Quinta Brunson Proves She Is More Than Internet Famous
In an excerpt from her debut essay collection, comedian and actress Quinta Brunson spins a hilarious and heartfelt yarn about Internet fame, Black haircare, and her family kitchen.
When Quinta Brunson sat down to write a book about her journey through viral Internet fame and into Hollywood proper, she immediately knew what she had to do. Drawing inspiration from some of her favorite comedy memoirs like Mindy Kaling’s Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine, the comedian known for her stand-up, short-form video sketches, and sitcom roles put together a collection of essays that could effectively “give a reader somewhere who might need it, a hug through the book,” she told W recently over the phone. “It was especially to do that for young girls, especially young Black girls who are from places like where I’m from.”
She Memes Well, a collection of essays about Brunson’s childhood growing up in Philadelphia, becoming a meme, and her experience of working on her craft in the age of Instagram, was born. In wanting her readers to “feel less alone or embarrassed” in the world, the comedian and actress shares stories both hilarious and heartfelt in the book about her family, opening herself up in a way she never anticipated she would.
In one chapter of She Memes Well titled “Rough Edges,” Brunson shares her anxieties and vulnerabilities around her relationship to her hair, and the response she received online when sharing images of herself with the world. “I talk about getting my hair done in my kitchen and going to the salons, and how the hair journey is so multifaceted and not simple. It goes into who we are as young girls,” she said. “I wanted to show the origins of why edges are important but why it can be hurtful sometimes. That chapter, and a couple of others, are vulnerable—but I wanted to take that risk and be vulnerable for people who would read the book.”
Below, Brunson shares an excerpt from that very section of her forthcoming debut essay collection, She Memes Well.
So, you probably have heard a lot about edges recently. “Edges” refers to the hair at your hairline, and it’s come to mean a few different things in our modern-day lexicon. Basically, if your hair is healthy and full around your hairline, then dammit, it shows that you’re doing well. “My edges are laid” means “I look good.” Or maybe you’ve heard the term “my edges were snatched.” That means you went to a Beyoncé concert and it was so good that your edges and wig are now gone from the brilliance you witnessed. Like most trend-setting phenomena, the edge-specific phrasing came from the Black LGBTQIA community.
I have been immersed in hair culture alongside my two sisters since before I could form memories, but I must say that for most of my life edges never really were a huge part of our conversation. But at some point, probably around 2016, I started hearing about them more and more. “Edges” was trending on Twitter, edges were posted to Instagram, tutorials on how to lay edges were uploaded to YouTube. Even though I felt a little out of the loop when the term first exploded, I welcomed the trend. I thought, Cool, the conversation about Black women and hair has gotten real cute and open. The more conversation, the better.
When I was younger and had permed hair, Jia would take the time to lay down my edges with Murray’s Beeswax, so, keeping up with the trend, I attempted to replicate her techniques. Worked like a charm. Being able to dive hair-first into the edges trend may seem vain or insignificant, but I built myself up on keeping my finger on the manic pulse of the Internet; it felt good to look good and to know what’s good in the Black girl community.
Even though I’m not as physically active as I once was, I’m constantly changing up my hair for different projects, photo shoots, or just plain old fun. That’s the amazing thing about textured hair; it singlehandedly gives Black people the opportunity for rebirth, for evolution, for looking hip, cute, and fly. Black hair is art. It binds our community together. It creates conversation. It creates controversy. It demands skill. It demands patience. It demands respect. So yeah, if my hair is looking good, you know I’m going to post it to Instagram.
One such instance of this is when I posted a side profile of me with two big cornrows going back. I had done my hair myself and was proud of how it looked. If you don’t think it’s that big of a deal, please reread the previous twenty-five paragraphs.
This shit took approximately one Bollywood movie and 1.5 Netflix Comedy Specials to pull off.
I snapped a pic and was pleased with what I saw. My neck looked long and sophisticated, I wore a red lip, and had an American Gothic look on my face. You know that stern, “I am above it all” look that gives off an air of strength? That’s the vibe I had. Joke’s on me because I was not above it. I was not above it at all.
After I posted the photo, a bunch of nice comments rolled in about how pretty I was, and how other people would be trying to do the same braids. Then I saw it. The comment. This was before I learned that scrolling through comments is like playing emotional Russian roulette; most of them are filled with empty validation, and then there’s always the one bullet that tears through the confident facade you’ve spent so much time building.
