I was one of those girls, one of those Black women -- those women who declared she’d never, never, ever, ever in a million years stop her lifelong devotion to the creamy crack known as relaxer. When groups of friends, who were all natural, had what seemed like conversations in their own languages revolving around co-washing, twist outs, bantu knots, curl cremes, TWA and tons of other seemingly meaningless terms and acronyms, I’d delicately try to change the subject or appear disinterested.
Funny how I'm natural now. I’ve rocked what I refer to as “the little fro that could” for a year this past August.
Some weeks ago, when I was scrolling down my Twitter timeline after a long day, I found a meme with two Black women: one woman had a fairer complexion and loose curls while the other woman (at the bottom of the image) had darker skin and coarse, kinkier hair. The text said, “Men promote natural hair if it looks like this…not if it looks like this!” -- the latter part referring to the picture on the bottom. I saw many Black men (and women, too) laughing and stating things like how the woman at the bottom needed to “do something to her hair” and that if you’re natural you should “tame your edges and use some grease.”
I was startled. One, because I knew almost instantly that the woman on the top was wearing a wig (meaning the hair was not representative of her true, natural curl pattern). And, two, because I knew that when I’m out and about many Black men -- and people, period -- probably think the same thing about my hair, my natural hair, my Brillo pad, nappy hair.
Now I’m happily nappy, although it has been a long road to get here.
At five years old, I first learned about the intricate relaxing process, which involved slathering on a slew of chemicals, often leading to an unimaginable burning and sometimes to scabs if not properly rinsed from my scalp and roots. My mother told me once I was old enough to understand -- years after each Saturday morning and early afternoon was spent in a salon getting my coarse, thick strands, fried, dyed and laid to the side -- my hair was a battle she grew tired of fighting.
My hair was like an untamed, unmanageable, big and wild jungle of fury that needed, so desperately, to be chemically manipulated in order to be deemed acceptable. And pretty. A shining crown of glory atop my head versus one of horror and stress.
This was something I internalized for 28 years -- until last fall when I moved to Madrid, Spain, to teach English. I panicked about what would become of my luscious relaxed locks.
Many friends, when I told them about my impending move, responded first by asking me about my hair. How would I get my hair done? This was something I wondered, too, as I had a standing appointment every two weeks on Friday evening after work. Going to the salon and having someone deal with my hair was easy, hands-off, and distanced -- just like I preferred. I had to do very little to my hair aside from tying a silk scarf around it at night and brushing it out the next morning with a large paddle brush.
When I researched salons specifically for Black women throughout Madrid, I came up empty-handed. I asked my stylist for some tips before I moved, as I had an inkling I’d fall into being natural, foregoing relaxers. She laughed at me.
In fact, no one believed I would give up keeping my hair within controlled parameters. I knew very little about hair in general, and the notion of me being responsible for my hair from washing to deep conditioning to moisturizing to styling was laughable -- and inconceivable to most who knew me.
My natural hair journey began: partly deliberate because I had no salon options, partly curiosity at what would happen if I left behind relaxers, and partly pure experiment. For almost eight months, I held onto my relaxed ends while my kinky, coily roots grew in without restraint. For those eight months, I spent many hours in front of my mirror staring in amazement at the the curls that had appeared. I'd had no idea my hair could do anything but the straight routine.
When I finally mustered up the gumption to do the big chop -- parting ways between the unamicable meeting of my relaxed ends and my newly natural roots -- I stood in front of that same mirror, with shaky hands, using hair shears for the first time in my life.
And I loved what I saw.
When I think back to what many saw as yet another harmless meme floating down timelines for a midday laugh, I think about that moment, when I was in awe of myself, in awe of my own beauty, in awe of the hair that I had always had but hadn’t been given the chance to make its acquaintance.
I also shudder. I wince. I feel just a tinge of sadness, too, because I realize the Black men (and women) who were passing the image around, laughing, insisting on what Eurocentric beauty ideals they’d gladly applaud but what Afrocentric ideals they’d also gladly reject, were cluelessly reinforcing anti-Blackness at its core.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this all is the trickle-down effect. Many Black women unknowingly internalize this self-hatred and rejection of their hair even in the middle of caring and nurturing for their natural hair.
For instance, if you scroll through the many hair forums, websites, and blogs dedicated to natural hair care for Black women, you’ll see so many women concerned with classifying their hair into these weird categories. They’ll clamor over whether they are a type 3a, 3b or 3c (looser curl patterns) or a 4a, 4b, 4c , 4d (kinkier coils versus loose curls). You’ll also see a plethora of methods meant to manipulate their hair away from its state when washed, conditioned and moisturized -- either with braid outs, flat twists, bantu knots or twists outs.
Most Black women will tell you it’s because what is referred to as wash-n-go’s (literally just washing your hair and going) are not good for your hair, but I’m willing to bet some of those same women are uncomfortable with the notion of just letting their hair be, letting it be in its truest essence.
Believe me I get it. Our hair, our kinks, our coils, our fros aren’t just hair as much as we’d like to think. It’s a bundle of self-esteem, racial identity and repressed projections of what our best selves should be like, what our hair should look like. Our hair can stop us from being appealing to romantic partners; cause haughty, nasty comments from family members and friends; and, in some cases, be a deterrent in certain industries for jobs.
But when will we admit that there is a preference here? That for so many natural hair is okay, cute and desirable only if our fingers can easily wave into the mass of curls and not when it’s like mine -- coarse, more coils than curls?
Maybe if we were more honest. Maybe if some of us admitted that our hair is one marker of our shame of our Blackness, one more thing we’d much rather not have pigeon-holed as being different.
I am honest because I’ve been there. I’ve felt inferior and hated the sight of my own hair, and I know the desperation and longing for self-acceptance that accompanies those feelings. So while some people are sharing that meme, passing on their dissatisfaction and lack of self-approval, I’ll be just fine -- loving my nappy, unattractive, unacceptable, unprofessional, Brillo pad-esque natural hair.