The earliest memory I have of my hair is sitting in the kitchen while the distinct aroma of burning and grease wafted through the air during the early-morning hours. My sister and I impatiently waited as my mom pressed our hair, section by section, with her stove-heated hot comb. Over the course of an hour, she tamed our “kinks” and “naps,” and transformed them into smooth, straight strands.
“I don’t like it. It’s still too poufy,” my bratty self would complain. “No, don’t curl it under. I want it straight.”
Since she saved the pressing for special occasions — holidays, school-picture days, birthdays — this "fancy" hair came to represent the best version of myself. (Though I still spent summers with braids and beads, so I could swim during camp.) And, ever since my first exposure to the process, I was a girl obsessed.
I wanted locks I could run my fingers (or a comb) through, without it getting stuck ALL the time. I wanted the bouncy, easy-to-manage tresses of my white classmates, instead of the “nappy,” hard-to-control mop I was stuck with. I wanted the second-season hair of Tia and Tamera Mowry from Sister, Sister, not their first-season curls (adorable as they were). So, my freshman year of high school, I chemically straightened, or permed, my hair.
In the African-American community, getting a perm is considered a rite of passage that separates the "girls" from the "women." And, even though bi-monthly hair-relaxing was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever endured, and even though I had tiny scabs on my scalp from the harsh chemicals, I persevered. Because, I finally had the luxurious, smooth mane I had so badly yearned for. Finally, I could relate to the swaying-in-the-wind 'dos of the women in magazines, commercials, and TV shows.
And, taking care of it became my new priority. Every two weeks, like clockwork, I could be found at my local salon for hours getting blown out and styled. (Anyone who's been to a black salon knows it's an all-day commitment.) When I was in college, I would come home at least once a month (which was a five-hour bus ride, may I add) to get my hair done, because I only trusted a select few with it.
My most telling — and head-shaking — memory is of going to Disney World with my softball team and whipping out a shower cap on a water ride, because I didn’t want to get my hair wet (when it comes to hair, water is a black woman’s kryptonite). Not my proudest moment.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Why would a girl who's been perming for 10 years be willing to go through the emotionally trying experience of going natural?
I want to go natural because I’m sick of chemically altering and, in the process, damaging my hair. I want to go natural because I think it’s pathetic that I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done my own hair. I want to go natural because I want to understand how my God-given mane works. But, most of all, I want to do it because I’m done forcing my texture to be something other than what it is to be more societally "acceptable."
As over-the-top as my story may seem, I know plenty of African-American women who could tell you similarly harrowing tales of the great lengths they've gone to for their locks. For centuries, black women have permed, hot-combed, chemically manipulated, and gotten weaves and/or extensions, because our textures weren't considered "beautiful."
While there are differing opinions on this, the natural hair movement isn’t just about embracing the hair you were born with (although, obviously, that's a major part). It is, at its root, about rising above the pressure to conform to the Eurocentric beauty standards that have seeped into every crevice of our culture. It's about redefining what our society considers "good" hair.
Embracing your textured tresses has never been easier than it is now. There's more knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for natural hair than ever. But, even though we've come far, we still have a long way to go. Outside the African-American community, natural hair is still a niche topic. The reason there are so many natural-themed blogs is that it's something most mainstream media ignores. Black women have had to create their own movement for hair acceptance, because no one else was willing to address it — similar to the Afrocentric education era of the 1960s.
That's why it's important for me to document my transition — which means slowly growing out my chemically-altered hair — here over the next year. As I navigate the wonderful world of going natural, I’ll be working with Anthony Dickey, the owner of NYC salon Hair Rules, consulting other experts and gurus within the industry, and reporting what I learn along the way.
While I’ll be sharing my personal progress — what products I’m loving, new hairstyles I’ve discovered, how I'm scared shitless and have absolutely no clue what I'm doing — it's definitely not going to be all about me. I want this to serve as a resource for those who are transitioning, thinking about transitioning, and/or are already natural. I want to hear from you. What do you want to know? What have you encountered during your process that’s left you completely baffled? If you're natural, what have you always wanted to learn more about?
Share your inquiries, issues, and concerns — big or small — in the comments below, and I’ll try my best to address them in the coming months.
The Natural Hair Project: one woman's journey of growing out her chemically altered hair and embracing her natural texture. Check back every other week for updates, lessons, and tips.
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