This is My Hair Not on Drugs

It's radical that wearing my hair the way it grows out of my head is radical.
Publish date:
November 18, 2011
hair, natural hair, pretty in the past, Madeline Kahn

Some things just aren't ready for primetime. Some things you share only with your bathroom mirror, your hairdresser or a humid day in August. The stuff that sprouts from my head is one of those things.

My hair and I have traveled a windy road. My mom's side of the family has this thick but manageable thing going for them. It's wavy, curly, long and comb-able. Then I showed up and people were stumped. Cousins who usually loved to play in someone's hair ran when they saw me emerge from a washing. My hair had a mind of its own. It was wild, untamed, hated to be locked up in someone's corn row.

If anyone came at me with a brush, I'd immediately cover my hair with my fists, protecting my stubborn coils from the agony of detangling. That or I'd just circle the living room like a hamster on a wheel until one of us (usually Frances my mother) got too dizzy to remember what that brush was for.

I was about four years old when Frances just gave up. In the early 80s everyone was big into "relaxers" and my mom used some of her left over "lye" to tame the dense jungle atop my head.

"Your hair just sucked it up and spit it out," goes the story my mom tells. She usually uses her fingers for emphasis, balling them into a tight fist for "sucked it up" and shooting them out Spider Man web-style for "spit it out."

"Nothing happened. Your hair never changed. I'd never seen anything like it."

Since then my magical 'fro has been made less so by all manner of flat irons, pressing combs and gigawhatsits.

The summer after my freshman year, my head went rogue. I spent the hottest months of the year running after 12-year-olds in an academic program they didn't want to be in from 7 AM until around 7 PM and had no time to straighten out anything but a middle schooler's attitude. My plan was to get "twists" but when the "braids lady" noticed that my natural curls had been diminished by 20 years of heat processing, she made a suggestion.

"How adventurous are you?" she asked.


Ignoring the cowardly inflection, she told me to trust her and immediately went about parting and twisting and embellishing with cowrie shells. When everything was said and done I had a head full of "bantu knots," which I can only describe as Afro-centric "Hellraiser" chic twisty lighbulbs.

I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw only my face. That thing about not hiding behind your hair is real, man. I felt naked when I stepped out on the street. Black men I didn't know started calling me "sister" when they walked past. Like a secret handshake, my hair made me down in a way I clearly wasn't before. I felt like a fraud. Like I could never live up to the coolness, the confidence.

When I got back to campus a few weeks later, the knots were gone but my straight hair was still on vacation. A guy I used to know summarized my new style thusly: "I mean you knew you were coming back to school right?" And like a good little brainwashed minion, I headed to the salon soon after.

In the decade since, I've only worn my hair as it grows out of my head in increments of 30 minutes or less. That's the time it takes to get from the shampoo bowl to the dryer.

It's not that I'm ashamed of the follicle coral reef that lives on my head. My hair is shiny, thick, strong. If it got into a fight with some other girl's hair, it'd win -- handily. I love it -- when I can handle it.

The "natural hair debate" probably won't ever die. Here at xoJane, Patrice Yursik has written about her trials with being petted and patted down because of what lives on her head and hundreds of commenters felt her pain. Black, white or brown it's a rough road out there for women whose hair isn't Rockwellian. You'd think that in the four decades between the afro movement and Chris Rock's "Good Hair" we would have figured out how to be comfortable with whatever choice we make. But the stigma still remains on both sides of the coiffure.

I had to reschedule an appointment with my mane tamer this week, so I washed my hair myself on Wednesday. Only after did I realize my busted dryer had been thrown away the previous week. And only after that did I realize I had to go to charity auction in an hour. Why was I nervous?

I braided the front, coiled up the back and stuck in an old necklace as my crown. Again, I felt sort of naked. Like everybody would be looking at my face and not my... What? What should people be looking at besides your face?

One of the guys who spends his days in front of the liquor store on my corner called me "sexy" as I walked to the metro. His friend corrected him, "No no no. She's beautiful." Not that I get my daily affirmations from people sans homes or anything, but, yeah, I'm not ashamed to say I strutted a bit. Even without the peacock plumes I thought I needed.

None of this is to say I'm "going natural," which is so serious in some circles. I've gotten announcement emails about a woman switching up her hairstyle that are on engagement, baby, changing careers-level. It's a big deal. But should it be? It's no secret that all women have a love/hate relationship with their hair at some point, but what's the best way to get over it? Do we all spend a day (and hour) with the hair tiny baby Jesus (or Zeus) gave us? Or just get over it?