No one said it was going to be easy. If I was really paying attention I would’ve known this. But sometimes we make decisions quickly without thinking about the consequences. And when it came to my hair, the first thing I thought was I could no longer do this. “This” was maintaining relaxers.
The first relaxer I ever got was during the fifth grade. That was usually the age in which girls I knew began to straighten their hair.
We had a term. It’s called “tender-headed.” But really it was a way to mask the pain of the push and pull on our scalps. I would never call myself “tender-headed.” Instead I would say that to pull my hair and change it was painful. To change its kinks and curls was not natural. And the roughness of each pull and each curling iron signified this. My hairstylist, my mother, myself . . . we were all at war with our scalps. The roughness of our touch was not a sign of weakness; it was a sign of the pain we were inflicting. It told the truth of our scalps. We were never taught how to take care of our natural hair. Instead we were taught how to change, manipulate and turn it into other people’s hair.
My last relaxer was on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t make the decision because it was a new year. I made the decision because my last relaxer burnt my scalp. I felt exposed and raw. And as the temperatures in Chicago dropped from winter unpleasantness to a brutal arctic blast, I could feel the effects of this damage. The cold outside made me wince. The heat inside made me cry. No space was safe. My decision was less about a radical transformation or a reclaiming of my natural self. No, it was a matter of relief.
But that relief was short-lived. I was 10 when I got a first relaxer and 26 when I got my last. For a majority of my life, I knew my hair better straightened, than natural. And learning new things when you’re an adult can be difficult.
Compared to our childhoods, adult learning is a battle against the traditions, rituals and bad habits we have picked up after years and years. Learning to love my natural texture was a process of ongoing self-love, growth and patience. I couldn’t merely wrap up my hair and go. I needed new products and techniques. I spent many hours watching YouTube videos and reading blogs. A lot of it felt incomprehensible. I’ve always best gained knowledge through practice and from those around me.
But watching those videos and reading those blogs, I realized that these women were, most likely, in my place once—confused, introspective, starting from scratch.
The greatest challenge with my hair had come in the summer. Chicagoans forget about the humidity. (You’re so cold for so long that summer feels more like an abstract idea than a real time of the year.) What I thought I had mastered suddenly got difficult, tiring and irritating. This hair and I were no longer thinking as one. We were in conflict.
“I don’t know what to DO!” I cried to my hairstylist.
“You’re going to need to calm down,” she said. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but we eventually worked through it together, one strand at a time.
Is my relationship to my hair easy? Hardly. Like most beauty routines, I’m still struggling with my own insecurities and the expectations of the world around me that still permeate. But it’s getting better. Nothing comes easy, not even the things that grow from within me.