It started with two curly ponytails on the top of my head that I called my “Mickey Mouse ears”. By Kindergarten they turned into braids– four to six tightly twisted with colorful butterfly clips. They were dang cute, but the problem was that I was about the only black child in my grade school. None of my friends had hair like mine, none of the girls wanted to play with my hair at recess, and no one ever told me that my hair was pretty that week (not even when my aunt came down and spent the extra time to give me EIGHT little braids). In third grade I begged my mom to let me wear my hair “down” like everyone else, but when that didn’t really work I settled for a single poofy ponytail in the back of my head. I’d comb the curls into fuzz and adorn myself with all sorts of fancy headbands. In junior high I went to a salon, and the hairdresser didn’t really know what to do with my hair. She ended up just cutting a bunch of it off. A few stylists later and I learned I could chemically “relax” my hair. My curls would hang looser and straighter, and I could wear my hair down.
Straighter? You didn’t have to say that twice. I was in. All my life I had been surrounded by girls with straight hair and messages telling me that that was what was preferred, good, desirable. The straighter the better. I’d finally be pretty like everyone else.
So every ten weeks for seven years I went to the salon to get my roots relaxed. They’d also flat iron my hair for me (something I could not do other than professionally), and that would last a week or two. The few black girls I remember going to school with got their hair flat ironed every two weeks or so, so that they never wore their hair any other way. I always felt prettiest when my hair was straight like that, because that’s when I got all the compliments. I looked “totally different”, older, even more professional. I should wear my hair like that more often.
It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I realized what had happened to me– the messages I had heard and the internalized racism I had suffered. Yes, relaxing my hair helped me wrangle it into a bun five times a week for dance, and it gave me a chance to play with difference styles and lengths. I don’t think relaxing my hair in and of itself was a bad thing at all. What was so harmful was that I was told over and over again that I wasn’t good enough because my hair wasn’t long and straight and medium-thick. Basically,that it didn’t match the ideal– a white European woman’s.
I was actually straight up outraged. Why were girls like me criticized for the weeks their hair was not flat ironed, or made fun of for having a weave? Why was I spending $85 and five hours on every salon visit to make my hair look more like someone else’s?
I immediately felt lost in my own skin. I felt like I could not be myself unless I was wearing my hair authentically, but I didn’t even know how to wear my hair authentically.
I knew I needed to transition right away, but my stylist told me that it’d be a process unless i was willing to just shave my hair off all at once. At each visit, she began slowly cutting off the chemically relaxed ends of my hair, and as my roots grew in natural, we let them stay. I went through an awkward middle phase of having two textures of hair (tight curls at the top that fanned out into straighter ends), eventually cutting off all of the ends so that I was down to the length of just a few curls. Very few curls. But they were natural curls! So I felt good, but I was still incredibly insecure. Like on top of losing my chance at conventional beauty, my femininity had been taken away from me because my hair was so short. I don’t know if this insecurity was self imposed, or if it was because one too many people mistaked me for a boy those weeks.
But I was determined, so I stuck with it. Why should I have to rely on chemical alterations for the rest of my life? Why shouldn’t I get to live comfortably with my natural self?
Once my hair grew out a bit it only took one more shave down/regrowth over the summer to get rid of all of the chemicals. My natural curl pattern started to emerge, untamed and beautiful. I went into college feeling more of myself than I ever have!
In keeping with my desire to be 100% natural, I use very little product on my hair. I wash it about once a week with this fair trade shea butter shampoo and conditioner from Alaffia. After washing, I massage in this leave in conditioner from Shea Moisture. No styling gels, no hairsprays, no harsh chemicals whatsoever!
My hair officially is no longer a worry of mine. That’s the point that I want every woman to get to— where she can just wear her hair how it’s meant to be worn without worrying whether or not it’s good enough or pretty enough. I wear my hair natural for me, but I also wear it natural for every little black girl out there, present and future. I want them to see themselves in me, to see someone like them with hair like theirs. That’s what I was missing growing up— a black or mixed woman who was comfortable with her own hair. It made me feel like I couldn’t be comfortable with my hair either, like I was supposed to change it somehow.
When I show people my old IDs, they are always shocked. My license shows 16 year old me with long, straight hair. My university ID shows my hair in transition, short and with chemically straightened curls.
But then they look up at me now, natural curls flying in every which direction, and they tell me that now I look the most “me”. That my current hair suits me.
And it does. It does because it’s the hair I was born with, but even more so because it’s the hair I wear most confidently. Even when I manipulated my hair to fit arbitrary beauty standards, I never was able to embody it. I never felt truly beautiful, even when I did what they told me would make me so. It took coming back into myself and into my body, getting to know who I was naturally, to really love myself and feel comfortable in my own skin.
I plan to let it grow wild, and to see where it goes. I’m curious to find out if it will continue to spiral outwards, or if the weight of the length will drag it down towards my shoulders. The thing being mixed-racial is that my curl pattern is drastically different from the mixed-racial chick beside me. It is truly unique, and truly my own! I won’t know what my hair does until it does it, so all I can do is get to know it and vow to accept it.
My hope is that more brown girls will stand up and embrace their natural hair. We will be role-models of sorts to the generation of little brown girls after us, creating space for them to exist beautifully with their own unique curl pattern and texture. We do our rain dance by loving our curls now, and we see the rain we’ve made when we are able to show our daughters how to love their curls! So that one day when they’re deciding what to do with their hair, they see more options than the white European ideal. So that when they go to a salon, they can confidently decide to keep their hair natural. Or, they can get it straightened! But they would do so out of the fun of pampering, and not out of self-manipulation or control.
It’s been a journey, but I feel as though I’ve finally arrived at a place of peace with my hair. Most days I wake up, shake it, and go. Other days I wrap it into a scarf. What’s made all the difference is that I have learned how to wear it naturally and confidently, and for me this was part of making peace with my body, my physical self.