After twenty-three years of chemical straightening I’ve returned to my natural hair texture. Huzzah!
If you have the time and the patience, bear with me. Those of you who have read my previous post on the subject, know that I’ve got some major feelings tied up in this hair bid’ness. My shrink already has her hands full with all my other neuroses, this long, rambling blog post serves as stand-in therapy on this issue.
After years of ambivalence, I was motivated to make the change once and for all, when my partner and I started planning our move to California. One of the first things we had to figure out was we how would afford life in a pricey state on a single income while carrying the cost of my return to school. We had some serious trimming to do budget-wise, so we made a spreadsheet of all our current expenses. When we added up the cost of all of my salon appointments, including taxes and tips, I was spending close to $1500 per year to relax my hair!
Fifteen hundred dollars could cover our moving expenses or the cost of my school books. Fifteen hundred dollars would pay for a year’s worth of long distance phone calls to family and friends. For fifteen hundred dollars, I could attend three national conferences or buy the family a new computer. I could take my son to a major league baseball game every weekend, or enroll him in an amazing summer camp or take a trip to Yosemite or Tahoe or some other magnificent destination. There were so many other uses for the money I was spending on relaxers.
It wasn’t worth it.
I’m happy to invest money in my personal care and grooming, but having straight hair hadn’t felt like an investment for quite sometime. It didn’t make me feel good, figuratively or literally. The terrible sting of chemicals on my scalp left me feeling ashamed and resentful. I was straightening my hair, not because I because it made me feel beautiful but because it made me feel safe, inconspicuous. Relaxers made my head uncontroversial. Appeasing others at my own expense is not the person I want to be. But the memory of hurtful things people used to say about my natural hair still loomed large. I was scared.
I realized that this was probably one of those situations where I’d have to face my fears in order to get past them. It was time to invest my money and my energy into better things. I cancelled my next standing appointment at the salon. I was going natural! I felt strong and empowered…for almost ten whole minutes.
Then I panicked.
It had been so long. I didn’t really remember my natural texture. I didn’t know what to do. Did I just let it grow? Did I need a weave or wigs? Special products? New shampoo? What?
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that my head wasn’t going to break out in nappy curls right away. With the exception of some faint kinking at the roots, my hair was still straight. I literally had to grow into this change, which meant I had time to figure stuff out.
I went to the Internet and Googled something like “RELAXED TO NATURAL OMGHAIRFLAIL!” Bam! A myriad of websites, blogs and vlogs about the wonderful world of natural black-people hair.
I knew of women who went natural by doing what’s know as The Big Chop, which essentially means cutting off all your relaxed hair at once and re-growing it from scratch. That scared the crap out of me. My hair wasn’t spectacular…but I needed it. Otherwise, I’d just be a head and face which…ACK! And…I couldn’t! And…NO!
A second Google search revealed that going natural without a big chop is totally a thing. I could let the natural texture grow in while doing “mini-chops” every few weeks to gradually remove my relaxed hair. It would take a long time – a year, maybe two – to rid myself of all the processed hair. It would also be far more challenging to maintain the health of two radically different hair textures. But the alternative was super-short and that was NOT EVER HAPPENING. So I got myself a pair of trimming scissors and settled in for the long transition.
It took about ten weeks before I really started to notice a substantial change in my hair. My new growth was dense, extremely curly and kind of coarse. Managing my naps while the rest of my hair was straight was tough. My hair started snapping off at the place where the two textures met (typical during transition). I started styling my hair in flat twists and up dos. The styles keep my fragile hair reasonably protected and helped conceal some of the transitional awkwardness.
Something I heard time and again from women in the natural hair community was that changing my hair would be an emotional journey and that I might be surprised by what came out of the experience. That was totally true. I would vacillate from one emotional state to another: Fear, excitement, fear, joy, fear, fear, pride, fear, absolute terror, fear, wonderment, fear.
One day, I was in the shower, washing my emerging coils and I thought “I like these.” It was nice and very new not to feel at odds with the kink. Suddenly I was overcome by curiosity. I really wanted to see what that hair would looked like all on it’s own. I got out of the shower, found my scissors and cut the relaxer off a discreet patch of hair near the nape of my neck. Once they were free, my natural strands popped back toward my scalp like a tightly wound spring. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s my hair.”
