Hair is nothing, but hair is everything. As a brown girl who is naturally curly, I’ve grown up obsessing with my hair, and the adult women in my family did the same. Hair is a highly sensitive topic for many people of color. All my life, I’ve seen black people deride others for the “quality” of their hair. They speak of “good hair” and “bad hair,” nappy hair, rough hair. There’s no choice in the matter if you have such hair– most often, during childhood the hair gets straightened by harsh burning chemicals. And once it’s done, it’s never undone. I felt like I was walking the plank the very first time I got my hair chemically relaxed. Puberty kinked my curls too much for my mother’s liking, so out came the tub of Creme of Nature No-Lye. My oldest sister Farah, the hair expert who still to this day regularly devotes entire 24-hour periods to haircare, explained to me several times in an ominous tone: “Once you relax your hair, you have to relax it for the rest of your life. There’s no going back. Ever.” Well, Jesus. What the hell’s a 10-year-old supposed to say to that? And those of you who have met Farah know how staunch and unbending her pronouncements can be, so I took it as Gospel.
My mother applied my first relaxer. When I rinsed it, I was left with super straight silky long hair, which then had to be put in rollers, followed by an hour and a half under a hairdryer. I loved the results. Of course there was no way I had the patience to do that regularly. I know women who roll their hair every week, or blow-dry their hair every week, or do the salon thing every week. More power to ‘em; their hair looks great. For me, when I’m sitting under a hair dryer, I start thinking of all the other things I could be doing. I’ve always refused to put that kind of time and effort into my hair. A multi-hour ordeal every week to straighten hair that wants to do nothing more than curl up? Please.
What no one tells you, of course, is that once hair is chemically relaxed, you become a slave to it. They also don’t tell you that chemical relaxers don’t actually make your straight; they weaken the curl pattern and leave your hair more dead than it already is so that the hair can easily submit to other straightening methods such as blow-drying, using rollers, hot combing, etc. If your hair is relaxed, you end up doing a lot of planning around it. If you’re invited to a pool party, your first thought goes to your hair (because all black women with relaxed hair know how complicated life gets once the hair gets wet). If you hear the word “rain,” your first thought goes to your hair. Before going on extended multi-day canoeing trips through the Everglades, I had to lay out plans for what to do with my hair during that time (usually by the first or second night, I threw any planning out the window because I just didn’t care how I looked). And if you’ve lived this way, you know your friends and relatives will actually tell you to your face that you look bad if your hair’s not looking good. They’ll ask you outright, “Hmm, when was the last time you relaxed your hair?” while they frown and squint at your head and run their hands through your tresses. Or you’ll be conversing with a girlfriend and she’ll be staring at the top of your head, and she’ll tell you “I think it’s time for a relaxer.” Because I was never one for time-consuming hair maintenance or daily/weekly hair straightening, I almost always wore my hair loose and wavy/curly, much to the chagrin of my mother. She would ask me point blank on certain days “Did you do your hair today?” Or her younger sister, my aunt, would smile at me and run her hands through my hair asking, “Hmm, what are you trying to do with your hair these days?”
Aside from being annoying and a waste of time, my biggest problem with this whole hair drama is that it brings highly charged emotions to the surface for all people involved, and that’s way more input than hair ought to have in one’s life. I remember one time I came home from a three-month trip to West Africa. Just before coming back, I had gotten my hair braided there. Back in Miami, I worked at my father’s clinic on the weekends and one of his longtime elderly female patients came up to me and chided me harshly for having my hair in braids, asking me over and over “why someone with such ‘good’ hair would do that,” telling me that “it’s not nice at all that [I] did that, it doesn’t suit someone of [my] background and upbringing.”
