Essay: How Locs and Veganism Saved Me

A Self-Love Story

Elana Pruitt (photo courtesy of the author)

by Elana Pruitt
Tuesday, February 16, 2021

I once rode the wave of ambiguity when it came to my identity as a Black biracial, Jewish chick from Southern California, feeling comfortable going with the ebb and flow of people’s perceptions of me. Or, rather, I allowed myself to appear comfortable while putting up with teasing, discrimination, and racism time and again — from the school yard to the corporate world. 

My awakening as a Black woman didn’t truly begin until I started making significant lifestyle changes in 2014 that affected not only my health, but also my degree of self-love and selfless acts of love. Dreadlocks (commonly referred to as “locs”) and veganism became the cohesive entities that helped rebuild my broken system.

Growing Up Nappy and Jewish

I grew up being the middle child in a vegetarian household, with a white Jewish mama and a Black father. From my pop’s Earth, Wind, and Fire albums getting us all on our feet to playing Chanukah tunes on the piano before we gathered around to light the menorah — I was raised on the purity of love. Light skin, dark skin — the differences weren’t a focus in our family. We were simply encouraged to be the best that we could be, as our unique selves.

As a kid in the ‘80s, being my unique self meant playing ball in the street, practicing the piano so that I could ace my recitals, creating silly skits that my parents taped with our VHS recorder, grubbin’ on lentil burgers with the fam, and sitting between my mama’s legs so she could grease up and braid my hair the best way she knew how.

“Well, you don’t talk Black.”

As a ‘90s teenager, my unique self experienced the struggles of being a mixed girl. I have vivid memories from junior high and high school of being taunted with questions like, “‘What are you’?”… “Well, you don’t talk Black.”… “Are you a n***a?” Because this harassment came from Black girls, I felt more confused than ever. How was I supposed to be? Didn’t they see that my kinky curls were in cornrows and braids like theirs? In my eyes, we were cut from the same cloth. But because my braids were a bit fuzzy and not pulled tight enough to show a greased scalp, and my “baby hairs” weren’t laid right, perhaps to them I wasn’t truly Black. Add in my Standard English way of speaking with my light brown skin, and I was just a walking conundrum to them. 

I always loved how my mama delicately combed my hair, but I could not enter high school looking the same way I did in junior high: like my white mama did my Black hair. And, hell no, I wasn’t about to embarrass myself by sporting the natural texture of my hair in an afro in public. It wasn’t ‘cool’ and I didn’t want to feel more out of place than I already did.  So my mom eventually took me to a Black hairstylist and I chose to get a scalp-burning relaxer to soften my kinks, so that I would feel more comfortable wearing my hair loose if I wanted.The thought of rocking dreadlocks didn’t even flash in my brain, especially when deep, deep down, at the time, I wished I had straight, “white” hair. Or, at the very least, “good hair,” like my sister.

With my parents Ed and Deborah in Pasadena, CA, 1981
At 7 years old, my hair braided by Mom in 1987

Unable to let go of the bullying I experienced in junior high, I subconsciously began rejecting trying to fit into Black culture, or building any meaningful Black friendships and relationships in high school. So between the ages of 13 and 15 years old, I ended up finding an unhealthy solace in non-Black “friends” who introduced me to cigarettes, ditching school, stealing at the mall, and rock shows that were more about the mosh pit than the music. I was down to 115 pounds and sneakily living off of smokes, coffee, and McDonald’s chicken nuggets and fries. While my mama always served up delicious vegetarian meals at home, reminding me that a healthy body helps to create a healthy mind, I just wanted to rejoice in being a rebel. I tried to ignore the racial slurs that came from my non-Black “friends.” I was the exception, I was told, ‘cause you’re not really Black.” While also confusing, it felt seemingly harmless because I wasn’t identifying with Black culture at the time. 

I actually found more acceptance from my white side, especially during weekend sleep-away Jewish camps in Malibu, overlooking the ocean. I felt so alive laughing and dancing with cabin mates while we were supposed to be asleep. Even though I stood out from the sea of sameness, I was treated with a level of respect that I didn’t receive at my high school. But going back and forth between these two very different worlds ultimately only brought me more sadness. 

“I was Afro-Punk minus
the Afro-Pride.” 

During the early 90s grunge era, I had a bunch of songs that perfectly soundtracked my loneliness, and posters of Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder on my walls. As more verbal bullying continued in high school, the self-loathing I began to feel came through in a variety of (some would say) anti-Black street looks. I let my outcast status show with wannabe-white-punk rock teased hair, ripped tights, 14-holed black Doc Martens, a backpack decorated with tons of band patches. I was Afro-Punk minus the Afro-Pride. 

Thank goodness my spirit is unbreakable, because even amidst my unhappiness, I understood the cycles of pleasure and pain. I knew that my teenage years wouldn’t last forever. I stayed creative with journaling and poetry, schmoozed at coffee shops and bookstores with new friends, made money baby-sitting and teaching each art class at Sunday School, and eventually became Secretary of the student council. 

