Celebrating 10 Years Chemical Free: My Hair Story

We are different like cabbage patch kids with nappy black wigs.”  ~Scienz of Life

I figured it wouldn’t take long for me to drift to the topic of hair, repeated and preferred topic of all women of color.  I’m in a different mode nowadays having passed my 10 year natural anniversary (absolutely no chemicals, dyes, weaves, extensions, nothing in my hair except shampoo, conditioner, gel, combs, brushes and hair accessories since 2001).

My hair story is similar to many.  Like most women of the diaspora, I have a mixed hair texture coming from the different aspects of my heritage.  Some would suggest this is a “good” thing but I’m going to steer far clear of this term and say straight out that no stylist has ever described my hair using the g-word. Sure it’s density and madness captivate sometimes but it’s utterly uncooperative with any attempt to unrule or detangle.  Straightening without chemicals is a minimum 4 hours at an unusually efficient salon.

I was born with a full head of hair.  My mother told me the nurses at the hospital where I was birthed didn’t know what to do with my hair. They were used to baldy babies. It was stuck to my head with birth fluid and I know my mother secretly or not so secretly hoped that it would be smooth and lay down.  All women of the diaspora struggle with self-acceptance and hopefully achieve some sort of self love. However, my mother’s culture and generation I think didn’t contemplate issues of hair politics so deeply – they often don’t enter the struggle with hair.  On her Caribbean island straightened hair signifies things like professionalism and adulthood while unstraightened kinky textures of hair can mean childhood in need of etiquette, training, grooming, taming, discipline or someone who lives in the barrio or in the countryside.  Even the most impoverished person on the island or transplanted elsewhere makes an attempt to get her hair done, gets those pesos together or borrows them from somebody.

As a young child I had a lot of hair, just mass and bulk of curls and kinds that eventually grew down to backs length.  I remember not having any opinion about my hair or desire for any other kind of hair.  Then at about the age of 5, I was taken to the torture chamber, aka the Dominican Hair Salon, relaxed and blowed out.  Relaxers are very deceptive substances.  I have pictures from my first relaxer and that first week or so on virgin hair is sparkly, shiny, like a new daughter with slightly “better” hair had re-emerged from the womb.  However, that luster fades quickly into dryness and damage in a difficult to escape cycle of touchups, painful blowouts and unhealthy hair.

General hair indifference lasted until around age 10 when I started caring about what my hair looked like and so began my angst. I never was the type to have money to go to the salon weekly. That was a 2 time a year outing at most and not something I looked forward to. I feared the hot dryers and despised missing muppet babies :(.

People made fun of my hair and asked me why I didn’t do something with it.  Keep in mind the context of the late 1980s/early 1990s where massive unruly hair was not so stylish.  Relaxers were the norm and Brandy braids came into fashion at one point.  The hair I envied, what I considered “good hair” at the time was from this one crew of girls who all looked alike in different ways.  They would coordinate their outfits, matching Levi’s and handbags and they all had the neatest relaxers; much thinner hair that would truly stay straight and calm on their head (or lay down as some would say).  This was something impossible for me due to the thickness of my hair. Girls nowadays have access to professional quality products you can buy right off the shelf. Back then, all we had were lower heat curling irons, blow dryers and flat irons. If you look at hair styles back then, you can see the texture was always visible.  Nowadays you have a lot of girls wearing weaves or using products that truly hide the texture almost completely when straightening is the goal.

I remember being in about 5th grade and getting a round brush stuck in my hair, cutting it out in tears and that patch of hair growing in crooked for at least 5 years after.  I remember disliking my hair, just feeling like it never cooperated.  Years later sometime in high school I received a relaxer that brought me to tears.  An unskilled stylist left it on too long (symbolic of an attempt to get that extra degree of unkinkiness contrary to the actual directions on the relaxer). Using the spray hose was so painful and I remember tearing up and scabs coming up on my head afterwards.  This actually made me stop getting relaxers for about a year. I left my hair kinky curly and partially relaxed, partially new growth and remember people thinking it was cool and calling me scary spice. Then a friend who wasn’t so fond of my wild non-do rationalized with me that I had a bad stylist (never let Puerto Ricans do your hair she said) and that I needed to go back and ask for a different stylist. So I did and it was back into the relaxer routine, albeit relaxing less frequently. Just a few years later or so I had an experience that changed my outlook on hair completely.

In college I was in a social science class on race (I forget if it was anthro or soc) and a young woman in the class who was Puerto Rican in origin spoke about how her mother used to beat her if she didn’t relax her hair. Many people make the blanket assumption that to be of Latin American heritage means you have looser, straight or wavy hair but people in Latin America are not of one race but many and often intertwine African, Indigenous and European heritages alongside other elements into various combinations.  You just never know what kinds of genes will be expressed from the whitest of white to the blackest of black to the reddest of red and every possible combination.  So this particular woman had a fair complexion and probably on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the kinkiest hair possible she was like an 11 with her lovely kinks. And she did keep her hair in a natural state which I give her credit for as there hasn’t really been anything like a widespread natural hair, black is beautiful movement amongst most Latin Americans.  Her story spoke to me and while my upbringing wasn’t as physically harsh, nor my hair quite as kinky, I felt her pain on an emotional level and it really made me understand that a relaxer is an assault on the self.

