“It’s so thick I can’t get the hair dryer through it.” My hairdresser grits her teeth for the fifth time as another piece of her hair dryer breaks off in my hair. So thick, not even the best styling tools can make its way through its roots. If only I had my sister’s hair, that allowed for combs and dryers alike to slide through it without having to worry about getting stuck at the base of her neck. The solution? Relaxing my hair so it was easier to deal with.
My first relaxer burned. It burned and it didn’t feel right; the smell curdled my stomach and every part of me screamed internally, but my mother told me it was the right thing to do. It was right, I had to, it was too much work for other people to do my hair. So, there I was, with the chemicals I could not pronounce permeating and burning my skin as I sat there taking in the salon. Magazines with dog-eared pages a little too close to the edge of the coffee table, the fan blowing to keep the scent of burning hair from being too strong for the customers, and of course, the sound of laughter that seems to bounce off the walls of the shop. My hairdresser nods at me and I walk from the dryer to the sink. The water cools my scalp, and I close my eyes.
I am standing in the mirror; my hair is straight as I run my hands through it in my bathroom when I get home. Careful not to touch my scalp, which still feels tender from the perm, I pick up the comb next to me and it slides through my jet-black hair. Then I throw on my uniform for school. I’ll finally be like all of the other kids at school.
There will be one more relaxer in my life and after that, my hair will start to break off, clumping in chunks on my pillow, and my scalp will itch continuously until we realize that the perms were, in fact, destroying my hair.
For every Black girl, there remains this battle between her hair and society. Many of us grow up thinking that the hair growing from our scalps is wrong. It doesn’t lie flat or grow down, it grows up towards the sky and its roots are thick and untamed. So, much like our mothers did to their hair, we take chemicals and burn our skin, close our eyes and flinch when the hot comb gets too close to our necks and stay still in the chair while the hair dryer yanks our hair out. Growing up, every part of me knew that this did not seem right. But I didn’t say anything because my “nappy” hair did not belong in the world. It was meant to be hidden and stay that way. Just like when my ancestors hid their natural hair to assimilate into society on plantations by using chemicals to burn their scalp because it was what the world told them to do to survive.
After discovering my hair did not like being chemically straightened, we decided hot combs and straighteners were the best options. Driving 40 minutes to get my hair straightened every three weeks created less guilt within me, but I still felt I was not caring for my hair the way it deserved. With time and patience, my hair grew back and although it was long, that didn’t necessarily mean it was healthy. So, after I graduated from a high school filled with nothing but Eurocentric-based beauty standards, I decided to give my hair what it deserved. So, I wanted box braids.
“Box Braids?” My mother’s mouth opens inquisitively as her sunglasses are pulled down to the rim of her nose. We’re at the pool on my senior trip. She hands me back my phone displaying a girl with box braids smiling at the camera. She has no clue what they are, and it shows. However, I know what I want and if there is one thing that has always made me ambitious it’s my determination. I was sick and tired of seeing my heat-damaged hair that limply fell at my shoulders when I got out of the pool or shower. My hair was meant to be thick and untamed, not limp and damaged. So I did my research and I devised a plan to give my hair what it truly needed: a break.
This is where my story stops, for now. I still have box braids in and my big chop is far in the future from this moment in time. Since having my box braids installed, I have felt more like myself than I ever have in my life. With time, my mother learned to love my half-up and down hairstyles, or my large bun filled with hair when I return from the gym. I don’t miss the straighteners or hot combs and my hair has grown more this past year than it ever has in my life. My roots are thick and healthy, and slowly but surely, I am seeing my natural pattern from under my braids. Just a few years ago, I never would have thought I would be able to wear my natural hair because it was just so heat damaged.
This is just not my story, this is the story of millions of little Black girls who had to learn to love their hair in a world that told them they couldn’t. Watching natural hair videos on wash-n-go’s and twist-outs, and going to the back of the aisle to find the “ethnic” section of hair products that are so expensive that some people go through hundreds of dollars just to find their staple hair product. For many, this used to be Eco-Styler Gel, which created defined curls for any hair type and even acted as edge tamer when slicked down with a brush. Recent news has surfaced, however, of the chemicals in this product that causes hair breakage, dryness and scalp irritation. Sound familiar? Yes, similar to the perms we grew up having, we were lead to believe that something that was meant to make our hair flourish was actually destroying it.
Systemic oppression has a way of permeating through generations of people until a group of people decides they have had enough. For me, and many Black girls, when I see a Black girl on TV rocking her Pineapple in a commercial or when the girl with 4c hair plays the main love interest in Black Panther like Nakia, played by Kenyan native, Lupita Nyong’o I am filled with pride for our hair. We are finally embracing who we were meant to be and though it may seem like hair isn’t important, it is to me. The Natural Hair Movement is more than just putting down chemical straighteners, it is loving the part of ourselves that we were taught not to appreciate and supporting Black businesses along the way. Although natural hair is not for everyone, the importance comes from having the opportunity to choose whether it is for you or not.
That’s more than what I was given, and if I can change the perception of what is deemed as “good” hair for future generations, I will certainly keep rocking my protective styles.