I was twelve the first time I relaxed the thick, dark mess on my head that I had called hair for as long as I could remember.
It had been a school night. My mom’s partner called me into the brightly lit bathroom. She had me sit down on the edge of the bathtub as she made her preparations. I watched her mix together various liquids and creams in a plastic container, using a popsicle stick. The smell of rotten eggs filled the enclosed space and I flared my nostrils in disgust.
When she was finished stirring, then began the painstakingly long process of combing out the nest-like clumps within my beastly mane. It was a feeling I was altogether used to; every morning up until that age, my mom’s partner had done my hair in the early morning hours before school. Still, the stinging and sometimes tear-inducing process made me cringe every time the comb reached a particularly troublesome spot close to my scalp.
Having de-knotted my hair and parted it into several sections, with a tint brush, she carefully applied the cream solution. Starting from the scalp, she worked her way down each puffy strand until my entire head looked like it had been dunked in mayonnaise.
The cream felt cool and nice, but it was the calm before the storm.
“Ouch Ouch Ouch – my scalp! It burnssssss,” I hissed. It took me everything to resist the urge to stick my head underneath the tub faucet. Anyone who has experienced a relaxer knows that, after a certain amount of time, the relaxer may irritate or even burn the scalp. And since (tmi) I have a chronic dandruff problem, my scalp was especially sensitive. After fifteen minutes, my mom’s partner allowed me the mercy of rinsing my hair with the sweet-smelling shampoo and conditioner that came with the relaxer. And that’s when I looked into the mirror and was amazed at what I saw.
Slick, straight dark hair that was a few inches longer than it had been. I almost didn’t recognize myself, since for so long I had love-hate battled with a curly fro of epic proportions. Back then, I didn’t give much thought as to why I decided to relax my hair other than my growing intolerance for the pain it caused me. I certainly hadn’t thought about any underlying insecurities about my hair type in comparison to my white, straight-haired friends and Black, braided friends. Not until now.
As a Biracial child, I experienced two sides of the same “hair experience”, so to speak. Like most white girls, my hair grew long and fast. I could wear it down, in a pony, or even in pigtails. Like Black girls, my hair required careful treatment in the form of lotions, oils, conditioners, and wrapping. Luckily, I had no need to wash it every single day and could maintain curls and other styles that my white friends could not. I was the subject of oddity, envy, and sometimes ridicule.
“Can I touch your hair? It looks so curly and thick!”
“I wish I had hair like you!”
“How come you never straighten your hair? It would look prettier like that.”
In some ways, the comments made about my hair reflected what people really thought of me. Perhaps, they even revealed the commenter’s own insecurities. In a larger sense, they spoke volumes about the internalized standards of beauty that our society upholds: one of pale skin and straight, long blonde hair. These standards are what Black women (and women of color, in general) must continually face. They are invisible models of beauty that I eventually had to confront when I made the ‘untakebackable’ choice to chemically alter my hair texture.
Oh yes, oppression and scrutiny lie in the realm of beauty as well. At a certain point, all Black women will confront the notion that their natural hair is not seen as beautiful according to mainstream, Eurocentric standards. This is handled in a few ways.
Sometimes, after a bit of peer pressure or just family tradition, these women consider using chemical straighteners, dyes, and weave. This is nothing new. From the early 20th century, beginning with Madam CJ Walker and ending with today’s companies, like Sally Hansen, hair care products are integrated into the lives of nearly all females of color. Brand names of a nearly $200 million industry – Pink, Olive Oil, Shea Moisture, Cantu – stick with us for a lifetime.
Other times, these women say “screw it” and shave their heads or maintain beautiful, gravity-defying afros. They look back at the Black Power movement of the 60s, with figureheads like Angela Davis and her “power-fro” Afro. They’re like celebrities Erykah Badu and Rihanna, who’s hair game is unparalleled and inspiring and, most of all, radiates that carefree, give-no-fucks attitude. These women stand as symbols of Black female power, whether they choose to go through with the “big chop” and go all-natural or have weaves.