“Where are her edges? She doesn’t have any,” it read. Now let me tell you, I’ve since had way worse comments than this one. I mean, just the other week someone wrote, “That cat is not cute,” on a photo of me cuddling Jack.* But this comment came at a time when I was just starting to get attention on the internet. Before, my Instagram followers were mostly friends and former classmates who showered me with the familiar kindness that comes with knowing what a person looks like IRL. This comment was from the first negative stranger (of many) I’d encounter on the internet. And so, it stuck.
Not only did it stick, but it stung. No edges? What did that even mean? Everyone has edges! I decided to investigate the photo. This was before Instagram allowed pinch-zooming in, so I had to take a screenshot and then blow up the screenshot.
I squinted at my hairline and realized my edges were really thin. I ran to a mirror for a real-life look, and boom. There it was, or, I guess I should say, there it wasn’t—my edges were considerably insignificant compared to the rest of my thick hair.
Growing up with Jia and Kiyana literally hovering over my head, I’d always felt like I had all the tools to take care of my hair. Everything to make sure my hair looked on its game all.the.damn.time. Having good hair was always my thing. This comment ruined me. I was spiraling. I FaceTimed Jia.
“Heyyyy.” Her face filled my screen.
“WHAT IS WRONG WITH MY EDGES,” I yelled, shoving the phone into my forehead.
Despite being a professional hairstylist, Jia also hadn’t heard “edges” discussed much before that year. She was so used to seeing all different types of heads that she didn’t really think about there being a “correct” way to wear one’s hair — a very comforting stance when you feel like you’re going bald.
Jia managed to calm me down and give me advice on how to fill out my edges: namely using Jamaican Black Castor Oil on my hairline, which is thick as molasses and boosts regrowth. I vowed to do anything to get my edges to come back, even if it meant ruining a few pillows in the process.
After getting off the phone with Jia, I immediately deleted the photo. I know that you’re not supposed to let the haters get to you, but I’m human and I’m vulnerable. I grew up in a society and an industry that consistently reminds me that I am outside the norm. I am other. I don’t look how I’m supposed to (which is: four popsicle sticks jammed into a Slim Jim). So yeah, the comment hurt my feelings, and so I took down the photo so I didn’t have to think about it. I’m confident, I love myself, but I still waver. Everyone does.
And on I went with the nightly head slatherings, hoping for growth. During the great castor oil regrowth experiment, I vowed to no longer wear my hair in a way that might show I didn’t have any edges; I put that shit on lockdown until the situation improved. No luck. A few months in, it became clear that the oil wasn’t working, so I spent a whole day researching and buying up every single product that the bloggers told me to get: walnut oil, hair growth serums, even a derma roller (which is basically a little contraption with spikes that jam into your follicles). My bathroom was overflowing with masochistic machines and expensive goo, none of which worked.
It was time to get scientific about it. I googled “why don’t I have edges?” and down the rabbit hole I hopped, until I found an article describing something called “traction alopecia.” Definition: “A form of gradual hair loss caused primarily by pulling force being applied to the hair. This commonly results from the sufferer frequently wearing their hair in a particularly tight ponytail, pigtails, or braids.” BRAIDS. Bingo.
I shut my laptop and stared at the wall. Flashes of my childhood flitted through my brain. There I was doing a backflip on the football field, my micros brushing the ground. There I was at the pool, stretching a swim cap over my cornrows. There I was sitting in the red pleather chair of the Ethiopian hair salon getting individuals installed.
The very thing that saved me during my active younger years had robbed me of being able to shine on Instagram. I grew furious. Furious at my hair, at my younger self, at everyone who had ever braided it, at the internet. I was ready to punch something. It was poetic injustice! Janet Jackson would be pissed.
What sucked most was it didn’t seem like there was much I could do to get my edges back. From my research, it looked like the damage was permanent. But this knowledge didn’t deter me from trying. I continued buying the creams, serums, and oils — I even began looking into platelet-rich plasma therapy, a procedure where you get your own platelets injected into your damn scalp to stimulate regrowth. Sorry! I know this is terrible! I just wanted to at least be able to wear a ponytail without a fear of shaming!
The only thing I could do was prevent further damage, and the only way I could do that was to stop wearing braids. So, I did. But it was beyond hard. I felt like I was limiting myself by not being able to throw my hair back into an easy updo. Braids meant I could make videos without worrying about needing to spend hours on hair prep; they allowed me to roll out of bed and start the day as soon as my feet hit the ground. I even exercised more when I had braids in.
