What I Wish I Knew Before Going Natural

Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
I was 12 years old the first time I relaxed my hair. At the time, I was going to a majority Black school and I was one of the few girls who still had natural hair. Most days I came to class with my hair thrown into a haphazard ponytail or my 'little girl' pigtails and — you guessed it — I hated it. I was young, impressionable, and it was just one more thing that made me uncool, one more thing that made me different.

I don't remember who brought it up first — me or my mom — but before I knew it, I was at the hair salon getting a relaxer. Two hours later I emerged a new girl: One with long, sleek, straight hair.

If I'm being totally honest, having relaxed hair wasn't that awful: I didn't get burns, my hair didn't fall out, and it wasn't difficult to deal with. My stylist told me that because of my looser curl pattern, I only had to hit the salon once every six months for a touch up, compared to friends who went every few weeks. To this day, I think her professional advice is what saved my hair from serious damage — any more chemical treatments and it could have been a different story.

I lived 10 long years with a relaxer. When I turned 22 I tried to free myself but it wasn't easy (more on that later). A year later, after a humid NYC summer and a burgeoning quarter-life crisis, I decided to get a pixie cut. But I also got a relaxer to make it "easier." It wasn't until I turned 24 that I was finally able to break free.

In the five years that I've been natural, I've realized that my relaxed hair experience — while not as bad as some horror stories you may have heard — was a bit absurd. It was laziness at best, and at worst? An inability to accept my own natural beauty. Now, I don't admonish women who choose to relax their hair. Seriously, do you! Wear a weave, get braids, grow it, shave it, perm it, whatever. But for me, I did it because I wanted to fit in, then kept it because I was too lazy to learn about myself. In my defense, there wasn't a ton of information on natural hair when I was a teen, and there weren't many Black girls wearing their hair natural to draw inspiration from.

Today, I love my natural hair. But that doesn't mean that going natural was easy. In fact, there are a few things that I wish I knew before going natural, which I am sharing ahead. Hopefully it can guide those who are trying to transition themselves — or even those just curious about the options. And for those who are already natural? Perhaps you can relate to my journey.

Ahead, what I wish I knew before going natural.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Lesson #1: Transitioning Sucks.

Even though cutting off all my hair to let it grow in fresh from scratch would have been easier — in some respects — I didn't do a big chop. I wanted to grow out my relaxed hair and keep it long and that meant months of awkward hair struggles.

After a shower, I would look at my hair: Half of it was straight, half of it was super curly. And I had no idea what to do with it. It was in those moments that I missed the simplicity of relaxed hair. But instead of reverting to old habits, I just kept blow drying it straight and throwing it into ponytails. It was probably not the healthiest way to transition but this is how I dealt with it at the time.

I wish I had done more research before I made the decision to transition. I wish I had been brave enough — at the time — to rock short hair. But in the end, it all turned out okay. Now my hair is healthier than ever, and when I do straighten it, it actually blows out more easily than when it was relaxed! Crazy, right?
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Lesson #2: Your curl pattern is your hair's blueprint.

So here’s the thing: Everyone has a curl pattern. You may not think you do, but you do. When I finally grew out my natural hair, I found Naturally Curly’s Texture Typing system and it changed the game.

Their system details curl patterns that range from 2a-4c. For example: A 2 is wavy (with some type of S-shape) and a 4 is a tighter, more coiled curl (that often looks short thanks to shrinkage).

But here’s the cool part: Your hair doesn’t have to be just one type of curl pattern. It can be two or three different types of curls mixed in there. I’m a 3b/3c girl. More 3c on top and 3b underneath. And knowing that made life a lot easier when I searched for hair inspo for cuts, colors, and styles to cop.

Find your curl pattern, right here.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Lesson #3: Know your porosity like the back of your hand.

I know what you’re thinking: What the hell is hair porosity?
I didn’t know what it was for a long time either. Hair porosity is your hair's ability — or inability — to absorb moisture. And it’s broken down into three categories: low, medium, and high.

This may sound like the most useless information ever, but knowing your hair porosity leads to healthier hair. Just knowing your hair’s ability or inability to absorb water can help you figure what types of products to use and what ingredients to look out for. Knowing that my hair's porosity is high when I first transitioned would have took a lot of the guesswork out of buying products to keep my curls looking healthy and fresh.

PSA: Refinery29 has a hair porosity guide, right this way.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Lesson #4: Product cocktailing is not easy.

So I knew what my curl pattern was and I figured out my hair's porosity — and then, with a rush of confidence, I started buying all the products. No, like, ALL OF THEM. The "ethnic" beauty aisle belonged to me. The end result? A big ol' mess.

Translation: Don't do this.

Depending on how many products I slathered on my hair would end up looking weighed down, greasy, or wet, and sometimes mixing certain products would leave me with flakes that looked like dandruff. Sometimes, mixing products would impede my hair’s ability to dry — so braid-outs would be a nightmare in the morning. You haven’t known sadness until you’ve taken out a braid out too soon and wanted to weep at the limp, still-damp results.

I wish I had known that reading the ingredients is always key here. Just because the label mentions things that sound great doesn’t mean they should all be combined, one after the other, following a wash.

My best advice? Keep clicking...
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Lesson #5: Finding What Works For You

This is the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn. Not every product is made for my hair. I have a friend who loves using Miss Jessie’s Pillow Soft Curls — and it gives her incredible, beautiful results. But when I used it, my hair was a little crunchy. Oddly enough, Miss Jessie’s Baby Buttercreme works wonders for my hair.

The moral of the story is, just because one product doesn’t work for you isn’t reason to give up on your hair, or give up on a brand. It just means you need to keep searching. Eventually I found that Shea Moisture’s SuperFruit Mask did wonders for my hair. Paired with Miss Jessie’s Baby Buttercreme after washes and a few other Shea Moisture products for the days in between — it's my perfect routine.

Sometimes Moroccan Oil works for my hair, too — usually in the winter — and sometimes it just sits on top of my hair doing nothing. Real talk: When and how much water you use makes a big difference to your products efficacy, too. (Again, learn your porosity!)

No one can tell you the perfect formula for taking care of your curls —it’s on you. Maybe that’s a little frustrating, but it’s also fun. After all, nobody ever said perfect curls came easy...but they're worth it!
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