My Afro Does Not Fit into My Bike Helmet: The Adventures of a [Black] Vegan Hero

Dr. Amie Breeze Harper posing to show her new Vegan Hero Cape after receiving an Unsung Vegan Hero Award for 2015 from the Pollination Project

“Screw it, I’m just going to shave it all off and go bald!”

This is the first thing I think of after my first few days of work at my new position within the University of California system in October of 2015.

Upon accepting a position within the Equity and Inclusion division at UC Berkeley, I decided that I would commute to work by bicycle on the Ohlone Greenway bike (see it here) and pedestrian path. I was super psyched!

And then I started thinking, “So, how does this look in terms of making myself presentable for work? How do I shove 4 years worth of afro growth into a bike helmet without needing to straighten it? Do I want to spend 15 minutes, once I get to work, trying to make my hair look like I am a professional Black woman?” (Yes, that last italicized section is a loaded term with an entire history and scholarly canon dedicated to it! Check this book out.)

The first day I arrive at work, after peddling up the hill for 20 minutes, I am sweaty. My hair is sweaty, naturally, because I exercised intensely. It kind of sucks. So, the story kind of goes like this….

I lock my bike, grab my bike bags and dash into my new building to find the closest bathroom. I remove my Deuter travel cosmetics bag, unzip, and remove my arsenal of vegan hair care products and tools:

  1. Afro pick
  2. Castor Oil
  3. Hard bristle brush
  4. Soft bristle brush
  5. Shea butter
  6. Alaffia Leave in Conditioner
  7. Hair bands
  8. Jojoba Oil
  9. Wide tooth comb
  10. Homemade spray bottle of glycerin, water, and essential oil of Lemon Balm (to spritz on my hair to mask the ‘sweaty’ smell).

I look at the arsenal, think for several seconds about my game plan, and then grab the leave-in conditioner and wide tooth comb. I lather the leave-in condition into my hair, wait 3 minutes for it to ‘set in’, and then start combing through it with the wide tooth comb. 2 minutes later I’m brushing everything back and wondering if I should put it in an afro puff or put it into two neatly tied back braids.

My mind scrambles: “Can’t I just go ‘natural’ or is it too ‘unprofessional’ my first day of work?Well, it is the division of Equity and Inclusion, so would they care if I busted out a big afro?”

I ask myself if  I should I scope around the building later today to see what the other Black women are doing about their ‘professional appearance’…or, have I internalized the trauma of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ so much that I am driving myself nuts over something that is no longer a big issue? (Of course I’ve internalized it! Have you not noticed that decades long images in the USA mainstream showing ‘professional’ and ‘beautiful’ hair appearances that are straightened hair? )

I decide on putting a part down the middle of my scalp and then making two braids and then tie them back-

–shoot, I forget that I should have added the castor oil which help with ‘fly away’ hair (what’s so bad about ‘fly away’ anyway?). I roll my eyes, huff with annoyance, and then un-braid the whole thing, smother castor oil on my palms, and then massage it throughout my entire afro. A drop falls onto my shirt. Shit, this stuff does not come out! I think.

I grab a paper towel and dab it as quickly as possible– too late. I now have a quarter size spot of castor oil on my shirt.

Someone enters the bathroom and I quickly wonder to myself, “I have all these products and tools laid out and my hair is half done as castor oil drops down my forehead. Great, freaking first impression, Dr. Amie Breeze Harper. Do they wonder what they hell I’m even doing here?”

I remind myself to comb and braid my hair quickly, before the leave in conditioner starts drying.

After 5 minutes, my hair is done and I have wiped away all the castor oil that was near my forehead and hairline. I worry that perhaps my hair looks too greasy and the the castor oil will leak down my neck.

I look at the size L helmet I have on the shelf near the mirror. The inside is glistening with the olive oil I had already put on my hair from last night, before going to bed. It’s a ‘large’ helmet and I can’t even fit my hair in there.

“Amazing, right!? Like, it’s made for people with short hair, fine straight hair, or no hair!” Screams my internal monologue.

Throughout my entire work week, I do this regimen every morning, promising myself that at the end of this first week of work, I will ask my husband to shave the entire thing off…. but the end of the first week comes and I do not shave it off.

Plus, the oils in my hair seem to be degrading the inside structure of the helmet (once again, these helmets are designed with the assumption that people aren’t putting 5lbs of shea butter and other oils in their hair, each year! LOL)

I started wondering if I should start a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for helmets that fit big afros, lots of dread locs, etc and don’t fall apart from the inside out if a little yummy shea butter or black castor oil touches it.