Months went by since “the comment” and I settled into a life of twist-outs and headscarves. The same rotating cast of hairstyles over and over. No rebirth. No evolution. No looking hip, cute, and fly. Then, I decided to book a trip to Hawaii.
As I envisioned days filled with white sand and clear water, I kept coming back to braids — how good they’d look, how easy they’d be! The more I tried to push the thought out of my head, the louder it got. I was like an addict, struggling with something that I knew wasn’t good for me, but craving the immediate gratification. I wanted to look cute and have maintenance-free hair on vacation.
So, I broke and got braids for the trip. I Ubered down to an African braiding salon in the middle of Hollywood and sank into the familiarity of the cushy chairs and Bollywood films. As the braider tugged at my hair, I asked her not to braid too tightly around my edges, because I was attempting to grow them back.
“Mmm,” she acknowledged my request, but I knew it was kind of a moot point. Braids have to be done in a way that is secure, so that they don’t, say, fall out and embarrass you while on a plane with a bunch of confused white people and other Black people who will pray for you, but also be ashamed. But still, I figured, no harm in asking.
My trip was amazing. I swam and swam and swam. I biked. I hiked. And after a full day of sweat-inducing activities, I was able to go to a luau looking like a princess. Thank you, braids. Bless you. I won’t care about my edges thanks to your goodness, I thought to myself.
When I got back to LA, and subsequently back to reality, I immediately took my braids out, hoping that if I took them out early enough it’d be easier on my hairline. I was wrong. The hair around my edges was coming out in small clumps, leaving them thinner than before.
I was devastated. I scrutinized my hair in the mirror, I-told-you-so-ing myself the whole time. When I went to go get the braids, I knew this would be the outcome, but I did it anyway. That’s the thing about me: I have one side that whimsically does things pretending I don’t know the outcome, and another smug Princeton-professor logical-scientist Black-mother side that’s like “hypothesis was correct, experiment complete, and yes, you are a dumb bitch.”
I went back to the regrowing drawing board, this time buying more products and being a bit more vigorous with my plan to change things. I dedicated time on the weekends to caring for my hair and my edges in a way I hadn’t done before. It was a whole process. I deep conditioned with the hopes of making my hair stronger and revitalizing my scalp, I used peppermint and castor oils just the way the girls on YouTube did, I soaked my scalp in oils before bed, and used a massager to make sure they really got into my pores. Still, it didn’t work. My edges were snatched, and not by Beyoncé.
In the midst of all of this, I began to do some budgeting. In order to have a successful and sustainable career, I realized, I needed to organize my finances rather than spending blindly like I had been. This meant looking into my spending for the years prior. I accounted for everything from clothing (boy, did I help ASOS thrive) and eating out (boy, did I help the entire RESTAURANT industry thrive) to beauty, where I was hit by a hard truth: I had spent a grand total of five hundred bucks just trying to grow my edges back. That may not be a lot of money to some, but to many, that’s something significant. Half a thousand dollars could feed someone’s family for a month, change the lives of the less fortunate, get someone back on their feet. And I know all this mainly because I’ve been in those vulnerable positions, where five hundred bucks was a golden ticket out of a bad situation.
As I looked at that five hundred number in the spreadsheet, my brain exploded with questions: Why was I spending so much on something I hadn’t cared about before 2014? Was it really that big of an issue? Did I care about my image too much? Most importantly, why was I letting one Instagram comment start to control how I saw myself? My hair didn’t put me in this position, my brain did. And so, in that moment, I told myself to stop resenting the way my hair grows or doesn’t grow. I decided to be proud of where my edges came from, and to be proud of the braids that created them.
Because of my braids, I learned to be brave and fearless, I learned how to push my body beyond what I thought it could do. I did backflips and dance routines, I ran, I hiked, and I jumped into oceans. For that, I’m grateful. And if edges had to be sacrificed in order to obtain that freedom — well, then so be it. But, edges . . . if you’re reading this and you want to come back, that would be fine, too!
*Who is the cutest cat on earth so what are you even talking about?
Excerpt from SHE MEMES WELL by Quinta Brunson. Copyright © 2021 by Quinta Brunson. Available June 15, 2021 from HMH Books & Media.