Hair-Care Tips

What Scalp Care Taught Me About Love

Kui Mwai

When I look back on my childhood, I rarely think of the big moments or milestones that traditionally mark growing up. I barely remember my first day of Kindergarten or the first time I rode a bike. I couldn’t tell you anything meaningful about my middle school graduation or my first dance recital. Those moments, while important in their own right, aren’t what I take away from that time, nor are they the reason I am who I am today.

It’s the small and quiet moments—the ones that happen on warm, lazy Sunday afternoons and calm school nights before bed. For me, those moments are in fierce focus. I remember the glorious width of my Mom’s smile when we’d sing Shania Twain on the way to early morning volleyball practices. I remember the sweet tangy taste of the vanilla ice cream my Dad and I would get to celebrate minor academic achievements. I even remember the loose-lipped giggles I would share with my beloved preschool boyfriend Sebastian as we watched Barney and Friends on VHS. These moments—along with the millions of others like them—make up a kaleidoscope that is core to who I am.

One of those childhood moments is particularly special: Growing up, I only saw my extended family once a year. The majority of them lived—and still live—in Kenya, the country of my ethnicity. My parents were born and raised in the Nairobi area, and in the 1980s, alongside many of their peers, they made the impossibly brave decision to immigrate to America. Because of my Dad’s job, we lived all over the world. I’ve called New York, London, Virginia, Nairobi, Paris, and Washington, D.C. home at one point, and each of those places holds a piece of me.

No matter where we were living, though, we made it a point to see our family in Kenya. I loved going to Kenya. Though it meant I was trading an extra month of summer for one of cold, I couldn’t wait to play with my cousins, whom I never got to see. I also loved experiencing how my parents changed when we went back to Kenya. They were more at ease in Nairobi and, particularly in my Mom, I saw a flash of who they were in their youth. I now realize how extraordinary that was. Seeing your parents almost revert to their more carefree younger selves is an extremely special thing, and has played a big role in how I understand happiness.

My mom would caress the legs of her family-member-turned-hair-dresser with the utmost love, while they laughed exchanging their own childhood memories and secrets.

Of all the wonderful opportunities that came with visiting Kenya, watching the women in my family oil each other’s hair was the best. I was mesmerized by the sight of my Mom sitting on the floor, knees tight to her chest like a child, while her head was carefully moved from side to side and up and down. With a small wooden comb, my grandmother, aunt, or fellow cousin, would meticulously separate her hair, revealing a perfectly straight line of exposed brown scalp. From a glob of thick (and if I’m being honest, potent) hair oil, she’d put some on her forefinger and run it across the line of her scalp. My mom would caress the legs of her family-member-turned-hair-dresser with the utmost love, while they laughed exchanging their own childhood memories and secrets.

This is my first recollection of understanding love. By virtue of my “non-traditional” childhood, there was always distance—physical and metaphorical—between me and my family. Though I adored them, I always felt like an outsider. There was and remains a disconnect between me, my family, and my heritage. It almost felt like it’s wasn’t totally mine and out of reach.

Love makes you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. Seeing that at a young age has played a big role in the way I take care of myself and my loved ones.

But watching this scalp oiling, and participating in it myself, I felt like I was a part of my family. In such a small moment, togetherness and unity were solidified and undeniable. That’s what love, in all its forms, means to me. It shows itself to be true in intimate and vulnerable moments of care. It’s an exchange, a simultaneous binding of soul, spirit, and body. Love makes you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. Seeing that at a young age has played a big role in the way I take care of myself and my loved ones.

Whenever I’m stressed, my go-to is to break out my hair oil and comb and give my scalp some much-needed attention. I feel the stress melt away as I attend to the sensitive areas and complete my task by wrapping my hair in a silk scarf. Whenever my mom is feeling anxious, I grab her favorite cream and carefully work my way through her hair. I watch her close her eyes and escape her problems almost instantly. It’s the best way to show her I care, I’m here, and I love her.

When I look back at my childhood, I think of the small quiet moments that introduced me to love.

The meticulous tenderness of oiling a loved one’s hair is a mighty example of Black love. It’s intentional, intimate, and thorough. It’s groomed me and taught me that love can transcend time and, most importantly, is always accessible.

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