Power puffs and Black hair care

A story of interracial adoption and Black hair care

Story by HANNAH CARLSON

Braids, beads, twists, puffs, and knots are some of 7-year-old Eme’s go-to hairstyles. “Lately, she’s been on a puffs kick though, now calling them her power puffs,” said Brooke Larsen, Eme’s adoptive mother. “It melts me every time.”

Eme was born to African American parents in Harrison County, Texas. At 3 months old, she was willfully and anonymously surrendered by her biological mother to a nearby fire station. Eme was soon thereafter transported to a local hospital, where she was found by medical experts to be a very healthy and bubbly baby, Brooke said in a Zoom interview.

In 2017, the state of Texas granted the Larsens foster care privileges over Eme. She was 3 years old at the time and was soon nicknamed by the Larsen family “Eme” to honor her birth name, Demetria.

Through the Children’s Service Society of Utah program, the Larsens had previously adopted three children at birth. They share a biological mother, and each has a different biological father. Claire, 17, and Daphne, 15, are both of white descent. Lucas, 12, is of Mexican American descent.

Brooke recalled seeing Eme in person for the first time. “She had a full head of hair, I was absolutely shocked by it. Her hair was styled into about a dozen or so little knots.”

Two days after meeting Eme, Brooke and her husband, Scott, flew home to Salt Lake City with the 3-year-old in their arms. The couple was elated to introduce her to their older children and Maltese Terrier, Tiny.

“After a few days of being home, I noticed her (Eme’s) hair getting a little less neat, and it looked like it could use a bit of TLC,” Brooke said. “After I sent the older kids off to school I took Eme’s knots out of her hair thinking I’d give her hair a wash and put them back in. It didn’t work out too great.”

After trying to recreate the hairstyle, Brooke described Eme’s newly knotted as a “frightening sight.”

“I learned quickly that I couldn’t treat Eme’s hair like my older girl’s [straight] hair. I didn’t have the correct education or supplies to do it,” Brooke said. “I felt like I had failed her already.”

According to the Andre Walker Hair Typing System, Eme’s hair type fits under type 4B due to her tightly coiled and dense “z” curls. When dry, type 4B hair can appear as much as 70% shorter due to the tightness of each curl. Textured hair like Eme’s is highly susceptible to dryness and breakage without proper care.

After watching countless YouTube videos and attempting a few different protective hairstyles, Brooke and Scott Larsen were still not pleased with their work on Eme’s hair. The next morning, Scott suggested they call Clara “C.C.” Campbell, a young African Caribbean woman and close family friend.

“The second C.C. heard of Eme coming home with us she offered to help however she could. She used to be our babysitter when Claire and Daphne were younger,” explained Scott in a Zoom interview. “But I don’t think she had hairdressing in mind when she originally offered her help.”

The Larsens were in a particular hurry to get Eme’s hair in better condition, as they were expecting family members from out of town to meet Eme for the first time. The family was also going to have family portraits taken during the reunion. Brooke said she feared that her daughter’s hair would be a “dry and tangled mess” for their first-ever family photo.

“I shuddered at the thought of her having to look back on those photos one day,” Brooke said.

“Honestly, the twists Eme had in when she first came over weren’t so bad,” said C.C. in a Zoom interview. “Although, I could see that her overall level of haircare was lacking and probably had been for a long time.”

Hair braids are a common protective hairstyle used on children. Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unplash.

Within a few days of reaching out to C.C., Brooke and Eme were able to go to C.C.’s home for a short hair lesson. The first hairstyle to tackle was, of course, the bandeau twists.

Due to a significant amount of visible damage to Eme’s hair, C.C. said she was suspicious that Eme’s previous foster parents didn’t know how to properly care for Eme’s hair either.

“Not knowing how to do something at first is nothing to be ashamed of, though,” C.C. said. “It’s hard for anyone to learn something new. Hair or otherwise.”

During the next few months, Brooke and Eme often visited C.C. to learn new hairstyles and techniques for the girl’s hair. C.C. also referred Brooke and Eme to her local hairdresser who specializes in Black women’s hair.

Brooke now follows a tailored hair care routine to tackle Eme’s tight curls. The routine comprises plenty of conditioners, detangling, and a great deal of patience from both Brooke and Eme.

