From birth until age 14, I had natural hair, which in the black community means that my hair texture wasn’t altered by chemicals. However, as I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and didn’t have many positive images of blacks in general in the media, by the time I was 14, I grew to hate my hair. I longed for the long, silky flowing tresses that my white classmates had, because I saw my coily hair as ugly. Even at that young age, I had internalized the belief that “good” hair was hair that was as straight as possible and that “bad” hair was what I had-tight coils that shrank up and was hard to handle. It always appeared short relative to my white classmates and it often looked and felt like Brillo. Up unto I was 9 or 10, my mother would wash it every couple of weeks, then put it into plaits, or big braids, with ribbons or barrettes at the ends. Then, a new couple moved down the hall from us in the apartment building we lived in and Ma became friendly with them, particularly the female half of the couple. Once the woman, Alcine, told my mother that she could cornrow hair, it was a wrap, because my mother didn’t know how and she was happy that my sister and I would have more styling options. So, at that point, once a week, my sister and I would get our hair cornrowed by Alcine. I hated the process because I was (still am actually) fairly tenderheaded and the woman would rip a fine toothed comb through my tresses, causing them to snap and break. I wasn’t until nearly two years ago that I learned that fine toothed combs on dry coily hair are EVIL. But the internet wasn’t around back then (this was the late 1970′s, early 1980′s) and information on how to properly care for curly and coily hair was practically non-existent, so people used whatever tools they had available. The only thing I liked about the cornrows is that Alcine would sometimes put beads on the ends and I loved swinging my head around to make them move. Like Willow Smith, heh.
It was around this time that I asked my mother for a relaxer, but she refused, saying I was too young. I was disappointed then, but these days, I applaud her stance, because my hair was saved from a few more years of damage that it would have been subjected to otherwise. By the time I was 12 until I was 14, my mother would resume caring for my hair occasionally by pressing it. That wasn’t exactly a picnic either. A specially designed comb is heated on the stove, then combed through your hair. The process can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’d have to hold my ears down when she pressed the sides of my hair and every now and then, she’d accidentally singe my fingers with the hot comb. While I liked my straightened hair, the process isn’t permanent. If it rained and or if it was humid, my hair would revert within minutes. Once I started high school, partly due to peer and family pressure, my mother decided that I was finally old enough for a relaxer. For a while, I reveled in the fact that I had what I’d wanted for years-silky, flowing hair. However, within 2 or 3 years, it started breaking off and the caustic chemicals of the relaxer eventually caused my edges to thin. For years afterward, I would be embarrassed of my hair and would often wear it in styles that would hide my edges. In my high school graduation picture, you can plainly see my thinning edges. No girl that age should experience such a thing, but I see this on black girls on the street every day as they and their parents are willing to sacrifice the health of their hair in order for it to fit into a narrow beauty standard that it was never meant to attain.
The longest my hair would ever get with a relaxer would be shoulder length and that didn’t happen often. Because my natural hair is actually fine and thin and the relaxer exacerbated this, some stylists would recommend that I keep it short as it would appear fuller. So throughout the ’90′s, I would wear the “Halle Berry” cut off and on. However, I didn’t want my hair short, I wanted it long. But because the chemicals in the relaxer are so caustic, long hair wasn’t happening as it would break off at a certain point every time I attempted to grow it out. Also, during this time, not only did I have thin edges, I developed bald spots in the crown of my head. I also began to dread the burns and scabs that getting a relaxer entailed. However, at the time, I didn’t know of any other alternatives. This was just something that black women did in order to be presentable. Once someone gets a relaxer the first time, it’s suggested that they get “touch-ups”on their new growth of hair every 6-8 weeks. Supposedly, only the new growth is supposed to be touched up, but some torturers (or stylists) touch up the entire head, which leads to breakage. There are relaxer kits around for home use, but I never trusted that I would do a good job by myself, so I’d faithfully trudge to the salon every 6-8 weeks for the touch-up. Many black salons are poorly managed and they routinely overbook appointments, so the process of getting of touch up there was usually an all day affair. Spending five or six hours in a salon is common. I’m so glad that I no longer have to endure that since I’ve become fully natural.
Around 7 or 8 years ago, I started wearing weaves and braid extensions for about 6 months out of the year while I relaxed the other six months out of the year in order to avoid the relaxer process as much as possible. However, the weaves and braid extensions further exacerbated the damage to my hair as the stylists often installed them too tightly. But again, I couldn’t see any other alternative. The idea of going natural just didn’t occur to me. I’d thought, as a lot of other black women do, that natural hair would limit my styling options to locs or fros. It would be years before I discovered how mistaken I was. I’d seen a dermatologist around this time about my thinning edges and bald spots. When he suggested that perhaps I should stop relaxing my hair and getting weaves, I scoffed. I had to get those things because I had “bad” hair. Needless to say, the success I had in stopping the damage was limited.
Nearly two years ago, I had an epiphany. I’d just turned 40 and I’d never felt so confident and at peace with myself. At that point, I’d been wearing weaves and braid extensions for the previous 18 months and was relaxer free for all of that time. Many black women who transition to natural hair wear weaves and braid extensions, but I didn’t know that I was transitioning. I just knew that I hated relaxers and wanted to be without one for as long as possible. I was due to take down my latest kinky twist extensions, but for the first time in years, I had no idea what to do with my hair after I’d taken them down. I wasn’t feeling a weave just then and I couldn’t stand to get a relaxer at that point either. One night, I just randomly googled “natural hair care” and was amazed at all the information at my disposal. I actually spent several nights on various natural hair sites and learned that natural hair if properly cared for, can flourish. The amount of styles I saw were endless-twistouts, braidouts, updos, twists, tuck and rolls, buns, etc, so the notion that styling options were limited was a fallacy. If anything, the styling options for straight hair were extremely limited compared to natural hair. It was only then that I began to think that natural hair was an option for me. However, I had never been a supremely confident and self-assured person and it seemed that being natural would require those attributes, because it’s frowned upon in the black community and I’d be going against the grain. But I decided to take the plunge anyway, because I felt that finally having healthy hair was more important than what some ignorant people would say. I BC’d (big chopped-or cut off my relaxed ends) on 09/18/09 and I haven’t looked back. I don’t get many positive comments, but I’ve gotten less negative ones than I expected. But then, I’m not looking for other people to validate me these days through my hair. The bald spots and thinning edges are growing in, although they have a ways to go. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, but its one I’m happy to have undertaken. My attitudes about beauty have done a complete 360. Now I only wish I’d undertaken this journey years ago.