How I Finally Transitioned My Hair — Without A Big Chop

I was 8-years-old when I had my hair relaxed for the first time — much to my mom's chagrin. She had dropped me off after school at the hair salon so that I could have my hair pressed and curled for my birthday the next day. I guess the stylist didn't feel like dealing with my thick head of unprocessed hair — I was her last appointment of the day, after all. So, before tackling my strands with a curling iron, she put a mild perm in it to make it more pliable. My mom was pissed. Me? Thrilled. I was looking like the front of a Just For Me box.
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In retrospect, I get why my mom was so irritated. That stylist was out of bounds, for one. But I also knew that she probably wanted to preserve the health of my hair for as long as possible. And like most things, mom knew best. I put my hair through it over the years: relaxers, touch-ups, and harsh Dominican blow-outs that involved 450-degree flat irons after sitting under the dryer for nearly an hour. Then, when college came, I tried my best to keep up with the baddies on campus by wearing a weave. Sew-ins are a protective style that can help hair grow, but it didn't help that I was still tackling my leave out with a hot flat iron so that it'd blend with my 22-inch waves.
By the time I reached 25, the thick black hair that once brushed my shoulders was thin, short, and basically see-through. Fed up with the breakage and broke from bi-weekly salon appointments, I decided to wear protective braids for a year while I figured out my next move.
Each time I took my braids or twists down, I noticed that my hair was growing... and looking pretty healthy in the process, too. I was tempted to play with my new curls — I just had no idea what to do with them. So, I decided to challenge myself to go totally natural for 30 days — no weaves, no braids, nothing. I knew that this would be a tough one. Watching tutorials and reading all of the natural hair blogs is one thing... having my hands in my own hair is another. So, how'd it all go down? Read ahead to find out.
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Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
Before

Braids saved my life while I was transitioning from relaxed to natural. My hair grew out a lot faster, I didn't have to use any heat, and I didn't have to big chop, either. Here, I'm rocking crochet box braids that I actually hated, but whatever.
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Photo Courtesy Of Khalea Underwood.
Learning From Lupita

My love for Lupita Nyong'o knows no bounds, and that passion is partially fueled by her hair. Seeing her wear her short Afro has been so inspiring to me — and part of the reason I wanted to go natural in the first place. And the man behind her styles is none other than the charming Vernon François, who just happened to be in New York City when I was getting ready to take my braids out. How lucky am I?

I headed over to Vernon's apartment on a hot Friday afternoon, nervous as hell. Even though #teamnatural dominates, I still feared the response I'd get from my family and friends regarding my hair. Plus, how would I take care of it? I could barely manage to maintain my relaxed hair, hence the braids.

Vernon knew just what to say to make me feel comfortable. When I undid my head wrap, he couldn't believe that I was hesitant to wear my natural hair in the first place. "Look at all of this," he said. "It's beautiful!"

According to Vernon, the tools I needed were right in front of me this whole time — my hands. He showed me how to mold my little Afro by cupping my hands and pushing the hair up, pulling the sections taut as I went along. It took less than a minute, and my hair was looking better already. "You could even wear it like this, honestly," Vernon suggested.

That was an option, but I came to Vernon with a purpose: to get hair like Queen Lupita's. The night before, I sent him a series of my favorite styles on her so that he'd really understand my vision. "You know, her hair is a lot shorter than yours," he told me, promptly bursting that bubble. Instead of copying one of her looks, he walked me through a basic style that tons of natural girls and guys rely on: a twist-out.

"Don't ever do your hair when you don't feel like it," Vernon instructed me. "If you're tired or if you're in a bad mood, it won't turn out that great." And he's right. Something I've learned is that natural hair takes a whole lot of time and patience, two things that I don't always have. Vernon and I assembled my hair into teeny-tiny twists for nearly an hour, but the appointment paid off. Aside from the twist-out, he taught me how to stretch my hair with the blowdryer, and stressed the importance of being liberal with product. "You're gonna have to use a whole lot more of that, honey," he told me when I squeezed a pea-sized portion of cream on my hair. I can still hear his voice every morning when I reach for my products.

I think the most important lesson I learned from Vernon was to just have fun with my coils. He told me to pick up some headbands from the local drugstore, and jazz them up with pins and earrings — just like he does for Lupita. He also gave me some sage advice on dealing with the haters who'd likely have something to say about my hair. "This is what's growing out of our head," he exclaimed. "Why shouldn't we wear it?"
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A post shared by Khalea (@letsbekhalear) on

Photo courtesy of Khalea Underwood.
The Big Reveal

I have a very, let's say, honest inner circle. I still do what I want, but it can be annoying. That's why I was a little hesitant to show my hair to my friends and family. I mentioned my challenge casually, and avoided any invasive questions that might veer me off course. I didn't want anyone's outside criticism affecting my decision.