Eme’s hairdresser recommends that Brooke only wash and wet condition Eme’s hair once a week in order to reduce dryness. They commonly call this “wash day” or “hair day” in the Larsen household — one that Eme doesn’t seem to adore. “She despises hair day,” Scott said. “It’s usually met with tears. She’d much rather be out playing with her siblings instead of held up in the bathroom with Brooke.”

Every wash day, Eme receives a deep conditioning treatment of jojoba oil and a 30-minute wait under a warm towel. Every morning and evening, Eme’s hair is wetted with water and leave-in conditioner before her hair is brushed free of tangles. At night, Eme sleeps with a silk hair wrap to reduce hair damage caused by friction.

“Eme used to sleep with just a silk pillowcase,” Brooke said. “She didn’t understand why she had to wear one (a wrap) when Claire and Daphne didn’t. Now she loves them and looks forward to picking new ones out.”

Brooke estimates that she spends nearly 10 hours a month styling and caring for Eme’s tight curls.

“I love caring for Eme’s hair though,” Brooke said. “I’m going to be heartbroken the day she decides she doesn’t want me to help with it anymore. It’s been a meaningful way for us to bond with one another and have a bit of girl talk.”

Brooke and Scott emphasize the importance of hair education among interracial families like theirs.

“Eme’s hair is a major part of her identity and it’s something that she is extremely proud of,” Scott said. “I can see the pride in her eyes every time she shows me her freshly styled curls. She feels beautiful, and she is beautiful.”

Other than maintaining a clean appearance, the Larsens also believe that it’s important to honor Eme’s heritage any way that they can. “Her hair is a critical part of that,” Brooke said.

Eme recently joined a children’s dance class. Before her first recital, the Larsens were given a list of rules to follow when dressing and styling their daughter for the performance. “It included specifications like costume details, what color of bow to wear, and other related things,” Scott said. “One bullet on the list specified that each girl needed to be wearing a ‘single and straight high pony tail’ under the dancer’s bow.”

However, the Larsens found that the dance organization itself outlined that each athlete wear a hairstyle to each recital that looks “natural and age-appropriate” to the dancer.

After a few emails and a face-to-face conversation after a class, the Larsens were able to convince the class’s instructor to allow their daughter to wear a more natural hairstyle. The Larsens expressed no resentment toward the instructor and were instead happy to be a part of an educational discussion.

“We always want Eme to feel comfortable in her natural hair and protective styles,” Brooke said. “We’ve yet to use a curling iron or flat iron on her hair. I don’t want her to ever believe that she needs to trade in her tight curls for looser ones or straightened hair.” The Larsens clarified that Eme has, and will always have, the freedom to style her hair and express herself however she may choose.

“Taking care of Eme’s hair is important,” Brooke said. “As a parent, I have a responsibility to care for all of my children’s hair — straight, wavy, or curly. Scott helps Lucas with his hair every morning before school, and they go to the barber together every six weeks or so. I still occasionally help the older girls if they need it.”

Brooke expressed appreciation to all the Black women who jumped to her aid in caring for Eme’s hair.

“C.C. and Eme’s hairdresser have been a huge blessing to us ever since we’ve brought Eme home from Texas,” Brooke said. “I’ve even met women at the beauty supply store who have offered their advice to me.”

While Brooke can now manage Eme’s hair on her own, she still recognizes the importance of  Eme having her hair done by other Black women. “I still take Eme to C.C.’s here and there to get her hair done,” Brooke said. “They adore each other, and I am grateful for the role model that C.C. is to Eme. She’s a great role model to all of our children.”

Eme also sees her hairdresser regularly to get her hair trimmed and styled.

In late 2018, Eme was officially adopted into the Larsen family as their fourth child. During Eme’s adoption hearing, she wore what she calls her “power puffs,” a middle part and an Afro puff on each side.

A hairstyle resembling a single “power puff.” Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash.

A year later, Eme would wear a power puff to her first ever cheer competition.

“Eme’s power puffs started as a fun nickname, originally making reference to the popular children’s cartoon,” Scott said. “However, now they really are her power puffs. They give her a sense of power and fierce confidence that nobody will ever be able to shake from her.”

The Larsens urge all adoptive parents who aren’t educated in the proper care of their child’s hair type to seek guidance. They recommended consulting with a specialized hairdresser, utilizing informed friends or family members, and doing online research through online communities and YouTube channels like Sekora and Safari.

“It truly takes a village,” Brooke said. “I’m beyond grateful for ours.”