I’ve been asked by a good number of people for a good number of years to stop adding chemical relaxers to my curly hair. There were a good number of reasons given to me to stop -- some health-related, others political, some driven by the movement of women who have abandoned European standards of beauty -- and while I believe they all have merit, I shunned them all until a shining moment over the holidays brought me to a sobering realization: My hair and my life were actually better before I started straightening it.
It was the photo at the top that caused my personal moment of clarity. I was six in this photo, celebrating my birthday with all my family surrounding me. I’m clearly happy, throwing my head back with excitement. I can tell you that I am completely unaware of how beautiful I am in this photo.
I can also tell you that as an adult woman who has thrown every vitamin sworn to increase hair growth down my throat with a real, earnest moment of prayer tied like a love note to every tablet, I am in awe of the length of the ponytails on the sides of my head.
Mom and I found these photos on the bed when I was home for the holidays, and I turned to her, tears welling in my eyes. “This is my real hair texture?” I said.
Mom smiled at me, the way a mother can only smile when a truth they’ve been praying their child will realize finally comes, the beatific light that radiates watching your child come into their own, and said, “Yes, honey. We didn’t start relaxing your hair until you begged me to do it, when you were 12.”
I’d like to point out something funny: This is about why I started chemically processing my hair, and I’m holding a Tiny Tot chemistry kit in this photo. The ironic nature of that is quite awesome.
I took iPhone shots of the images, determined to hold onto them for the future. I knew the time had come to embrace my natural texture.
I wish I could say that was the last time I chemically straightened my hair. It wasn’t. I put relaxer in my hair one more time before Fashion Week in February, clinging to one more shot at the perceived glory of straight hair, and it burned me. I was left with a weeping sore on the back of my head, a chemical burn like others I had had over the years. And I knew it was time to let go.
My parched, damaged ends trickled into the sink each time I brushed my hair. The message was clear: I needed to preserve what I had at any cost. And so, I stepped into the chair with Brad at Cutler Salon while interviewing him for a story on chemical haircuts -- the loss of length and hair that happens when you process your hair too much -- and he looked me square in the eye.
“What are we doing here today?” he said gently, with eyes that said he knew. My inner six-year-old with the gorgeous hair spoke up with a command she hadn’t known in decades:
“I’m going to start growing out the natural texture. Cut it off to its healthiest point, and we’ll work it out from there.” And so he did. And so it began. Yes, I had them blow my hair out after they cut it. I didn’t jump in feet first. Cutting four inches off was enough for one day.
That was March of this year. It’s June now. In two days time, I’ll celebrate my birthday, and it’s only recently, with 2.5 inches of natural waves and a whole new texture weaving its way quickly into the first fresh air it’s known for years, that I’ve started to remember the story of why I started processing my hair.
I was nine years old, playing on the school playground with a few other girls. Parochial school uniforms floated into the air with each hop over the jump rope. I’d left Double Dutch to take a seat on the sidewalk near the fence that faces the front of the school. Two larger girls, one of them a lighter-skinned girl of my own black race, and a Caucasian girl approached me and convinced me to come to a corner of the playground with them. These girls were notorious bullies, but they were so friendly to me that I felt a false sense of security. They played nice until we reached a corner of the playground where no one could see me, and that’s when the hair stood up on the back of my neck as I realized the larger girl who shared my skin tone was standing in front of me and two other girls were at my back.
“Get her,” said the brute in front of my face.
I was subdued to the ground, the sole of a grainy rubber shoe shoved against the back of my neck as the side of my face was pressed against the pavement. Someone else was straddling my back, holding my wrists down. The larger one in front of me leaned into my ear and said, “You think you all high and mighty because you’re so light and pretty. You think ’cause you have rich parents and good clothes that you higher than anyone else.” And then she ripped the ponytail holder out of the bun at the back of my head. “But you have n****r hair like everybody else, girlie. We gonna show you how low you really are, multi-colored bitch.”
What happened next still seems like it lasted for an eternity, but I’m sure it was over in a matter of just a couple of minutes. I saw boxes of small, colored pencils sprinkle onto the ground and just as quickly as they had fallen, they were picked up and driven into my scalp and into my arms. God, it felt like hundreds of them, but my brain quickly started doing the math that there only 12 in a pack and that they only seemed to have two. I was warned not to tell anyone, told that they’d kill me if I ever set foot on the playground again, received two hard, swift kicks to the ribs for good measure, and they left me there on the pavement.
The minute I sat up, some of the boys in my class spotted my thickly textured hair with a bunch of colored pencils remaining stable and erupted into laughter. They called out “Buckwheat” until one of my favorite teachers, the late Mrs. Barbara Iannerelli August saw me, swooped in like an angel and whisked me into the bathroom. She saw the pencils in my arms and the ends driven into the scalp and tried to get me to tell her what happened. I just cried and cried. I couldn’t speak. I honestly didn’t know what to say.
I never told her what had transpired, but I took a position cleaning the classroom and doing odd jobs in the library for the rest of the year. When the bigger girls were safely transferred to the bigger high school, I returned to play. Some might call that cowardice, but in the larger picture of my childhood, I’d call that survival.
I’m also someone who dealt with other abuse in my childhood, but that’s another story for another time. But it means that when I was told to keep a secret or dire circumstances would arise, I did exactly as I was told.
And so, for me, the answer wasn’t to call the girls out, to rat out the boys who laughed at me. Nope. Erase the situation so it can never happen again, was my thought process. And so, I begged and pleaded until at 12, my wish was granted. And the memory faded into the past. And I never thought about that moment again until now, as those pretty coils make their way into a world that’s vastly different than the one their predecessors knew.
It’s been hard to shake that memory loose, and all the subsequent arguments I’ve ever had where I’ve had to justify the way I look to people of either race. For years, it’s been a battle to get others to recognize my right to not answer the question of my race. When I say “black,” the answer should be sufficient, but people continue to dig. I had another woman at a press dinner last year say, “But you’re not ALL THE WAY black.” This is a beauty editor that said this to me. And so, I wrote a piece for my editor, Emily McCombs, at xoJane on why my racial background is none of your business.
But with the natural curls growing in, it’s a further step into my own standard of what’s beautiful. My hair is wavy and kinky and learning to handle the texture is a journey that I will undertake. The years of processing have been a way to remove the constant scrutiny on my appearance, that there needs to be an EXPLANATION for why I exist the way I do. But, with that article I decided to stop answering all questions about my roots, and with a new exploration of what my literal roots look like, I’m healing a history of anger, violence, and the right to just exist without anybody saying anything to me about anything.
I’m grateful to people like Ted Gibson and to Brad Wandrey and Rachel Bodt of Cutler Salons, to friends like Patrice of Afrobella, to long-standing friends like Stephanie Scott who offered to come to my apartment and literally lovingly play with my hair until I can make some sense of it all. My journey back to those Sundays where we’d wash my hair and either braid it or set it on rollers with love and affection are coming back. I’m lucky that the hair is growing strong, the memories are fading every day, and that this process is teaching me that it’s okay to love myself as I am right now, today….that I am beautiful as I am.
And so, that is where I am today. With love for you and your relationship to your hair, I say, “Embrace yourself.” All is -- and all will be -- well.
Reprinted with permission from Fashion/Style/Beauty. Want more?