Fun fact: I’ve never actually been in control of my own hair. Seriously. Sometimes other people have a handle on it and sometimes it has a mind of its own—but I most certainly haven’t gained control over my hair.
As a little kid, my mother would always help me get ready in the morning. My natural hair would be sectioned off and woven into puffy braids, every morning—like clockwork. My scrunchies and barrettes always had to coordinate with my outfit. Once I reached second grade, my mother decided to start relaxing my hair. We arrived at our usual hair salon and I fidgeted in my seat the entire time. Four hours and $60 later, everything was totally different.
As soon as I got out of the chair I shook my head back and forth obsessively. For the first time in my life I could feel each and every strand of hair on my head moving independently of one another. My hair was like everyone else’s! I couldn’t get enough of it. I could feel each breeze that flowed over every inch of my scalp. I could finally rock pigtails like all the other girls and when I ran in gym class I could feel my ponytail flop around behind me.
At the time, I didn’t realize all of the new responsibilities that came with my new hair. I hadn’t agreed to all of these responsibilities, but my mother was very clear:
- Wrap your hair in a doobie every night so it doesn’t get tangled
- Rub leave-in conditioner on your ends every few nights
- Don’t roll around on the floor and tangle your hair
- Don’t get your hair wet after you get it done
- Every time it’s wash your hair has to be blown out
- After a while it wears off, so every few months you’re either back in braids or in the salon.
As a result, heat became my best friend. Mmmm, well, more like a frenemy. When I was younger, I was only allowed to dry my hair naturally if it was in braids. Otherwise, I had to section off and blow dry my hair for hours. Once I reached middle school I ditched my braids and barrettes and lived for relaxer and deep conditioning. Every few months I’d head back to the salon where my hair would be dipped in chemicals and burned by hair dryers. I’d have to sit 3 hours for each visit. I needed to keep going back to the salon because my hair would cycle. It would start out fresh and flowing, then would tire our and fall flat. Only then would I be allowed to get my hair back to its relaxed state. It became my own personal joke.
“Looks like I’m at the end of the cycle”
“Your hair looks different.” “Yeah, it kind of cycles”
I didn’t know what effects the chemicals were having on my hair, but I didn’t think much of it. That was mostly my mom’s responsibility. My only jobs were to keep my hair dry and remind my mom to help me wrap it at night. Occasionally, if the cream touched my scalp for too long it burned and scabbed over, after a while you get used to it. All I knew was that my hair looked good straight and that I liked the way it flopped around when I pulled it back in a pony tail. If I were to wash my hair a home, it had to be blown out. As the saying goes, beauty is pain. It didn’t matter to me that I’d never seen my hair 100% natural, but for a while I felt like it did for everyone else.
Halfway through middle school people began asking me what race I was and when I told them, they found it hard to believe. I never really fit in well with the black crowd because my skin was light and my hair wasn’t typical of African Americans. I wasn’t accepted into the Spanish crowd either because I couldn’t speak fluent Spanish and my hair wasn’t long and flowing. I floated around as a racially ambiguous girl trying to find my place in middle school. Eventually, I fell into a crowd that was mostly blonde haired and blue eyed. They braided each other’s hair and dyed their ends to keep up with what was trendy. I stood apart from them because I could never do that. Doing anything with my hair was always a process. Braiding it meant bending it. My hair was highly impressionable to manipulation, so if I were to braid it then it would stay bent. In other words, to keep my hair straight for as long as possible, I couldn’t play with my hair like my friends could.
Towards the end of high school, I wanted more control over my hair. Relaxing became something I did only for special occasions- holidays, family celebrations, etc. But for the time in-between, I wanted nothing to do with it. Years of chemical treatments had altered the chemistry of my hair, the treatment no longer lasted as long as it used to. My hair cycle changed and the mane-stage was born. After getting wet, my hair expanded and every wash brought me 1 inch closer to a complete mane. Yet, I could never really let the mane free—after every wash my roots had to be blown out. As the mane grew, more questions were raised about my heritage, and once explained, all of my ambiguity disappeared. People believed I was black if my hair was puffy and appeared unruly. To society, that made sense.
By the time senior year rolled around, my denial of chemical treatments had won me 5 whole months without a dollop of the once-magical cream. By the end of the school year my hair was huge! My hair represented the quirks of my personality and, honestly, I felt like a rebel. My hair finally lived up to the mane-name and dangled far past my shoulders. It made me proud.
Sadly, my pride was short-lived. Once prom and graduation rolled around, I caved and went back to the salon. During my freshman year of college, my hair hit a wall. It needed the chemicals, without them it withered. My hair broke and shed every time I passed a comb through it. With all this shedding and breakage, I had to keep cutting my hair shorter and shorter. The cycle was ruining every bit of what my hair used to be. Up to that point I had never seen my hair 100% natural, and at that time, I decided that would change.
March 2014: No more Relaxer
Heat was then the only thing keeping me out of Afro-central. It was the last bit of my former lifestyle that I was clinging to. I was scared of letting it go because that meant releasing the control that relaxer gave me. Abandoning heat meant changing the way I looked—and the way I lived. I had conformed my appearance for so long. Just the idea of giving up my place in the beauty hierarchy made me uncomfortable… I wasn’t ready for it.