I began to think about life, being created and how it’s really society that tells you that only certain features are acceptable.  If we focus on the level of our creator, this message dissipates and it becomes evident that the diversity in human society is something enriching, not something to homogenize.  I would go to the beauty product store in my college town and look at products. African Pride Relaxers jumped out at me like a swipe of fushia on a clean black surface; completely out of place, ridiculous and indicative of self-colonization. That was the year I put in my last relaxer.

Not relaxing is a freeing decision but natural hair also has to be learned, cared for, adored and that can take time when you haven’t seen it in so many years.  My hair grows much faster when I don’t relax so there was no need for what some refer to as a big chop.  I grew out my hair for some months and cut it down to about a foot in length which is much shorter looking in kinks and curls. Figuring out what to do with my hair has been an issue and not something I took an extreme amount of time with. I’m impatient with these beauty processes. Finding stylists to work with my hair was another issue. I’ve literally been kicked out of a salon or two because my hair was too much to handle. Better that than someone mishandling it. Some stylists love to dive into my mess but they’ll take lunch or stretch beforehand. For years I would just wet and pull back (buns and ponytails for months) or straighten non-chemically but recently I am coming to terms with the fact that these are both strategies to conceal my hair’s texture and wild free spirit.

Now I’m in the process of making an appointment to go to a curly hair salon.  I won’t torment my old straightener stylist, expert that he is, by taking up his chair for 5-6 hours.  That costs too much time and money (mostly time – all professional hair styling where I live costs $$$). I’m embracing my hair and cutting it down some more to a style that is flattering.

One thing I am afraid of is the attention I get when my hair is out.  It’s really quite massive.  In high school (and remember this is with relaxed hair), instead of doing our science lab, some girls and I all ripped strands of hair from our head and compared them.  The Filipina girl with the butt length hair had the longest hair (we already knew this) and I was voted the thickest hair.  My hair is wiry and wacky and different (like most women) in different parts of my head.  It is kinky, nappy, looks like a cloud, cotton ball or poof depending on the day. In dry climates it’s much more cooperative but this is New York where we have crazy weather almost all year – snow, rain, heat and humidity, just a handful of easy hair days during the year.

I have to say I am distressed sometimes by the current use of weaves by many women in the diaspora. I think it’s partly a generational thing. Weaves were just coming into fashion when I was coming out of high school (thanks Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim L) and it’s like a pride thing in my household not to use artificial hair.  Growing up if a girl had shorter hair, she would just work it and there were shorter hair role models like Toni Braxton and Halle Berry.  But these weaves just look so artificial and really take the concept behind a relaxer to another level entirely.  Whereas a relaxer is a chemical restructuring of one’s own hair, a weave is a statement that one’s own hair in its entirety needs to be replaced with the hair of another woman.  In some cases it may just be about length but in others I think it flows much deeper.  Concurrently, I have to say that I don’t believe that hair represents who a woman is necessarily.  Some of our sisters relax and weave there hair but this doesn’t always mean that they are somehow less conscious or not thinking on a certain level. Understanding the meaning of hair in at least 3 cultures, I resist making generalizations about other’s decisions and what the motivation might be.

I will say that what keeps me going is connectivity to the self and thinking about children and modeling authentic origins to them.  I remember walking around Brooklyn one day and seeing a woman with her hair dyed blonde.  This woman was very clearly not a natural blond.  It looked like a home dye job with a bottle of Clairol with no consideration for how the color would relate to this woman’s skin tone (she looked to be of Mexican or Central American origin).  As she pushed her baby stroller with her black haired child in it, I wondered what kind of a psychological impact is being made on this child.  Will baby girl normalize that horrendous blonde dye is what makes women beautiful because her mother, her nurturer is modeling this for her.  This is where the importance comes in to me; to stay away from dyes and chemicals and other kinds of body alterations, plastic surgery and beyond.  Children deserve to know the reality of where they come from in terms of looks and when those origins are carried with a sense of high self esteem I believe that will positively impact the child’s self image.  This also has to extend to how we regard other women.

In sum, on reflection after about 10 years 100% relaxer and chemical free I will say it’s the best decision I’ve made in my life.  Like many, it allowed me to truly know my hair.  Relaxing from early-middle childhood through adulthood we forget our own hair and we don’t’ know it so we have to get reacquainted. I can honestly say I love my hair even if it is a lot of hair and a lot of work.  It grows in a way that it never would with a relaxer and the more natural I keep it, the more it grows and grows. I’m celebrating by reading Teri LaFlesh’s Curly Like Me which is a really affirming read for kinked, napped and curled sisters and brothers and progressing into more natural styles, working with my hair’s texture. I wore it out the other day in fact, broke a hair clip in the process and was questioned about whether or not I tried any straightening methods.  It was actually no problem. I just brushed it off.

[photo credit: camilo jose vergara]

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~ by cyrah on November 16, 2011.

3 Responses to “Celebrating 10 Years Chemical Free: My Hair Story”

  1. interesting information, thanks. hope you make some more posts soon.

  2. Love this post. I went completely natural in 2007 and felt it was an act of self-love. There are days when I don’t know what to do with my curls, but I prefer them to the days of relaxers. It’s a wonderful thing to be yourself.
    Found your blog as I was wandering around looking at any blogs on raw food. I’m starting a blog on my journey with raw foods for 2012. I’ll check back in to see what else you’re up to.

    • thanks bloggamomma for your visit and best to you on your raw path! what you say “it’s a wonderful thing to be yourself” is a refreshing reminder and i’m sure your delightfully textured crown is a visual accompaniment to this statement.

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