After I undid the twists that Vernon helped me with, I had plans to meet up with the founders of Koil, a line of curly and coily hair extensions. Our coffee was scheduled for 3 p.m., but I didn't leave my house until 3:15 because I wasn't sure if my hair looked right. I was nervous for nothing, though! I got so many compliments on my hair from the Koil crew, my mom, my sister, my aunts, even strangers.

There are still times when I feel a little self-conscious about my short hair, and sometimes I find myself piling on extra makeup to make myself look more feminine. But day by day, I'm learning how to love the way my curls frame my face and flatter my features. I'm obsessed with how soft my 'fro is. I've even gotten compliments from guys who like the way it smells! If the baby 'fro can land me a second date, then maybe it's worth keeping...
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The Maintain Game

When I was relaxed and fantasizing about wash-and-go's, my stylist told me that natural hair was just as much work as straight hair. I was dubious — there was no way that caring for the hair growing out of my scalp could be tougher than trying to lay down my unruly edges every morning. Well, gold stars to the hairdresser; she was absolutely right. Natural hair requires a lot of maintenance that I'm still struggling to make time for. I get home late most nights, and don't have a chance to re-twist every single evening. Braid-outs are a little easier, but because my hair is thick, I end up having to make my plaits smaller. When I don't want to bother with twists or braids, Grace Eleyae's Satin-Lined Caps have been my saving grace. Vernon and my unofficial #teamnatural council have all told me that keeping my hair moisturized is crucial, so I rely on a lot of heavy curl creams every day.

And since my job involves testing products, there's never any shortage of shampoos, deep conditioners, masks, and oils to try. (Again, I realize how lucky I am.) My issue is often narrowing down which ones I need, and what's right for my 4c hair type. There have been hits (Cantu, I love you) and a few misses along the way. Experimenting has been the fun part so far. I've even been able to visit salons that cater to natural hair, like Devachan in SoHo. My roommate might hate me for bogarting all of our shelf space with the samples I bring home, but at least I share...
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Photo courtesy of khalea underwood.
It Takes A Village

Vernon was around for my initial twist-out, and his guidance was everything that first day. What the fuck was I supposed to do for the other 29, though?! I took a few videos and made notes to help me when he wouldn't be around, and he graciously allowed me to text him questions, a privilege I probably abused.

But I soon found that while I was #blessed to have Vernon in my corner — I didn't really need him. (And neither do you.) My friends and family members gave me wonderful advice throughout the month. My BFF Tantyona sent me style ideas from when she had a shorter Afro. My Aunt Lisa put me on to her holy grail Taliah Waajid Shea Coco Condition Daily Leave-In. My sister helped me section my hair for my twist-outs. I couldn't have done it without them.

I also relished in the knowing nods I'd get from fellow naturalistas on the J train, and found myself striking up conversations with strangers about their own routines. I've always been an introvert, and I surprised myself by being a little bit bolder in social gatherings and phone interviews. I'm learning that #teamnatural isn't just a hashtag or a lifestyle... it's a community, and those who are already on the other side are more than willing to welcome you. That felt really good.
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Learning Curve

Looking back, the one thing I wished I had done was to play up my styles a bit more. Sometimes, I felt like I was limited in what I could do with my hair since it's still on the shorter side. Most days, I ended up wearing my hair out or with a headband, or I threw a wrap on when I didn't have time to fuss with it. Any excuse to break out my favorite striped Wrap Life scarf worked for me, though.

I still think that I'm in a bit of a rut in terms of being creative with my coils. But, baby steps. One day I'll graduate to a cute tapered cut, or even try a wild new color. My natural hair is a commitment that I'm sticking to for the foreseeable future, and the time to go wild will come... eventually.
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Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.
Like A Natural Woman

I'll keep it 100: there were plenty of times when I felt like heading up to Harlem to get more braids t. Despite those occasional frustrations, wearing my natural hair reminded me that it's perfectly fine to ask for help when you need it. I'm so quick to Google something or just try and figure it out myself — but I learned the most (and felt the most supported) when I called a loved one or a friend.

As cliché as it sounds, this journey gave me a refresher on loving myself, too. For a long time, I hid behind long weaves and braids, using them as a shield on my shy days. Even when I cut my relaxed hair, I still had a few tracks in for some extra volume. Now, it's all me. And for now, that feels really good.
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