[…this kind of reminds me of what I was trying to do when I was younger and wanted to go swimming! Come on, you know I’m not the only one who used to, or still does, plan their public swimming appearance around their hair appearance! LOL]

Despite figuring out that maybe I should wash my hair every day, to make the stinky smell go away from sweating to death while biking up the hill (I’m probably exaggerating about the ‘stinky’ smell of my hair in my own mind), I realize that after week 2 I don’t enjoy trying to wash and condition my hair every day, comb it out, braid it to fit into my helmet, only to get to work and see that the helmet made the hair look ‘funny’ with helmet pad dents imprinted on my hairdo. I end up undoing the braids once I get to work and then combing, brushing, and re-braiding it after to make sure there are no funny ‘dents’ or pieces of hair that have come out of place…then spritz with lemon balm.

(And yea, with 3 kids 6 and under, it’s kind of hard to spend a long time washing and combing through my hair in the shower, braiding it, etc without them bugging me about something they need… because goddess forbid I am given 12 minutes for my own personal hair-care regimen without a 4 year old asking me and then crying if she can have a lollipop for breakfast!)

It’s week 5 of my new job and I have finally decided to stop being angry about this (strange I’d be angry, right? I mean, it’s just long strand keratin , so why get up in a fuss about it and make it central to my bike commute!?) and just accept that it will take me 15 minutes to do my hair, once I get to work…Or maybe I’ll just shave the whole thing off like I did back in 2009 when I was a grad student and not working as a ‘professional’ (what does that mean anyway. Aren’t we all ‘professionals’ if we’re getting paid to work, period?)

See, even unsung vegan heroes have their hair care issues, anxieties, and problems 😉

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Dr. A. Breeze Harper flies away to her next adventure.

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20 thoughts on “My Afro Does Not Fit into My Bike Helmet: The Adventures of a [Black] Vegan Hero

  1. I feel for you. Before my transition, I constantly worried about my hair when I was at work. Now I keep it cut very short, and if I go back to the regular workplace, as a black male my very short hair would be entirely “appropriate” and not even worthy of mention. It’s ridiculous that we should have to be concerned about our appearance more than the quality of our work and character.

    1. I’m thinking it’s more or less “born with straight-hair privilege”, as there are plenty of non-whites who do have straight hair 😉

      I just always think how I put oil in my hair and how it breaks down my bike helmet… I simply get a kick out of that!

      1. As there are “whites” with BIG CURLY hair. I landed on this post while looking, not for a way for my grand-daughter to look good after biking, but for a helmet that would fit her hair! This is a safety issue!

    1. Absolutely not. I used to do that BEFORE I had kids, but now I’m thinking it would kind of suck if I crashed my head into something and left them without a mom. So nope…though I do see plenty of people biking without helmets…often looking at a smartphone! LOL.

    1. I want to add that I feel your pain. I found your article while searching for a helmet for my own big beautiful hair. I have never worn a helmet but I think I will need one since I am considering biking to work every day.

      I laughed out loud at your hair oils degrading the plastic in the helmet. Even the oil that coats your hair is fighting against the tyranny of the bike helmet 🙂

  2. Ha! The trials!

    Just bought a bike today after four years of pining. I don’t intend to cut my hair off so I’m not sure how this is all going to go down. My hair cannot fit in the large helmet either lol. If I lived in a more bike friendly community I probably wouldn’t even care about the helmet.

  3. I am late to the party, but i wear box braids just to avoid dealing with the stress of my hair. I bike 14 miles a day to/from work and it’s a relief not having to worry about my hair at night, though, i miss my curls.

  4. I dearly loved your story. My husband asked me to do research on the best ways to get a horse riding helmet to fit some of our students that have puffy hair. We have had several students that the helmet sits on top of the hair and not on the head no matter how much I braid, oil, tug, push and smush. I wish they come up with a helmet that fits better.

    1. I had the same problem with my horse-riding helmet!! Eventually, I found that the only thing that worked was to saturate my hair with warm water (to weigh it down) and pull it into a very low, tight ponytail. But I agree, it would be fantastic if the helmets would just fit better!

  5. I know this is a few years old…but it is still an issue for people with larger hair (like my dreadlocks) to get a large enough helmet! They make dreadlock swim caps, etc…but it’s often a literal pain to wear my helmet! So, yes, kickstarter still needed!

  6. Brilliantly written and hilarious, I know the helmet struggle too. I love cycling and the lemon balm spritz will be my new go to for when I have a ‘funky’ head day. Thank you, those insights and anecdotes for uplifting a ‘tough’ life for women of colour with ‘tough’ hair.

  7. I know this is an older blog post (thank you for sharing by the way!), but it seems to still be striking a strong cord for fuller/kinky/curly haired folks. As such, I just wanted to let them know about the group BlackGirlsDoBike: They have locations doing local events and general online community. Maybe you or your readers would find this group helpful in learning more tips or recommended products.

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