As a young, tender-headed child, Emmanuelle Eugene despised being placed in the shower or hoisted over a sink to have her hair washed by her mother.
Now 21-years-old and in her last semester of the Neuroscience and Behavior program at FAU, she treats the time dedicated to maintaining her curls, affectionately named ‘wash day,’ as a moment to catch her breath when she needs it the most.
“It’s a whole event,” Eugene says, “I don’t measure how long it takes, I measure it in how many playlists I go through.”
From start to finish, Eugene’s wash day takes about nine hours, but the process varies from person to person. Some buy products from brands like Cantu and Camille Rose Naturals; others make their products from scratch using raw ingredients. Either way, wash day holds a meaning for Black people across the diaspora that stretches far beyond hair.
Before a drop of water touches her scalp, Eugene sets the mood for her wash day by selecting her favorite Spotify playlists and lighting one of her favorite three-wick candles from Bath and Body Works.
“Wash day isn’t as glamourous as people think. It tends to be mundane, so having a playlist, jamming to it and not having a care at the moment makes it fun,” says Eugene.
The routine adapts to how Eugene feels at the time. Today’s playlist consists of acoustic hits and power ballads from the likes of Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Leon Bridges, but previous wash days have featured television shows, inspirational YouTube videos, and an audio recording of the Bible.
Once the atmosphere is set, Eugene is ready to start her pre-treatment of Bentonite Clay and Apple Cider Vinegar. She mixes both on a paper plate with a plastic spoon, scooping it with her fingers and lathering it onto wet strands of hair.
“It helps to soften the hair, and it helps to maintain the curl pattern. Some people use it as a shampoo, but I prefer to use it as a pre-treatment.” says Eugene.
The treatment takes about an hour to apply, and another thirty minutes to set. During this time, Eugene has a bite to eat before finishing small chores around the dorm.
Hair has always been an essential part of Black cultural and racial identity across the globe. In the 60s and 70s, wearing a natural Afro become a symbol for Black pride and political freedom. As more individuals have begun to embrace their kinks and curls, Black hair has become a prime target for racist polices seeking to dictate what kind of hair is deemed ‘acceptable’ in the academic and professional space.
For Eugene, wash day is a reminder of the effort it takes to taken seriously by peers. “You might be able to take a 15-minute shower, put [your hair] in a messy bun and go to work. I cannot do that. I have to take into careful consideration how people see me,” says Eugene.
The pressure to meet societal standards of beauty and professionalism have taken their toll on the way Eugene presents herself.
“I personally don’t do very many hairstyles with a lot of volume because that is going to make me seem like I don’t take care of my hair.” says Eugene, referencing the way bigger, fuller hair tends to frizz over time. “Even though our hair, to some people, might look unkempt, that unkempt hairstyle took three hours to do.”
Once the clay mixture has set, Eugene rinses it out section by section, and follows it up with a hot shower and a thorough shampoo. Then, she slips on her favorite house robe to deep condition her tresses.
Eugene says many misconceptions around natural hair upkeep and maintenance are rooted in ignorance. “Knowing somebody’s perspective makes you appreciate things more. Even if you don’t appreciate it, at least you understand, it’s not just, ‘she comes with in her head looking crazy.’ That’s an actual style, and it takes time,” she says.
Before she begins detangling her hair, Eugene plucks a couple Q-tips and uses them to clean her combs, tooth by tooth. Again, she splits her hair into sections and coats each one with a generous amount of leave-in conditioner. By now, she’s been working with her hair for just over five hours, and still has several steps to go.
While many would rather sit in a professional salon or have a family member do their hair for them, doing her own hair has taught Eugene the importance of patience, individuality, and pride.
“Learning about my hair has taught me that I have a lot to learn about myself,” Eugene says, “I’m learning more and more to accept my hair for what it is, and to appreciate the fact that I get to do my hair like this, because some people have had their hair taken away from them.”
After she’s conditioned her hair, Eugene braids the sections into smaller twists with a Cantu curling cream and a bottle of castor oil. It’s meticulous and tedious work, but Eugene stopped seeing it as a chore long ago.
“To whom much is given, much is required, so I like to think of it that way,” Eugene says, “Because I have this much hair, this is what I have to do to protect it, make it look nice and take care of it.”
When the hair is all twisted, oiled, and conditioned, Eugene steps into the bathroom mirror for the last step before wrapping her twists up for the night- blow drying.
By the end of the nearly nine hour process, Eugene’s neck hurts from holding her head back and to the sides, and her hands ache from hours of running through her hair.
She’s tired, but it’s worth it.
“To see the amount of time and effort and work that went into achieving a style, and it actually turns out good?” said Eugene, “That makes me feel accomplished and it makes me feel good about myself.”