I looked in the mirror and tried to figure out where to part my hair so the chemical burn on my scalp wouldn’t show. My hair looked perfect. It’s rich black tone and dense flowing layers were exactly what I hoped for when I left the salon the day before. I had also hoped to avoid a chemical burn this time. But as my stylist reminded me, you must pat your itching scalp, not scratch. But it seemed that my scalp was perpetually itchy. Constantly applying thick moisturizing products to counteract the dryness caused by a relaxer often has that effect. Scalp irritation and chemical burns seemed to be far bigger problems than I had bargained for, now that I had the financial means to actually get a relaxer every 8 weeks, before the new growth made my hair stand away from my head like a helmet. As I stood there trying to figure out how to part my hair, I wondered if there was another way to feel beautiful without so much discomfort. I was just about over the old adage, ‘beauty is pain’. I parted my hair on the left to hide the burn and headed to catch the train to my afternoon class.
As I was going into the train station a beautiful woman caught my eye. Because I was living in Atlanta at the time, it was not unusual to see a beautiful woman who made me do a double-take and want to sing praises to the Gods of all things beautiful Black womanhood. But this woman was tall, thin, with a dark complexion, almond eyes and a beautiful smile. We heavily resembled each other, aside from the fact that she had a TWA and I had a part on the left side to hide a chemical burn. Our eyes met. As our paths crossed, we smiled in acknowledgment, the way Black women do when we recognize the beauty in each other. On my 10-minute train ride, I couldn’t help but notice all the black women on the train who had permed hair. I wondered how often they had to deal with chemical burns or what they did to avoid scratching their scalp when they were a day or two past wash day. I wondered if they struggled to make it through an April in Atlanta when avoiding the rain is nearly impossible. I wondered if they struggled with not wanting to swim or work out for fear or their edges reverting.
By the time I got off the train, I was exhausted by my own thoughts. I didn’t hate my hair in the literal sense. But the discomfort and inconvenience it took to achieve and maintain it was making my hair very difficult to love. It was time for a change. I decided that my hair should be something I loved, and nurtured, not just dealt with or felt disdain toward. And I really want to love my hair, exactly as it grew out of my scalp. So, I decided that I would cut off my perm before I graduated, which gave me almost 3 years. As it turned out, I needed all 3 of those years to deal with naysayers and interrogate my own ideas of beauty that seemed based in everything except how my hair was actually designed.
The Big Chop
I nearly cried as I heard the scissors cut through my hair and felt the coolness of
absolutely nothing touching my neck. After about 9 months of intentional growth, two previous attempts to cut out the perm in the years before, and frantically asking a friend to meet me at the hair salon immediately, before I changed my mind, I had done it. I know had hair that was about 3 inches long, felt like cotton to the touch, and was completely foreign to me. I could not have been more excited. And more terrified.
Finding My Tribe
As the universe would have it, I started to really notice the hair textures and styles of women with natural hair that I’d known for years. I saw their beauty in a different way. I fell into a community of people who were pan-Africanist, womanist, and naturalists who loved natural hair for political reasons, for health reasons, for historical reasons. But most importantly, they were on a journey to loving themselves and their blackness more deeply, which also meant loving natural black hair precisely because it was black hair. Watching them catapulted me on a journey to love my own hair the way they love theirs.
Styling with No Lye
I vividly remember sitting next to my friend as we watched television and I ‘twisted’ my hair. He asked. “What are you doing”? His tone let me know that he’d watched women twist their natural hair and what I was doing was definitely NOT twisting in anyway he’d ever seen. I now know that I was actually spiraling my 4b hair around my fingers using raw shea butter and not a drop of moisturizer to achieve something that sort of looked like a twist out. Sort of. I had no idea how to care for my natural hair. How could I? I had no road map.
Aside from watching little girls get their hair braided before their first perm, I had never seen natural hair being styled before. I spent several months scrolling through YouTube videos, whipping up concoctions in the kitchen, and trying every product for natural hair I could find (and back then there weren’t very many options). After some frustration and some trial and error, I eventually figured out which ingredients worked best for my hair and scalp. I was able to nurture my hair in way the left my hair healthy and beautiful without altering the thickness and texture I inherited from my grandmothers. Before I knew it, I had finally learned to love my natural hair!
I’d venture to say that many black women have stories similar to mine. We wear natural hair because it gets to be mentally exhausting (and sometimes physically painful) to try to live up to a standard of beauty that is diametrically opposed to biology. We want a deeper knowledge of self and a greater self-love that often flies in the face of what society says is worth loving. If the backlash Shea Moisture is experiencing right now can teach us anything, it’s that Black women are fiercely invested in our hair and many of us see the beauty of leaving straight hair to the women who are biologically designed to grow it. I’m not suggesting that every woman with a perm or a lace fr
ont suffers from #hairhate or should go natural. Of course not. The reasons for our personal choices are as varied as our hair textures. I’m simply saying that sometimes culture is so ingrained in our psyche that we spend a lot of time and energy trying to fundamentally and irreversible change what’s beautiful about our hair in order to be seen as worthy or beautiful. And often, we do this without even realizing it. If we’re going to interrogate the ways racism show up in politics, workplaces, and beauty ads, I encourage us to simultaneously interrogate they ways it show up in our beauty regimens. If we do that interrogation and decide that a lace front is indeed the best decision for us, then cool. We have to respect anyone who is willing to do the work. But if we find that interrogation requires a deeper self-love and intimate familiarity with all parts of ourselves including our hair, then let’s have a chat about natural hair products and beauty companies that see the value, financial and otherwise, in love our hair as much as we do.
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