I also began envisioning my future as a writer. I ended up attending a California state college and wrote for the daily newspaper before being appointed editor-in-chief of the student-run magazine. I worked at an upscale department store and partied a LOT with my (non-Black) girlfriends. Then, after five-and-a-half years, I received a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a minor in speech communications. While rebellious habits and mindless, sporadic eating got me through high school, the over-consumption of junk on campus got me through college. My crutches were chocolate chip muffins, caramel macchiatos, greasy cheeseburgers, and personal pepperoni pizzas, each of which tasted delicious and each of which I should have replaced with much better options. But because I didn’t value the significance of “healthy living,” I just wanted to get through it all feeling good as I enjoyed focusing on my craft and rocking long box braids. This hairstyle earned me free drinks at the bars and was a great solution for my laziness and cluelessness on what to do with my hair.

The “C” in Corporate Wasn’t For Culture

Upon graduation, I was more confused than ever. Now what? How will I get my foot in the door of a publication? Two internships and tons of email pitches helped me get my start in the field, first as an online fashion columnist and then as a full-time copywriter for an SEO Internet marketing company. 

Fulfilling both of these roles simultaneously for nearly a decade, I was used to being that one all-star Black employee, that one down-to-earth Black colleague, that one funny and stylish Black friend, and that one something else or other that categorized me without people really knowing me. Even as I was able to sit at fashion shows and interview celebs for this or that article, I still carried a hollow sense of self. “Who am I, really?” In hindsight, I understand why I coasted on a wave of ambiguity for so long — it was more comfortable to go along with the tide than letting my Blackness shine.

Even as recently as several years ago, a straight weave made being Black ‘acceptable’ and didn’t rock the boat. It didn’t make the privileged higher-ups feel as though they have to focus on diversity, inclusion, or outdated concepts because the reality of racism wasn’t thrown in their faces. Sporting kinky, natural hair, whether in an afro, braids, or dreadlocks in a predominantly white corporate workplace should come with a warning: May cause overt stares, lack of eye contact, fake discussions, depression, and a potential lay-off. I never thought I’d be able to actually show my kinks and afro puffs to anyone in the corporate workplace. Ever. So I kept my natural roots hidden for a very long time, which ultimately affected my behavior throughout my 20s.

Wearing a weave at the corporate job I would eventually be laid off from
The cornrow ‘n Afro transitional look I showed up to work with

I filled up that emptiness with bad habits and poor choices similar to teenage Elana. Shallow friendships, toxic relationships, excessive partying, 1 to 2 packs of smokes a day, prescription meds, too many vodka-sodas at the bars, and fast food greasiness was the norm. I was a mess for quite awhile. 

But then, not too long after being hired by a new Internet marketing company for a social media job in my early 30s, I began changing. I got tired of the cost and upkeep of a weave, so I took it out and rocked a bob with my own, flat-ironed hair. It felt good being able to run my fingers through my mane, knowing it was all mine.

“You are so beautiful,” he said as he touched my hair. 

But the turning point was when my boyfriend saw my natural hair in its raw state after a shower, and loved it. We had just moved in together and I remember feeling caught off guard and nervous about him truly seeing ME for the first time — a biracial Black girl whose hair resembled the kinky curls of her father versus the caucasian curls of her mother. For a second, I forgot he was a “woke” Black man from Philly and a barber with in-depth knowledge of hair texture and style. I really had nothing to be fearful about, especially when he was experiencing an awakening himself, which was apparent in his long beard and naturally forming hair twists.

I remember my boyfriend, who is now my life partner, looking at me and my hair with deeper intent and a look of newfound discovery. “You are so beautiful,” he said as he touched my hair. I then started to cry, because I really did feel beautiful with my natural hair. I knew there was no turning back, and that I wanted to feel this free forever. So, it was time to work through all of the mud that weighed me down, starting with a very telltale sign of a Black woman’s identity: my hair. The next day, my boyfriend’s coworker came over and she braided the top of my hair in cornrows, leaving the rest of my hair in a natural ‘fro. It was a transitional style for me to enjoy until I really figured out the direction I wanted to go. 

But amidst my two weeks of wearing this cornrow style, I still had to go to work, where I was not just the only Black employee, but a Black woman who was evolving while still trying to keep up with corporate culture. It didn’t help that the general response to my natural hairstyle was clearly discomfort, with either whispers of “I like your hair” floating around my desk, like it was a dirty secret, or no mention at all from coworkers paired with no eye-contact conversations. But feeling like an oddball at work only fueled my evolution.

So after toying with the thought of either chopping my hair off to start anew or growing dreadlocks for a new level of enlightenment, two distinct empowering styles, I decided that it was time that I grow my “spiritual antennas.” I loved learning that a general belief about dreadlocks is that they carry energy as well as pick up energy from higher dimensions, like receptors. With its origins rooted in India, Ancient Egypt, and a variety of ethnic groups in Africa, and its low-maintenance upkeep, I was all in. 

