I was about seven years old when I got my first relaxer. I was shook. I remember the pink box with the smiling black girl who looked just like me. I remember reading the instructions along with my mom. People talk about reading the back of cereal boxes, but what about relaxer boxes? I remember the entire process.
I peel the plastic gloves from the instructions and read them while my mother goes to work on sectioning my hair. She hands me the plastic container with the activator and relaxer. It feels like a science experiment. It smells like a science experiment. Using a wooden popsicle stick, she coats my hair beginning with my roots and going to my ends. The cool sensation on my scalp relieves the itching and burning. For about 30-45 minutes, I sit with a plastic shower cap on my head, learning to ignore the pain.
At the end, my hair smells like Luster’s Pink Oil Moisturizer, and I rock a variation of ponytails with colorful hair ties and hair baubles. Maybe a day or so later, my mom would braid my hair — usually a complicated plait I could maintain for a few weeks, or crochet-weave style for a little under a month.
Whenever I got box braids or kinky twists, my edges would scream. I’d fall asleep with my head on my mother’s lap, a sore tailbone, and sometimes a smack on the side of the head for not keeping still in a certain direction. I would have a headache for about a day and have to sleep on my face or maneuver my head so I could avoid the painful strain on my tender scalp. It was worth it though — so very worth it — especially if I looked like Brandy or the Williams Sisters, at the end of it.
For us, hair is a rite of passage. Chimamanda Nzogi Adichie writes,
It was black-black, so thick it drank two containers of relaxer at the salon, so full it took hours under the hooded dryer, and, when finally released from pink plastic rollers, sprang free and full, flowing down her back like a celebration. Her father called it a crown of glory.
While every woman’s experience isn’t the same, there are many similarities in our stories. The intimacy of another woman’s fingers in our hair, the avoidance of water, the silk scarves, the compliments and comparisons, to weave or not to weave, glue or sew-ins, a wig or crochet, twists or braids, natural or relaxed. Each decision narrates the sort of woman we decide to be.
My younger sister, T, was the first woman I saw choose to let her natural hair be natural. She would do her own braids and spend time taking care of her coils in a way I never thought possible. Growing her hair “up and out” as celebrity stylist Felicia Leatherwood would say.
India Arie sang, “I am not my hair.” And while the sentiment is true and empowering, in reality that wasn’t always the case for me. Comparison was a huge deal growing up. I compared girls with lighter skin, colored eyes, a slimmer body type, better shoes, or a prettier voice, to the me I saw in the mirror every day. It ate away at my self-worth. But when I started taking pride in my hair, the effects of years of negative self-talk and unfair comparison began to fall away.
I was 20 years old when I decided to go natural. I tend to avoid trends, and at that time I saw a massive swell in natural hair culture. So, I avoided it for a long time because choosing my natural hair meant choosing a part of me I wasn’t sure I could share with the world.
The online community, hair influencers, instructional videos, and natural hair blogs became a haven for my questions and experiments. The first time I took scissors to my unrelaxed hair after a wash I felt like the most powerful woman I knew. Shortly after my big chop, I tattooed the word brave in my own handwriting, on my arm to remind myself of the sort of woman I am and acknowledge the risk it takes to own my hair.
It’s been 12 years. My hair has finally passed my collarbone. I am in love with my curl pattern. Why am I still talking about hair? Because my hair became the gateway to loving the woman I was becoming — I am becoming. Using my fingers to detangle, retwist, crochet, braid, and coif my 3C/4A-combination hair still teaches me to say yes to myself.
I am learning how beautiful, imperfect, and sacred I am. A yes to me establishes an inner stillness that defends against micro-aggressions and opinionated ignorance. It fortifies against self-sabotage and heals the fractures of misunderstandings while still telling the truth.
Whether using a straightening relaxer, bleach to color, a salon blow-out, or conditioner to define my natural curl, the sacredness of my decision to affirm the most unique parts of myself turns me into the sort of woman I pray my future children revere.
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