Since my natural hair journey has played a significant role in my growth and aesthetic as I’ve navigated my early twenties, it may seem a bit peculiar that I’ve never really discussed it in detail within this space. To be honest, I’ve always felt that there were others online who were far more qualified to get into the technicalities of caring for natural hair than I am. But in the spirit of sharing more of my life with you all, I realize that now is the perfect time to unpack my passion for my natural strands—so let’s jump right in.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already been four years. Four years since I sat in my hairdresser’s chair and requested that she cut off all but a few inches of my hair. Four years since I turned my back on everything that had been instilled in me—both culturally and inside of my own home—about the “appropriateness” of having my hair religiously straightened, which I’d endured since early childhood.
My experience with chemical relaxers began at age ten, when I was given a “mild” children’s version, forebodingly named Just for Me. Prior to that, my great-grandmother had straightened my hair faithfully with a hot comb just about every week. Save for my early teenage years, when my athletic lifestyle made cornrows the most efficient hairstyle, biweekly trips to the hair salon were a blur of scalp-burning relaxers and flat irons in between each “touch-up” session.
Now, let’s fast forward to the summer before my third year of undergrad: what was one of the first things that my great-grandmother, the matriarch of our family, said to me after I’d triumphantly completed the “Big Chop” (i.e. cut off all of my relaxed hair and started over with a short, curly afro)? I’m afraid I’ve blocked out her exact words, but it was something to the effect of my having cut off “all of that long, pretty hair” and that I would now be walking around with “nappy” hair.
Nappy hair. You see, that was most of the battle. Because my great-grandmother—a licensed cosmetologist who was in her early-twenties during the Civil Rights Movement—spent so much time and effort making sure that my hair was always “presentable,” I was 20 years old before I even knew what my natural, un-doctored hair texture looked like. And even without this knowledge, I’d been conditioned to understand that the strands which grew from my scalp were a shameful plight that consistently needed to be corrected by way of a relaxer.
That is, until my time in undergrad—studying history and literature with a focus on the African-American experience—exposed me to the depths and breadth of the literature of my people and the details of our 400-year struggle in this country. From the time that the very first group of Africans arrived on “New World” soil as chattel in the early 17th century, the texture of African hair was a trait that was used as a subsidiary to uphold the social construction that we know as “race.” Thick, textured hair that grew outward rather than downward, in conjunction with dark skin and fuller facial features, was the visual representation of an American slave. And as slaves were legally considered property rather than people, these traits were correlated with notions of the savage, primitivism, and ugliness.
Then, things get even messier when we consider the massive, horrific institution that slavery had evolved into by the 18th century. With the pandemic practice of white slave masters routinely raping their black, female slaves, miscegenation introduced new castes of social standing that was intrinsically linked to the existence of fair-skinned “Negroes” who had looser curls and wavy hair, thereby existing in between the socially-constructed and legal boundaries of citizen versus slave.
The combination of these occurrences created an environment where African-Americans sought to earn respect and equality by acclimating to the ideals and standards of personhood embodied and sought after by white Americans. This included dress, social etiquette, and—for African-American women, in particular—beauty practices such as hair grooming via straightening combs and later, chemical relaxers.
And as I came to grips with the centuries of history that were tied up in my great-grandmother’s obsessive grooming of my hair, I also had to come face-to-face with the messaging that I had internalized about the kind of hair that was beautiful. Looking into the mirror at a head of short, 4A spiral curls where I’d previously seen long, straight strands was a transition, to be sure. But something was immediately different. I wasn’t just proud of my decision to go natural—I was proud of my hair. Where I’d been pretty indifferent about my hair when it was relaxed, I suddenly became excited to explore this texture that was so new to me.
And that isn’t to say that the journey has been easy, by any means. Once I dove into a natural-hair lifestyle, I had to learn a whole new set of skills. At each stage of its growth, I’ve had to pay close attention to the things that my hair responds to, such as low-manipulation styling and lots of moisture. I’ve since grown my repertoire to include a number of different styles, but only thanks to a lot of trial and error. But nonetheless, I’ve never been happier with my hair and I wouldn’t want my texture to be any other way, including straight.
So, when I consider my natural hair journey and the circumstances that led to my decision to perform the Big Chop, I recognize that it isn’t such a cut-and-dry story. But I revel in its depth. I revel because, when I consider my journey, I do so with the understanding that my embrace of the voluminous, tight spiral curls that grow from my scalp is a beautiful salute to the legacy of centuries of black womanhood in America.
**Have any questions about my monthly regimen, staple products, or anything hair-related? Ask away in the comments below!**