"I want style, body, and shine. A look that's totally all mine..."
I'll never forget hearing that jingle blare over the TV set in my grandma's house in Brooklyn. I'd run into the living room and rap along with the squad of Black girls smiling at me from the Just For Me relaxer commercial, bouncing their smooth, curly ponytails along to the beat. And I wanted what they were selling.
At 5 years old, that's one of my earliest memories of equating long, silky hair with beauty. I never remember thinking my dark-brown skin was inferior — even when bullies at school tried to convince me otherwise — but my hair was an entirely different story. And it's one that started in the same kitchen where I first heard that jingle.
At my grandparents' house, the kitchen was a makeshift beauty parlor where my Grandma Hattie, a licensed cosmetologist, would give my Aunt Tia a relaxer (and monthly touch-ups) from the boxed sets she'd buy from the local drugstore. I'd watch with wide-eyed wonder as Grandma Hattie applied a smelly, white concoction (relaxer creme mixed with an activator) on Aunt Tia's roots with a brush before washing it out with neutralizing shampoo. After a few minutes, my auntie would emerge from underneath the faucet with silky strands and then sit underneath the dryer with her hair set in huge rollers, filling the entire house with the scent of hairspray and sizzling hot tools. And even though it took hours, my auntie ended up looking identical to those models on the front of the box.
Of course, I wanted the same thing. I liked my ponytails and beaded braids, but by the second grade, it quickly became apparent that all the popular girls were getting their hair straightened — especially the ones at my new school in Marietta, Georgia, where my family had just moved. My Southern classmates had the shiniest curls and the most luxurious ponytails tied with ribbons that matched their colorful sneakers and tees.
Throughout elementary school, I watched as my crushes paid more attention to the "redbone" girls who either had relaxed hair that hit their shoulders or — more rarely — long, loose waves that curled up when they got wet. I also envied the friendships that formed between my classmates who got to play with each others' hair during recess. Bonds were forming, and I wasn't a part of them.
After years of begging, my prayers were finally answered. Right before my eighth birthday, my mom dropped me off at the local hair salon to get a press and curl. The stylist didn't feel like dealing with my thick head of unprocessed hair and used a no-lye relaxer to make it more pliable. My mom was furious, but I was thrilled. After a while, my mom also realized that my straighter hair was easier to manipulate on those Sunday evenings when she'd spend hours braiding it. She finally gave in to my pleading, and I got my first "adult" lye relaxer when I turned 10.
But in junior high, relaxers became an additional expense — and one that fell low on the list of my parents' priorities after the mortgage, the car insurance, and the utilities. If I did get one, my mom would make the style stretch for two months until she could afford to take me back to the salon for a touch-up. In between appointments, we'd try our best to hide my roots with combovers, brush-overs, and braids — which, ironically, took longer than they had when my hair wasn't relaxed.
During those high school years, I put my hair through it. Honestly, it's a wonder how I still have anything on my head today. And because I didn't keep up with regular appointments, I suffered even more breakage.
When I left for Howard University at 18, the financial strain of my relaxer appointments started to hit my own bank account. And I started to question whether I even needed them at all. For the first time in my life, I saw thousands of proud, beautiful Black women around me embrace their natural hair. They were the popular girls in my classes, taking senior leadership positions; repping their beautiful Afros, twists, and locs on the Yard; and getting all the attention I felt like I wouldn't if I wore my natural hair. Now, bonds were forming over curl tips and product exchanges — you could even get a mean set of box braids or a loc re-twist in your dorm.
But long hair was still my standard of beauty, and I wasn't ready to give it up just yet — no matter how many hair bundles I had to buy. By sophomore year, I stopped using relaxers as frequently and instead turned to protective styles — including sew-in weaves, which lost their purpose whenever I'd press my leave-out with a scalding-hot flat iron.
By the time I graduated and was gearing up to start my first "real" job as an editorial assistant at a major magazine, the hair underneath my weave was thin, short, and basically see-through. So I chopped it all off and decided to let my hair grow in fresh while wearing long box braids. Whenever I took them out, I'd marvel at how healthy my 4C curls were getting underneath. After a solid year of wearing braids, I decided that I was finally ready to rock a small Afro — I just wasn't sure where to start.
As a beauty editor, I was lucky enough to have a celebrity hairstylist offer to coach me. On a brisk February afternoon, I met him at his apartment, where he spent hours patiently showing me how to stretch my 'fro with a hairdryer by blowing the roots on the lowest heat setting. He taught me how to mold my curls by cupping my hands and pushing them up into my head. I also learned how to do a twist-out, and I left with a bursting bag of styling products and a fresh perspective. "This is what's growing out of our head," he told me. "Why shouldn't we wear it?"
That afternoon provided the breakthrough of a lifetime. I left my stylist's home with plenty of practical tips and was met with so much love and support from fellow naturalistas. My Aunt Lisa is always gracious enough to provide product recommendations (right now, I'm loving Pantene Gold Series Hydrating Butter-Crème for adding moisture, shine, and definition), and my teenage cousin Maddy, who swears that she'll never touch a relaxer, occasionally gives me a hand with my twist-outs.
Now, I've proudly been wearing my natural hair for nine months and — while I'm still nailing down the routine that works best for me — I've never regretted my decision. I have good and bad hair days, sure, but I'm still embracing what's mine every single day. These curls aren't shipped from some factory overseas or purchased at the beauty store down the block. They're not altered with chemicals or even straightened with the GHD that's now collecting dust underneath my sink. Are there times where I feel tempted to slap some braids in or throw on a wig? Of course — and there's nothing wrong with that either. But the important thing is that I'm living my truth, and I finally know that the hair underneath my weave — with every glorious curl, kink, nap, and tangle — is just for me.