In essence, Black hair is political. It mirrors the changes within the Black community. And that word – “choice” – is crucial when considering the conversations surrounding what is most commonly referred to as the Natural Hair Movement.
This movement isn’t new. It’s actually been a thing for many years, but has recently exploded in the form of websites, blogs, books, hashtags and Youtube videos all talking about the same things – how to care for your locs/curls/fro, how to make the transition to a natural hair lifestyle, and most importantly, how to cultivate a love for your natural self. Because it’s not just about hair; it’s about changing one’s self image and subverting cultural norms in the name of freedom – the freedom to express one’s true, natural beauty.
Making the transition to natural hair can be an empowering expression of self-love and acceptance. But there is another side to this movement that has some people steering clear. Because beneath all of the positivity, inspiration and love, is the movement also creating a kind of gap between individuals of color? Is it just another movement dictating what women should do with their bodies? Is the idea of being “natural” implying that those who don’t make the transition are “fake” and not being true to themselves?
“I think that [the movement]is really cool and it can be a liberating experience for some people, especially someone who’s Black and who might want to finally wear their hair the way it naturally is,” explains Taylor Mason, a sophomore English Major at La Salle University. “I feel like even though there are good intentions behind it, there’s still this idea of what “good hair” is in the Black community.”
So, what exactly is “good hair”?
“Well, say I try to look up a video about how to change my hairstyle up. I always find videos on how to change my texture instead. On Natural Hair blogs, they always show pictures of mixed people with curly hair and not everyone’s hair is like that,” Mason continues. “So, even still, there’s a sort of standard or hierarchy of ‘good hair’. The Natural Movement upholds this “good natural hair”, which is this idealized, super curly texture, you know? Not everyone has hair like that.”
The elitism within the Natural Hair Movement often turns off individuals like Taylor Mason, the owner of what she calls “impossible hair”, from joining in on the positivity. An underlying division is fostered between high-horsian naturalistas and people who ritualistically spend hundreds of dollars getting perms, relaxers and weave. Neither side is wrong, but both sides have their flaws. One is arrogance, the other is a potentially damaged self image.
First, let’s get one thing straight: weave and hair chemicals are not for emulating whiteness. Arguably, they might have been during more socially turbulent times – when Black people would use it as a means of assimilation into white society – but this is no longer the case. Now, American women are relatively freer in terms of what they choose to wear and how they look. Hair has just become an extension of fashion and personal expression, just as having “natural hair” has become a lifestyle choice.
“I think weave is just a way to change up how you want your hair to look. It originated as a way to play around with having a totally different hair texture, and there were points in time when people were more critical and frowned upon it,” shared Dyane Chandler, a proponent of free choice when it comes to how one styles their hair. “But now, more and more people have access to it. It’s fun. I think weaves are awesome, and even though natural hair is the new trend right now, I think weaves will always be around because there’s always a demand.”
If there’s one thing that both pro- and non-naturalistas can learn from each other, it’s this: there’s nothing fake about being yourself. Whether you bravely chop your expensive locks to start anew, or continue investing into that forever-fabulous “do”, the only thing that matters is that you’re happy with who you are and aren’t falling prey to criticism from others. As cliche as it sounds, being “natural” is really just being yourself.
“When I was young, I got relaxers because my hair was impossible. My natural hair is so hard to take care of, and as a kid I couldn’t do it,” Taylor Mason recalled not so fondly. “My mom never learned how to take care of my hair because she had always got relaxers, too. And to some extent, she learned how to manage it, but she decided to take me to get relaxers. I don’t think it was to make me more white, but rather because she didn’t have the time to put into my hair. It’s all convenience.”
I found myself relating to my friend Taylor’s experience, and it helped relieve the doubts in the back of my mind as to whether I was really keeping my hair straight for me (to save myself the tie and pain) and not for other’s viewing pleasure.
“Personally, natural hair is not that fun to take care of. It varies, but I think some people get the impression that it is easy, that you wake up with a bouncing, beautiful afro. It’s not,” Taylor laughed. “But if that’s what people choose to put effort into, for the sake of being true to themselves, then who am I to criticize? It’s exactly what I’m doing when I get my hair done, isn’t it?”