“A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” –Coco Chanel
I have had chemicals in my hair for over 30 years. When I was about 9 my mom took me to my grandmother’s hairdresser to get a jheri curl. She had struggled with my thick coarse hair long enough. The ritual of getting my hair washed in the kitchen sink and sitting on the floor between her legs while she straightened my hair with a hot comb had come to an end. She was relieved of her hair duties. The jheri curl was a new permanent curling process that came to define the 80s for black hair. Michael Jackson, Ice Cube and Lionel Richie were just a few of the celebrities sporting the juicy hair. There were plenty of jokes to go around about the greasiness of it all, the curl activator, the plastic bags people wore over their heads. That grease would lead to the constant acne that decorated my forehead through my middle school years. Even after Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire, I remained a slave to that chemical process. My hair let me know when it was time to reup with Ms. Mitchel. She saw me faithfully every 6-8 weeks. On the precipice of entering high school, I found a new, hip hair salon on my father’s postal route 2 blocks from our house that introduced me to the perm.
I jumped right from the curl process to the straightening process of the perm. More chemicals. And those were not harmless chemicals. From my own experience of the burning scalp, I had an inkling it couldn’t be the healthiest thing going, but that didn’t stop me from getting a touch up every 4-6 weeks. Fast forward another 20 years and Chris Rock released his documentary Good Hair, a movie about the $9 billion-dollar hair industry. Perm relaxers are also known as “creamy crack” because once you start that process, it seems nearly impossible to stop. I felt polished, clean, pretty as long as my hair was done. It was easier to blend in with straight hair, to not be seen as different. Women who didn’t subscribe to the creamy crack were viewed as “others”, rebelling against the system that said they needed to assimilate to be accepted. As I watched that movie, I thought about my own infant daughter. I wondered what kind of example I’d be setting for her, if I needed to have my hair straightened to feel beautiful, acceptable, while she rocked gorgeous natural curls. Would she think something was wrong with her? At the same time, I had just begun taking medicine to control my high blood pressure and I started to notice excessive shedding of my hair. I talked to my stylist about it and he recommended that I stop getting relaxers. The combination of the medicine and the chemicals were taking a toll on my crown. It took another few years for me to wrap my brain around a natural hair lifestyle. I did research, viewing various YouTubers and reading hair blogs to figure out what I was getting myself into. If ever there was a time to go natural, this was it, as the natural hair movement was poppin’! When I finally took the plunge, I made an appointment at a natural hair salon. The stylist asked me bluntly, “are you ready to accept your nappy hair?” I knew what she meant. It would be a commitment. It would be a huge adjustment. It would be life-changing. Was I ready for that?
I had read that Coco Chanel quote shortly before. If I wasn’t ready to embrace my naps, then I would have to embrace being bald because my hair was falling out. So, I had no choice. I was approaching 40. Ironically, I had always said when I turned 40 I would cut all of my hair off, thinking that 40 symbolized a point in my life when I wouldn’t care about other people’s opinions. Here it was. The time was now. Was I ready? Yes!
I left the salon that day with my hair about 2 ½ inches shorter and a nice wavy hair style. And over the next 3 years, it was an adjustment. I struggled with my identity, my self-esteem, my confidence. Friends and family subtly let me know they weren’t feeling my new look. They had only known the chemical me. The new natural me found a community of “naturalistas” offering a multitude of help by way of product recommendations, best practices and meet ups. I found myself looking deeper into who I was, beyond my hair. I reevaluated my beliefs, my passions, my purpose. I began living more authentically. I decided I was done pretending to be anything other than a strong, black woman, wife, mother, writer. People began saying my curls fit me, and they couldn’t imagine me with straight hair again. I’m still in the process of change. But I am embracing my naps, and what they represent: my blackness. In a way, the naps represent the struggle. Trying to be straight in a curl world. Or trying to be flat in a round world. Trying to blend in and not be noticed as “different” or “other” which equals scary instead of being unique. The one thing naturalistas will tell you is that hair textures are like snowflakes, no two are alike. So to embrace your natural hair for women of color is to accept your otherness. And with that acknowledgement is the obligation to offer your uniqueness to the world. More importantly, I embrace myself and my daughter loves my hair.