Not all of my family immediately accepted my hair in its natural state. It was some sort of proclamation, a call to be judged from the start.
Summer 2014, Vasuda salon. The perm I had gotten a few times a year in college was still growing out, the kinky texture of my edges rubbing against the hot combed and singed strands. The overhead lights in the salon reflected against the scissors, bouncing around my peripheral. Jenn, the stylist, was giddy with the task of chopping my hair off, almost skipping around. You ready?
My hands were clenching tight against the faux leather of the chair’s arms. Why was I so nervous? I hadn’t told anyone I was doing this, minus my then-trainer Christine when I joked we were gonna have the same amount of hair. Dubious as to the why, I had an innate sense that this was something to keep a secret, to unveil slowly after I had a plan to make it more palatable.
I looked at the pressed shoulder length bob staring back at me, reminiscing. I had already snipped inches before, right before the end of sophomore year of college, when I went from elbow length to shoulder length when straightened. A little over a year prior, with the move to Portland, I decided to quit cold turkey the bi-weekly Saturday standing date with a beautician and hot comb. Before the popularity of YouTube tutorials, it was Google, my dorm shower and wide toothed comb, and different braid outs. That first morning after, I woke up shocked. What DA HELL did I just do? Not regretful, but I was insecure those first couple days around campus, wondering what folks thought of my now kinky ponytail.
I had assumed it wouldn’t be a big deal, that it would be easy to comb, that it would be the same as greasing my scalp like I did when it was pressed. My hair became the focus of family when I periodically made an appearance: it’s shorter, there’s no sheen, afros aren’t in style, that girl’s curls are looser, why do you want it to look like that after it was straight and pretty for so long. Why? Why did I want to embrace my African features? The question baffled me, but it was asked so often and so concretely. Their underlying sentiment slapped me in the face with its confusion: what the phuck is this?
Pressure was increasingly there to keep it straight, find a heat protectant, blow dryer and flat iron. Eventually forced to get a perm. Did I know what shampoo to use, how to prevent knots, it was too much work and I was prettier with straight hair anyway. The accusations came from inside the camp, almost like they were holding their nose against the stench of 4c coils.
I cut it shoulder length in college in part for a change, but mainly to make it easier to manage. Borderline cocky as they were peppering me with pleas to stop with the natural look and get over this phase, internally I had to admit it was overwhelming. I had never been taught how to nurture my kinky texture, protein treatments, detanglers, curl creams and moisturizers. There wasn’t much at the time in magazines or online. Essence and Jet advertised hair relaxers next to their message of Black skin is gold. The few products I stumbled upon I could barely afford. Black natural hair was foreign land and I was still an outsider.
Smiling at Jenn, I reeled myself back to the present. I nodded but said nothing. Let’s chop.
Deciding to start from square one- I was nervous, but a kernel of excitement was popping. Snip. Pull and snip. That was a lot of hair on the floor- wasn’t there more new growth? All that was still permed?
2 inches. When done, that was about the amount of non-damaged hair we were able to salvage.
Jenn was beaming. Part of me was thinking she doesn’t have to deal with being a Black face in white spaces, and now there was something else that announced my difference. But her joy was contagious and I started giggling back. I did look cute, with this halo circling my big ole head. I left the salon happy, randomly grinning to myself.
At the time, I was living and paying rent with a family member. On the bus ride home, the nerves came back. Not quite scared, but almost.
It’s my head, my healthy hair journey, me returning to my natural state and learning what it needs.
I repeated to myself that I had done nothing wrong, but the anticipation of judgment and lack of support was strong.
Words adjacent to them calling me ugly were hurled my way: unkempt, get a texturizer to loosen the curl, I only know crazy people who wear their hair in afros it makes me think you’re like them, you look like a light bright pickaninny, you were pretty when it was long and straight- this is weird. While it stung, each hitting a different part of me, eventually it made me want to keep my hair in natural styles that much more. The internalized racism and stigma saddened me as much as their words. Did they forget we had the same coily texture? We came from the same family tree, had the same 4b/4c kinky tresses- how ugly did they see themselves?
At work the following Monday, it was shock veiled by overly dramatic compliments: LOOK at you! Wow it’s different! I’ve never seen you like this but it frames your face SO WELL! I had to do a double take, I thought there was an intruder in the office!
I hid my annoyance and shoved it down into that same internal box where I locked everything else. Focusing instead on educating myself, absorbing information as quickly as my hair soacked up moisture. Trying to remember which brands I liked the most from my Cocotique haircare subscription box, which order to apply leave-in conditioner vs oil, and how to combat shrinkage.
But it was still a big deal, a part of my presentation that people felt entitled to examine with a microscope and fine-toothed comb. I wasn’t afforded a bad hair day, a failed attempt at a Bantu knot out, an off style where the execution just turned out wrong.
Apparently my twists weren’t dry before taking them out, my hair was frizzy and no volume at the crown, there was no sheen and it looked dull.
“How do you expect to keep a job looking like this?”
“Did you just get outta the fields, lookin like Aunt Jemima.”
“That’s not even a real afro, you don’t have braids, why won’t you straighten it? What is this style, being a wild animal?”
“You won’t fix it for a date? You’re going to go out looking like that?”
“I barely recognize you from when your hair was straight.”
These comments also came from inside the ranch, and I was tired of talking about it. Because it wasn’t a talk, it became an incessant defense of my being that I never expected to last that long. You didn’t recognize me- really?! It reminded me of the comments I would get at work the first few months after big chopping.
The message was clear from folks in my personal life and work life: there was a choice, this inability to accept me in that space. I was expected to conform to their belief of what is beauty and more importantly, what they saw as a ‘right’ way of being. My silent refusal was a radical protest, a boundary to protect my self image.
I was weary with having to create a thesis statement with supporting paragraphs and follow-up points just to say: accept, and find the beauty, in my natural-born features.
I’m still learning how to take care of my hair, how often to wash, pre-poos and deep conditioners, detangling thoroughly and how to stretch so it doesn’t bunch back up (seriously does anyone know- please leave a comment!) But the journey is mine, and I can tell folks with confidence I won’t get another perm or a texturizer, because I like the way it grows out of my scalp. I like walking into spaces as I am without a disclaimer that I look different. I’m just me, quietly, day to day, without drama, I’m telling the non-acceptors to let me be me.