It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain to outsiders – there’s curly-haired girls, and frizzy-haired girls, and then there are kinky-haired girls. If you were a kinky-haired girl, you may remember the daily ordeal of sitting between your mother’s legs as she, frustrated, tried to scoot a comb through mats of hair that had somehow freed themselves from braid-jail in the night. If you were a kinky-haired girl, you may also remember your first anxious relaxer – the cold jelly on your head, sitting very still, being directed to inform anyone immediately if it “started to burn.” I was always a kinky-haired girl. I dreaded the monthly trip to the salon for the treatment, which left scabs on my ears from the heat of the dryer. But for two or three days after these visits, I felt beautiful because my hair was flat and breezy on my head.
I remember my first pair of American Girl dolls: Addy, the freed slave, and Kirsten, the Swedish pioneer. When I played, Addy and Kirsten were best friends. We were all best friends. But as much as I loved my friends (and on some guttural, pop-psych level loved having a doll that reflected my skin color), Kirsten’s hair was so much more fun to play with! And if you were once a girl with a doll, you’ll recall that how-fun-the-hair-is-to-play-with is everything. So I learned that hair was supposed to be easy, it was supposed to be – so poor Addy’s mane languished while I spent my time brushing out Kirsten’s blonde locks.
I got older, I got hip, I started to blame magazines. Their tips for “how to do your curly hair,” bafflingly, didn’t work for me. And neither did the “how to do your straight hair” tips. The thing is, relaxed hair isn’t really curly or straight. It’s straight until it rains. It’s curly until the tips. It’s always dry, and it’s sometimes broken, and it doesn’t have to be washed as much as you’d think, but it does need to be conditioned. Kinky hair grows with its own elaborate set of rules and instructions, and no one ever writes about those rules in magazines.
Black ladies’ hair is a topic that’s only recently being talked about in popular media. In 2009, African Americans spent $507 billion dollars on hair care and personal grooming items – according to an annual report published by Target Market News. Chris Rock put out a cheeky documentary that same year called Good Hair, in which he asked every lady he could find why? Why the pain, the money, the hours and hours at the salon? The answers didn’t surprise me. It’s because of the entrenched, problematic standards of beauty in which swishy, straight hair is considered the easiest to wield, and the most beautiful. There is also this kind of addiction that emerges; if you are a child and you get a relaxer, you’re going to keep getting relaxers. You won’t know how to get out. Your hair will remain this straight-but-not-quite consistency until you a) grow all of it out or b) cut it all off. Either way, you start from scratch.
As of turning twenty, I hadn’t seen my “real hair” ever, other than those two to three inches worth of breakage that I’d end up relaxing every five months. I was curious. I was also scared – for perhaps there would be billowing Diana Ross waves below, but perhaps there would be plastic, brittle Addy hair. I would have to love it, whatever the result. I told my hairdresser, sheepishly: “I’m thinking of going natural.”
Thankfully, she embraced my decision. She spoke of luscious curls and soft texture, of everything coming up Angela Davis. It would be a painful and irritating year to six months in the meantime, managing a head of half relaxed and half-utterly-kinky hair, but with the right products and attitude I could do it. So, I decided to care again. I decided to put energy into my hair as it was, sans chemicals. This was reparation for Addy! Poor Addy, who always received the short end of the hair-and-make-up stick during playtime.
The natural hair community has continued to grow, in the past ten years, and I found a nice online culture to rally around. There were forums for people like me, including the fine folks at the natural hair salon, Devachan and the website CurlyNikki.com. At last, there were “tips” for us kinky-haired girls. And thanks to all of that, now my hair looks like this:
The funny thing about this whole process? I marvel at how “easy” my hair is now. I can’t believe how much less time I spend worrying about my hair’s shape or texture, or my next trip to the salon. I condition, I finger-comb, I go. And perhaps it looks aight because it feels aight.
When people ask fro-bearing ultra-kinksters if their hair carries some political message (or more upsettingly, if they can “touch it”), what they’re really asking is always, “why is it different?” Of course this fashion is political, because the culture of disenfranchisement that led to women putting lye on their heads for beauty is political—but kinky is also, merely, the way it grows out of my head. The freedom I’ve found in wearing natural hair is that I no longer think in “supposed-tos” and “should-bes” when it comes to the basics of how I present myself. I yam what I yam what I yam, doc – and that makes me feel free.