I remember sitting in my grandma’s kitchen waiting for the hot comb to heat up. As it began to get hotter, I could smell the burnt hair and product fumes rising from the teeth of the comb. It was nearly impossible for me to sit still as the piercing hot comb hovered centimeters away from my tender scalp. A few years later, my mom decided that I should start getting relaxers. I could never resist scratching my head, so every time she applied the relaxers, they burned. I learned that my hair was something that needed to be straight and tamed by any means necessary, even if that meant chemical and heat burns.
By the time I was 20, my hair had seen its fair share of relaxers, weaves, flat irons, and drawstring ponytails. She was dry, lifeless, and desperately in need of some love. At this point in my life, I was just hiding her under sew-in weaves. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to go completely natural and stop getting chemical relaxers. I envisioned that, as I got my hair cut, I would feel a sense of liberation. I felt cutting my hair was going to bring some sense of peace into my life. I felt as though I would be cutting all of the toxic notions surrounding beauty standards and black femininity out of my life.
The big day came, and I went to my hair appointment. For some ill-informed reason, I had decided to go to the Paul Mitchell School across the street from my house. My stylist was a young white man who essentially seemed terrified of my kinky hair. He immediately went and found a black teacher to help him. The teacher walked up with a warm smile, putting us both somewhat at ease. He understood that I wanted the relaxed ends cut and went to work with an air of confidence as he instructed the student. As I sat in the chair, I thought I would get up feeling like a mixture of Audre Lorde and Nina Simone.
But, as he handed me the small mirror and turned my chair towards the larger mirror, I didn’t feel any of those feelings. The haircut looked as I had pictured in my mind. However, I didn’t have any joyful or peaceful feelings about it. All of those beauty standards that I thought I was leaving behind were staring right back at me. I smiled and told the stylist, “Thank you” as I tried to conceal my genuine discomfort. I went home smiling, pretending that I truly loved my new haircut.
I had intended my haircut to be an act of liberation, but it was making me recognize all of the internalized oppression that I was holding. For the first time, I had to acknowledge that a huge part of my femme presentation was having long, fake hair. I didn’t feel as femme or desirable with short hair. Luckily, over the past year, I had developed a love for wearing bows in my hair and had built a small collection. So, in an effort to make myself feel better, I started donning my newly cut naps with bows. It did make me feel a little better. I felt as if though the haircut weren’t that bad anymore, that the bow somehow maintained the femininity that I secretly felt that I was losing.
The length of my hair wasn’t the only issue. My hair’s texture was completely new to me. I had the chance to feel and see my hair in its “natural” state. But this natural hair wasn’t the manageable, relaxed texture that I had grown accustomed to over the course of my life. It was dry, thick, and unruly. And even though it was a tiny fro, it had a powerful knack for breaking combs. In the beginning, most days I didn’t do anything to it. I’d wake up, throw on a bow, and leave the house. It appeared easy, but it was only easy because of my ignorance. It didn’t take too long before I went back to wearing weaves and braids to avoid dealing with my hair altogether.
Life post-college hit me with a hard reality, though. It’s not easy finding sustainable, long-term work. Typically, when you don’t have consistent paying work, you don’t have consistent money. When you don’t have consistent money, you can’t afford to get your hair done all the time. When you can’t afford to get your hair done, you have to learn how to do it yourself – or, at least, attempt to learn.
Learning to take care of my hair means spending many hours watching YouTube videos and perusing the blogs of various naturalistas. I spend hours researching different natural hair care lines, homemade hair masks, and low maintenance protective styles. I’m fairly sure that, over the past three years, I’ve earned at least an Associate’s degree in Quita’s 4C hair. I could write full dissertations on my hair’s love of coconut oil and shea butter and its disdain of wash-and-gos. But I think one of the biggest lessons is that my hair needs love and patience.
When spending full days to shampoo, condition, deep condition, and style, I’ve had plenty of moments to reflect on my hair journey. For 20 years of my life, my hair had been soaked in chemicals every six weeks, flattened with 400 degrees of hot metal, bound for weeks at a time with hair from another human’s scalp, and generally undervalued. I was devoting all my time to changing my hair, even at the cost of its health. In its natural state, my hair revealed its fragility and its resiliency. It is thick and unruly, and it doesn’t need to be tamed by combs. Detangled, yes; tamed, no. It becomes dry when it doesn’t have enough moisture – like most living things. My hair is an extension of my body and deserves the same intentional love and care.
I’m three years into this journey, and I’m still learning about my hair. Some things are simple. For instance, my hair loves coconut oil, but it loves Jamaican black castor oil more. Other things are a little more complex. My hair prefers little to no manipulation, but it tends to dry out severely in long-term protective styles. The journey hasn’t been as easy as I had envisioned, but I am still reaching my goal of liberation. When I do length checks, they’re small celebrations of how far my hair has come since that fateful day at the Paul Mitchell School. Braids are no longer a means of hiding my hair, but a means of protecting it. I no longer secretly think about getting a relaxer to solve everything. And most importantly, I’m more concerned with the health of my hair than what it looks like in relation to my femininity or beauty.
Even though the process of cutting my hair has been nothing like what I had hoped, I’ve survived, and my hair has survived. My hair is thriving, if I may say so myself. And while it’s been hard, this journey has taught me invaluable lessons that transcend my hair follicles.[Headline image: The photograph shows a black woman with short-cropped hair. She is smiling and wearing a gray jacket over a red and blue shirt. In her teeth, she is holding a long-stemmed rose near the flower; her hands are holding the rest of the stem, which is parallel to the ground.]