I wanted that hair and only that hair. But I was still terrified of The Big Chop. It was too drastic. Yes, it would grow out eventually but it would take months, years even to regain any significant length. What if I looked awful in the meantime?
Yet every time I put my hands in my hair my curiosity grew. What was going on up there? The darn relaxer was in my way, distorting my texture and altering my curl pattern. I began trimming more aggressively. I cut off more near my neck. I went back to YouTube and watched videos of other women who had big chopped. Many had been afraid going into it, but they all seemed so happy once it was done. I began to think maybe, just maybe I could do it too.
First I’d have to find someone to do the chopping. It was one thing to self-cut small sections of my hair but no way could I shear my entire head without making a hash of it. I didn’t want to see my old stylists for fear they would try to talk me out of my natural plans. After careful consideration, I asked my mom if she would do it during my next visit to her place. She instantly agreed to help, because my mom is lovely that way.
Even after I made the decision, I had a great deal of anxiety about having super-short hair. (This is where I get a little heavy. I appreciate that you’ve stayed with me this long. Hang in a little longer, ‘kay?)
I was worried about what others would think. But when I told people my plans, I received an outpouring of enthusiastic support. My partner was uber-excited for me. My friends sent me pictures of women rocking short, stylish afros. I certainly didn’t have to worry about being shunned by my loved ones.
I was still very concerned about the fact I didn’t know what I’d look like. A super-short style would change the dynamics of my face – even my body – and who knew what the results would be? I might be less attractive. And then it struck me, in a super-clear moment of disempowering shame that thought of being unattractive scares the crap out of me.
I legit love clothes and make-up and all look-y look, dress-up stuff. I adored styling my dolls as a little girl and now that I’m grown, I’m like my own doll, except way better because I’m not plastic. I’m a real person with thoughts, a heart, a soul, and a life. Score!
But even though I enjoy clothing and grooming myself (in ways that are very much line with conventional notions of femininity) I also feel I’m expected to at least strive toward - if not to attain – certain beauty standards. I should want to be pretty and if I can’t be, I should feel badly about it. There are times when I really do feel that my right to be seen, to be heard, and to take up space in a room proportional to my perceived level of attractiveness.
I suspect I’m not the only person who feels this way. I constantly hear women apologize and castigate themselves because they’re the “wrong” size/shape, they lack the expected adornments, or have committed some other perceived offense, which basically amounts to “I Had The Audacity To Be Out In The World Looking Like What I Actually Look Like.” I want to tell them to stop saying those things. Sometimes I do tell them. Which might be helpful but I realize it’s also a bit hypocritical because the truth is I struggle with those feelings and I know I’ve buckled under the weight of those expectations more than once.
I do feel, at times, that beauty is my obligation and making myself attractive is a major clause in my contract with the rest of society. I feel like I’m always expected to care about how I look, that being pretty is something I’m supposed to want.
Except it isn’t true. It’s pervasive and I feel it, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a big pile of toxic nonsense crapping all over my self worth. And yes it gives me feelings; feelings that are very strong and very real. But the truth is, I can choose to take beauty off my list of priorities and that is totally okay.
So I sat down to have a serious talk with myself. I said to myself, Self…
That is some toxic nonesense. Don’t make choices based on toxic nonesense. You know you have value, no matter what you look like. This is your body and your hair and you’re allowed to do whatever you want to do with it. If you don’t love the way short hair looks on you, that’s okay. You can still love who you are. So get over yourself, Nadine. It’s just hair.
My real self-talk was less eloquent and Hallmark-ish, but the gist was there. I felt more courageous about The Big Chop. And even though I’m kind of embarrassed that I needed courage to get a haircut, that’s honestly what it took. Don’t judge me too harshly, OK?
It took two decades of hair trauma and six months of transition but I’m finally learning embrace my hair, as is. I’m becoming reacquainted with my kinky, nappy head and you know what? I really am happy I did this! I’m newly minted naturalista and I’m happy to report that so far life post-relaxer is great and not so scary.
Not so scary at all.
Already Pretty contributor Nadine Thornhill is a sex educator and blogger at Adorkable Undies. She is a new resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, having recently moved from Ottawa, Ontario to pursue a PhD in human sexuality. Her writing tends toward subjects such as clitorises, feminism, vibrators, body image, gender politics and non-monogamy. She is a passionately committed Scrabble player and lifelong klutz, having sustained 16 concussions to date.