I can’t count how many arguments my mother and I have had about my hair. To this day, if she and I are both attending a social event, she will phone me beforehand to ask me what I’m wearing and how I plan on styling my hair. I tell her, “Don’t worry about me, I know how to be appropriate.” She’ll usually respond with a heated “Don’t come with your hair undone!” Of course, what she means is ‘don’t come with your hair unstraightened.’ At that point in the conversation, I usually change the subject. Other times I’ll ask her, “You do realize that I have curly hair, right?” I sometimes feel I have to remind her–she is, after all, much lighter-skinned than I am, has straighter hair than mine, and never experienced life with relaxers. She hems and haws and ignores my question, replying “Your hair looks so nice when it’s smoothed out (translation : straight).” Why the sense of shame over curly hair, or hair in its natural state? Or in the case of my father’s elderly patient, why the sense of shame over a hairstyle that–gasp–makes me look black. That was the bottom line of course, in that unpleasant little situation at the office. She was appalled that someone with lighter skin would style her hair in a way that was distinctly African. Being only 16 years old at the time and rendered speechless by her rudeness, I didn’t gather up enough voice to inform her that straightening my hair didn’t fool anyone–unless legally blind, even with my hair straight, people could still see the brown skin on my limbs and face.
Yawn. Eff that. I have better things to do with my time anyway and have no silly self-limiting beliefs about skin color or hair texture having anything to do with sense of self, personal identity, or character. Last year, I made the conscious decision to stop swimming upstream : I was going to embrace my curls in their natural state. After nearly two decades of relaxers, I was going to let my hair transition slowly and awkwardly to what it was meant to be. This can be tricky. New hair comes out of the root curly, but thanks to years of relaxers, the rest of your old hair is in a weird semi-straight brittle condition. This is the reason that people end up having to relax their hair every few weeks or months–once the roots of new curly hair begin to show, you’re roped into that cycle of having to relax your hair all the time so that all the strands look uniform.
Having a hairstylist who’s confident about your transition makes a world of difference. The stylist whom I currently see is Israeli and is used to dealing with super curly hair. Michael was also the very first hair professional to tell me to stop relaxing my hair. The very first time I sat in his chair, he began studying my hair for a haircut and working his hands through it. After a couple of minutes, he paused and looked at me in his mirror and said, “Promise me that you will stop relaxing your hair.” He said this to me completely unbidden, and I was secretly pleased since I had already been contemplating stopping the relaxers. I was also surprised–the first thing old stylists wanted to do whenever I walked through their doors was relax my hair. Now here was a stylist telling me to stop doing all that, telling me that curly hair is wonderful and versatile, that I don’t need to abuse my hair with such harsh chemicals, that I should let the hair grow in naturally and wear it curly. Quite a breath of fresh air. Lots of women who decide to stop relaxers do a “big chop.” This is the term for cutting off all the relaxed hair and growing the hair from scratch, so to speak. I’ve never had super short hair, so that would have been a touch too traumatic and dramatic for this sunny diva, so I opted for cutting off several inches of old relaxed hair so that I could transition slowly. Michael just keeps cutting my hair to just around the shoulder, getting rid of the relaxed bits little by little. They’re almost gone now, and soon enough I’ll have a full head of completely natural unrelaxed hair.
I’ve been relaxer-free for over a year and a half. Rather than a difficult marriage, I’m now engaged in a happy love affair with my hair. I love touching my curls and feeling how soft they are. I love not using toxic hair product. I love being able to jump into water wherever I am without any worries that I’m going to mess up my hair. My haircare routine is easy–it’s pretty much wash and go, which is all I have patience for when it comes to hair. When I feel like wearing it straight, I go to the salon since Michael’s better and faster at blow-drying than I am. These days, when I see young black girls with beautiful wild curls, I find myself wondering if their mothers, grandmothers and aunts will let them keep their hair this way, or whether they’ll relax it. If you chemically alter your hair and you’ve been thinking about going natural, I would tell you that for me, it’s been a wonderful, liberating and fun trip; you should try it. Besides, you may think hair is everything, but hair’s actually nothing.