My hair and I have had a long and turbulent relationship—I have done nearly everything imaginable to my tresses to help make it easier for me to style and look cute. My hair is not what is known as “easy to manage” or “naturally wavy”—and by wavy I mean those soft, bouncy curls you see on just about every model from the early 70s. You know, what in the black community we call (thanks to Spike Lee outing us in School Daze and Chris Rock further outing us in his documentary) “Good Hair.”
Between the straightening comb and curling irons, the relaxer treatments, the various chemical curling processes and the myriad other heat styling tools I have had nearly every possible hairstyle that requires more than one inch of hair. It always vexed me that my sister had the “wash and go curls” and I had to put in serious work to have a decent, acceptable hairdo. And as a person who did not care for spending lots of time self-styling, I often wound up with ponytails, scarves, hats, and much later, various hairpieces to make it look like I knew what I was doing.
I was growing tired of going through the hair care hazards—burnt scalp, splits ends, breaking hair—but didn’t want to lose the ease of combing through reasonably straightened hair to meet long-held standards of beauty. I especially didn’t want to do any experimentation right before my only nephew’s wedding, where being the cute auntie was absolutely essential. But I was getting tired of spending hundreds of dollars and hours in the salon chair getting the perfect 2-day coif. It also didn’t help that the stylist who had been doing my hair for the last 2 ½ years quit to open her own shop and the girl I allowed to straighten my hair for the wedding/birthday weekend left a huge red 2-inch chemical burn on the very visible right side of my hairline.
I am approaching 9 months since I got frustrated with my breaking hair and sensitive scalp and went to JCPenney salon to have all of my hair chopped down to the non-chemically treated growth. Embracing the ‘fro has not been an easy journey. I like having hair. I like being able to shake it from side to side, I like putting barrettes and combs in it. I especially like being able to run my fingers through my straightened hair and feel soft, silky tresses; getting used to a different kind of soft—the tight, kinky roughness that had been equated with “no-good nappiness” all my life—was taking some mental reconditioning. There are a lot more visible natural hair styling options and a plethora of products on the market that weren’t available when I was a child—as least, not as widely available, well-known or embraced. There was more than Afros and braids (which, with the help of extensions, I did wear for a little while), and they looked really pretty…at least on other heads they did. While I was getting the consolation that my “defiant” hair could be molded into other cute options, it was also dawning on me that caring for this “new natural” took the same amount of work (if not more) to maintain. I had to resign myself that to some degree I was about to become one of those “hair girls”—you know, the ones who spend hours prepping, setting and protecting their hair.
There are certain advantages to this naturalness: the headband and scarf have replaced the scrunchie and the barrette as my go-to styling accessories. Even though I have to put a few creams, gels and oils in my hair to get near the look my sister can get with plain water, the headband ensures that I will retain something close to my comfortable level of cute. Plus whenever I have the luxury of going to the salon to get my hair coiled, a couple of minutes’ worth of maintenance every other day gets me a respectable 2 week ‘do—and a really nice twist out if I work it right. And of course, the biggest benefit of all—not enduring the scabs and tender spots from the super relaxer that had to sit for ages to get the long, luxurious locks. I still don’t have the patience to do a lot of the cute styles I’ve been coming across on my own, not to mention the copious shedding of “spiders” whenever I do my hair….and I hear with length it doesn’t get any easier.
Whether I will fully embrace this natural, healthy beauty of my God-given untreated hair remains to be seen. It’s a process—when you’ve done the headful of Shirley Temple curls and spent your youth whipping your hair before Willow said it was cool, mentally taking African Influenced coifs from strong and militant to feminine and “pretty” is a big leap. Particularly when, historically and universally, most of society has dismissed them as undesirable and unattractive (read: unacceptable), and ESPECIALLY when you don’t look like you fit the typical profile for those styles. It’s a lot more helpful that natural hair variations are becoming more visible on print models and actors—even Viola Davis is sporting her red close-cropped Afro at major Hollywood events (and looking fierce, I might add); still, it’s hard to leave those old stigmas and “hair envy” moments in the past where they belong. I guess I just need to listen a little harder to my inner India.Arie and Jill Scott.