Plus, I wanted to feel and present myself as a Black woman. At 34 years old, I was finally ready to show off the beauty and versatility of my natural hair while rejecting assimilating styles that hid my true self. From my brown skin to my bulbous nose to my kinky hair, it was time to embrace all of me if I ever wanted to feel free.

So in our tiny living room in Koreatown, my boyfriend got started on my hair. With the guidance of YouTube videos and his own knowledge of dreadlocks, he began. I was super-nervous, but I was ready to experience initial discomfort in a world where weaves and wigs were more acceptable for melanated beauties.

Not too long after sporting both locs and an initial cornrows ‘n afro style in the office, that corporate job ended. I was laid off due to “lack of productivity.” Well, due to my shift in consciousness, loss of interest in company culture, growing demands, and my new unapologetic attitude, that sounded about right. 

This was a major turning point for me. It was the day that I actually felt free to be ME, because I knew that I needed a starting-over moment — even though I was tearful and caught off guard. It was this sense of uncertainty sprinkled with faith that led me to continuously embrace a prideful hairstyle and uncover a more ethical and healthy way of living, each which helped to prepare me for my most significant job yet: motherhood.

With my life partner Quincy and son Qeshaun last year
Six years of locs

Locs, Love, and Little Toes

There was a time when I would have laughed in disbelief at the thought of matted coils coming from my head. The only type of people I saw with dreadlocks were the homeless who, I assumed, couldn’t afford the luxury of a brush, or the righteous ‘n rebellious celebs I respected so much because their confidence allowed them to stand out from the crowd. I couldn’t relate to either of these groups, but the latter — the Lenny Kravitzs, Bob Marleys, Busta Rhymes’, and Lisa Bonets of the world — carried an ideal sense of energy, independence, and power that I really wanted in myself. I just never thought I’d be able to get on this path of pride, until I did. 

The first year was awkward and my locs were often covered with a beanie, while the second year, growth happened and I was feeling confident to wear them out and proud. When the third year hit, I couldn’t walk anywhere without being called a “queen” by other Blacks who also embraced their natural hair. It was a far, far difference from my teenage days. At six years now, my locs provide me with more strength and spirit than I ever dreamed possible. As each individual loc grows and matures, so do I. We are on this journey of life together, and as I work toward rising through my personal challenges, the combination of emotions that remain entangled in my antennae help to give me the fuel I need to always persevere. 

I became vegan about two years after locking my hair, following a discussion my boyfriend and I were having regarding spirituality, detoxing, and overall health. We needed a change! We were ready to give up late nights of pizza, mac and cheese, fried chicken, and ice cream and cookies. We came to the realization that in order to heighten the quality of our lives our bodies could NOT be filled with death and cruelty. 

My evolution with locs and my evolution as a vegan have become so beautifully interwoven. Getting natural minerals and vitamins from vegan food has helped my hair grow and strengthen immensely. Currently, it reaches down to my lower back. When I went vegan, my 2-year old locs didn’t even touch my shoulders. In addition to the length, quality, and overall health of my hair, my physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health was impacted big-time.

All of this build-up toward a positive, greater sense of Self and overall wellness eventually led me to another new path of enlightenment. Ironically, right before I got pregnant in 2016, the first Black Lives Matter movement started. I was so shaken up that I couldn’t imagine the thought of bringing a little one into this world of cruelty and racism. But when I found out I was pregnant with a boy, we knew that it was all divine timing. My son, Qeshaun, is our saving grace. From the moment he entered the physical world with his little toes and his lovely full head of Black hair, we knew that our sole purpose in life was to protect him and raise him to be a strong Black man. I am now a mother to a banana, veggie pasta, and watermelon-loving 3-year old energetic, vegan child.

“Growing locs and becoming vegan were choices that I made in order to survive as well as thrive in this unjust world.”

It’s been a long road to accepting who I am…and loving myself. Growing locs and becoming vegan were choices that I made in order to survive as well as thrive in this unjust world. In my eyes, locs and veganism symbolize beauty, rebelliousness, strength, and pride. To live my life now as a Black vegan mother with locs means everything to me — it ain’t just for a cool style. When I touch my locs, I feel such pride in their beauty, and I rejoice in the fact that my work-from-home lifestyle allows me the freedom to wear my hair the way I choose to. I also love when my son plays with my locs, sometimes pulling on them or just holding one for comfort. He is growing up with a mother who is embracing her ethnicity versus hiding from it, and I believe that this will help bring forth a very conscientious young man.

Living in the busy city of Los Angeles, I can’t predict what horrifying moment could unexpectedly come my way simply for walking while Black. But as I often stride down to the local Farmers Market for fruit, I am armed with my crown full of vibrating antenna and an almost 40-year old, energetic body that is empty of animal corpses and torture. Today, I am calm, peaceful, and hopeful in a climate that is heavy with injustice. Today, I am me because I dared to be.

About the author: Elana Pruitt is a Los Angeles-based writer and vegan blogger at coolveganmama.