And with that information, Brown said that she preferred to do it at home rather than take up a hospital bed. So she went back to her house with a silo of acetone and sterile water.
I watched Brown wince in a YouTube video as her sister, explaining that some of the cotton had already gotten stuck in her hair, applied the acetone. I had flashbacks of my days getting relaxers, feeling that more-intense-than-usual burn of its chemicals on my scalp. The kind of burn you know will leave a crumbly scab later. Her face contorting in pain is the same face that I made when, after washing out said relaxer and sitting under the hooded dryer for an hour or more, the stylist, armed with a round brush and a blow-dryer, came way too close with heat that was way too high, right on that tender, freshly chemically burned area.
While Brown's situation is far more serious, more like a freak accident, the general feeling behind it is all too relatable. "Imma try for it not to burn so much, so that's why we got the water soaking," her sister says. After a few swipes, Brown is frantically waving her hands, signaling to her sister to go in with the water to ease the burning. She wipes her tearing eyes with a corner of her charcoal-gray zip-up hoodie.
On Monday, February 8, Brown did a call-in interview on Toronto's Kiss 92.5 Roz & Mocha Show to update us all. She said she was feeling "a little better." She spoke a bit about what her hair felt like when the glue started to set. "My ponytail kept getting tighter and tighter." She says she didn't know what to do after a month of trying to wash out the glue and that's why she went to social media. Of course, she "felt a type of way" about the ridicule she was getting for her mistake. But the clowning has since largely turned into concern. Brown isn't even able to shave her hair off. "You can't even get a razor under there." Not that she wants to. She expressed that she still hopes she can get her hair unstuck without having to buzz it.
The video of her trying to loosen her strands brings up a question I've asked myself time and time again: Why do Black women have to go through so much pain to style their hair? It's more than just a little burn from a hot comb or someone getting a little too vigorous when they're detangling — it's the sparse hairline that comes with laying your edges too often. It's the breakage Black models say they have suffered over the years due to hairstylists who don't know how to work with their hair texture. It's the preliminary studies that suggest the chemicals in relaxers could affect Black women's physical health. All this in the name of fitting a beauty standard that was not made with us in mind.
Laid edges, at this point, are pretty much a tried-and-true art form of Black hair. It's a testament to the creative prowess of our community. While the style is often perceived differently when seen on a Black person (as opposed to a non-Black social media influencer copying the look), it is a technique that is has become a tradition of Black people, particularly in the Western world. It is also one that can come at a cost. While having sleek, slicked-down hair that is "in place" can be an innocuous style choice (one that I, too, have chosen for myself), it's no secret it's a look that takes a lot more effort to achieve when you have naturally Afro-textured hair. You know, the hair type that has for centuries been dismissed as unattractive, unprofessional, or something so tempting to white men, it should be covered up. It is a standard and a mindset that many Black people have unconsciously internalized, whether it's an aunt telling you to straighten your hair before a job interview to increase your chances of getting hired, or it's Chris Brown proudly proclaiming in a song that he only likes Black women (not the word he used) with "nice hair."
For hundreds of years, Black people have been hurting themselves with lye, hot combs, and myriad other tools and chemicals to get their hair to do what it ultimately doesn't want to do. Our hair doesn't lay down for a reason, yet we have been told it is only acceptable if it does. Acceptable to whom? Why do we recoil at fuzzy edges or the tight little coils that spring up at the back of our head when we sweat out our straightened kinks? Those features are ours.
Black women have come very far in embracing their natural textures but, at least to me, it's clear that many of us are still holding on to living up to a standard that excludes us. Early in the pandemic, in March of 2020 at the height of the "Don't Rush" challenge, I noticed that many (obviously, not all!) of the Black women who revealed their "glam" looks didn't wear their natural hair. They were clinging to stick-straight wigs or ones with looser textures than the kinks that were underneath. And again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with playing with wigs when you want a different look, but the dearth of kinky hair in the big, glam reveals signaled to me that perhaps many of us still aren't associating our natural textures with high glamour and beauty.
Black women should be able to do whatever they want with their hair, but there comes a time where it's important for us to examine what is behind achieving the looks we desire, and if it's even worth it. The price we have to pay is all too high. Yes, slicked-down hair can be a look, but is it worth going through what Brown is going through if you slip up and use the wrong product? Do our baby hairs need to be finessed when we pull them into a puff or topknot? Why don't we see more people embracing the fluffy texture at the base of a high puff? Perhaps without those pressures to conform to an impossible standard, poor Ms. Brown would be enjoying a nice, deep conditioner today, as opposed to dousing her hair in burning chemicals just to get it loose from the bonds of Gorilla Glue.
My heart goes out to Brown and to all the Black women who have had their hair laid within an inch of its life. Though I enjoy a blowout every once in a while, there are too many times when trying to get Black hair to do something it naturally doesn't want to do can have serious effects on our bodies. It is painful to see that manifest itself in such a heartbreaking way as it has with Ms. Brown.
Sending you, my dear Tessica, love and light. I cannot wait for you to get to the point where you can give your hair some much-needed pampering.