Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person?
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend?
Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?
I am expressing my creativity!
— India.Arie, “I Am Not My Hair”
Like many women of African heritage, I have fond memories of sitting on a pillow on the living room floor while my mother oiled my scalp and plaited/braided my hair. When she was feeling really ambitious, she would create tiny braids and put equally small beads on the end of each braid, long before Venus and Serena debuted the style on an international stage.
On special occasions, like Easter Sunday, she would turn on the stove, heat up the hot comb and sit me on a stool in the middle of the kitchen. I did my best to keep still in order to avoid getting my neck or ears burned, while the smell of burning hair and grease floated through the air and Chaka Khan sang “I’m Every Woman” on the radio.
Once my hair was sufficiently pressed, we would get out the Dippity-Do gel, a few sponge rollers, and a box of end papers, so that the hair curling could begin. Early the next morning, she would carefully remove the curlers, comb out my style and send me on my merry way, hoping that my style would last through the day.
Fast forward to the age of 13, when I was taken to the salon to receive my first relaxer, which allowed me to start managing my own hair. I must admit that I missed the days of sitting and connecting with my mom in the kitchen, but as a young woman, I needed to learn how to do my own ‘do.
As a teenager in the early 1980s, I must admit that I was a Jheri-Curl wearing sister for a time. (There’s a picture of me posing with the Michael Jackson “Thriller” album cover somewhere. Ola Ray, his leading lady in the iconic “Thriller” music video, didn’t have anything on me!)
In the years since high school, my hair has been fried, dyed, lyed and laid to the side in so many ways that I can’t even count them all. I have worn braids, a Halle Berry-like short cut, a two-tone bob, cornrows, wigs and latch-hook weaves. However, it was a two-chemical fiasco that led to me going natural just shy of two years ago.
When I found myself beginning to lose my hair due to a bad mix of relaxer and color, I told the stylist, who was trying to repair the mess that another so-called professional had created, to cut it off. Many were shocked that I made such a radical change, but hanging on to a head full of damaged hair didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
I have to admit that there have been times when I have struggled with the process of rediscovering the hair that I hadn’t seen since I was a child. You must remember that my mom was the last one to style my natural hair and years of chemical usage have changed its texture. My mother has sported a teeny weeny afro for several years, but the whole “happy to be nappy” vibe is new for me. Since she keeps her hair cut close and I decided to let my hair grow, we are on different natural hair journeys. I am thankful for the multitude of natural hair stylists, skilled bloggers and meetup groups that share information and evoke the spirit of sitting in the living room or on the front stoop and learning about Black beauty from Black beauties.
A few months ago, I was faced with choice between wearing my natural hair or a straight wig for a job interview. The style of my hair had nothing to do with my ability to do the work or my character as a person, so I rocked it naturally and got the job, in an environment that is relatively conservative. When sharing that story with another coily-haired sister, she said that it was a shame that I even had to consider camouflaging my natural beauty in order to obtain a job, which is something that women of other races never have to think about. They may wonder what to wear, but they never have to consider changing their hair just to fit in, unless of course it is bright pink (and even then it depends on the workplace). In a culture that does not generally celebrate Afrocentric beauty, it is our harsh reality, even though old mindsets are slowly beginning to change. Quite honestly, I have gotten more more side-eyes from women who look like I do than I have from men and women who don’t.
I don’t see myself going back to a relaxed style, primarily because I enjoy having the ability to sport a fro on Monday, an updo on Tuesday, braids on Wednesday, a twist out on Thursday, and a flat-ironed style on Saturday. (I don’t change my style that frequently, but you get the point: I have lots of options as a natural girl.)
Let me make it clear that I don’t have any issues with women who choose to wear relaxers or weaves or any other hairdo that is different from my own. (How could I, when I have worn so many styles in my own lifetime?) I am saddened by the attitudes of Black women (and men) who make sweeping judgments of their sisters based upon things that have nothing to do with the “souls that live within.” Each and every one of us has the freedom of choice and external things, like hair and skin color, have absolutely nothing to do with who we are on the inside.When I look at other women of African descent, all I see is beauty, plain and simple.
I hope that by sharing my hair story, you will be encouraged to embrace your own story and celebrate the stories of every sister that you encounter. Never forget: We are NOT our hair!
Please feel free to share any anecdotes from your hair story. I would love to hear from you!