For months I attempted to grow my hair and continued to blast it with heat for 2 hours after every wash. That was the life I was prepared to live. That is, until…
December 2014: A bad haircut
I know that I may sound dramatic, but when your hair cycles through different texture phases- what looks bad in one phase may look even worse in the next. Right before New Year’s I went to a new place to get my hair deep conditioned with a steam helmet. I walked out of the salon with uneven ends and a blowout that lasted less than a day. I instantly hated the look. Once I was home, I whipped out my scissors and started cutting until I was content with how my hair looked. But a week later I began to resent my hair and, as a result, I started to resent myself. After a while my end started breaking and the unevenness returned.
March 2015: No more heat
I accepted what was coming, whatever it was. I watched countless videos on YouTube and read hundreds of blog posts and articles about transitioning to natural hair. Each one swore the best way was my biggest fear:
“The best curls come after you cut off all of the relaxed hair”
“The easiest way to transition is to do the big cut”
“Just cut it all off and start over”
I couldn’t do it. I was terrified of cutting it all off. I didn’t want to lose myself. I opted for a different method, letting the hair grow out and curl on its own.
Being the hair-ignorant person that I am, I thought the transition to natural hair would take a few weeks and suddenly I would be rocking an easy to manage Afro. I was ready for my new look, but of course it wasn’t that simple. Weeks went by and as sections of my hair curled and waved, the straighter ends protruded. Once mid-terms rolled around, stress-cuts (as I had deemed them) became my new hobby- and I wasn’t afraid to show off my handiwork. Every week or two I’d find a section of hair straighter than the rest and with a quick run to my desk and flick of my fingers, it was gone.
Cutting my own hair became a source of Zen. By the second stress-cut, I knew I had to do more. The only thing that kept me from running to a salon was reminding myself that I gave up relaxer and heat for a reason. I was going to regain control of who I was, how I looked, and how I defined myself. So, I kept cutting. My hair got smaller and smaller, until I could barely contain it in a scrunchie. Even if I did manage to get it all tied up, most of my hair would fall out after a while. I took the message from my hair: It needed to be free.
April 2015: Owning my new hair
I’ll admit that I was nervous about how people would react to my natural hair. Would my friends start to distance themselves? Would strangers think I was ugly? Sometimes I would try harder than usual to put together a cute outfit or wear big jewelry to distract from the insanity above. Trusting the outside world not to reject my new appearance, while I was trying to find myself, was the hardest part of my transition.
What ended up happening was just the opposite of what I had feared. Everywhere I turned people complimented me on my new look. Whenever I told someone I was of African American descent there was no doubt. Various people of my own culture complimented me on my transition—friends, classmates, random strangers on the street. I found that instead of being catcalled, like I had been with my old hair, I was now receiving genuine compliments and respect instead.
All the positive energy that I received made me feel safer in my own skin. Even though at that point my Afro was more like a half-fro, returning to natural hair felt, to me, like some kind of initiation ritual. I finally felt accepted in the black community. For the first time, I was able to own my ethnicity. There’s something to be said for a woman who can totally rock her look. Confidence is 90% of any outfit, after all.
PC: Lacie Hutchinson on Pinterest
Amid school, a fashion show, work and all the other things that I devoted my attention to, I stopped caring about whether or not people approved of my natural hair. My hair had become a new manifestation of my personality and a showed off the many sides of my culture. My hair was constantly changing, but I loved it. I’m still unsure about how to achieve my dream of an easy to manage curl-fro, but I felt like this new look suited me.
Let me be clear. This change was not an easy decision to make. I was reclaiming a part of myself and my identity from the hair product industry that, I felt, had owned me. I was giving up not only every breeze on my scalp and ponytail bounce I enjoyed as a kid, but I was also giving up relatively easy to manage hair. Making the decision to go natural with my hair had thrust me into unknown territory. I’m still trying to master how to care for my hair.
But I have to say, I’m not sorry and I don’t regret my decision.
Seeing my hair go from stick straight to a cotton ball puff has been exciting. It has revealed a part of myself that I never knew existed. I found a confidence within myself that was only fueled by every confused look from strangers. I was empowered by every person, African American or otherwise, who appreciated my new look. It may sound cheesy, but accepting my natural hair has inspired me to be nothing but myself. People can judge you for the way you look and the way you dress, but if they can’t accept you for who you truly are then they aren’t worth your time. If anyone wants to stand firm and disagree with what you feel is your true self, you don’t need them in your life. And you most certainly don’t need them to confirm what you already know—that you are amazing.
Carmen is a student at Northwestern University studying communications, marketing and social psychology. She has been fond of writing ever since she learned how, and still refuses to stop using dashes to dot her i's. She is low-key obsessed with sunglasses, high-key obsessed with nail polish and always needs someone to pull her away from the jewelry section in stores. A dreamer, a writer and a hopeless romantic (or former athlete) she is constantly on a mission to make the most out of every day and still find time to binge watch a show or read a good book.