My afro’s exile has come to an end. After twenty-three years of chemical straightening I’ve decided to return to my natural hair texture. Huzzah!
If you have the time and the patience, bear with me. Those of you read who read my previous hair post know that I’ve got some major feelings tied up in this hair bid’ness. As since my shrink already has her hands full with all my other neuroses, this big, ol’ blog post serves as stand-in therapy on this issue.
Right now, today, I’m really happy and excited about my decision to “go natural” as they say in the community. (Did you know there’s an extensive online community for a women of colour with natural hair? I didn’t! But now I do! More on that later.) I’m six months into a phase commonly referred to as “transitioning”. Basically I haven’t relaxed any of my new growth since December, but I still have most of previously relaxed hair.
After years of ambivalence, I was motivated to make the change once and for all, when The MoMs and I started planning our move to California. One of the first things we had to figure out was financial stuff, mainly how could afford life in an very pricey state and my return to school. We knew we’d have to do some serious budget trimming, so we made a spreadsheet of all our current expenses. When we added up the cost of all of my salon appointments. Including taxes and tips, I was spending close to $1500 per year to relax my hair!
Fifteen. Hundred. Dollars? Daaaaag!
Fifteen hundred dollars could cover our moving expenses or the cost of my school books. Fifteen hundred dollars would pay for a year’s worth of long distance phone calls to family and friends. I could attend a national conference or buy the family a new computer. We could take The Bean to a major league baseball game every weekend, or enroll him in an amazing summer camp or take a trip to Yosemite or Tahoe or some other magnificent destination. There were so many other uses for the money I was spending on relaxers.
‘It’s not worth it,’ I realized.
I’m happy to invested money into my personal care and grooming. But having straight hair wasn’t helping me feel good anymore. The sting of chemicals on my scalp left my feeling ashamed and resentful. I was straightening my hair, not because I because it made me feel beautiful but because it made me feel safe, inconspicuous. Relaxers made my head uncontroversial.
Appeasing others at my own expense is not the person I want to be. And I realized that this was probably one of those situations where I’d have to face my fears in order to get past them. So I cancelled my standing appointments at the salon. It was time to invest my money and my energy into better things. I felt strong and empowered…for almost ten whole minutes.
Then I panicked.
It had been so long. I didn’t really remember my natural texture. I didn’t know what to do. Did I just let it grow? Did I need a weave or wigs? Special products? New shampoo? Ack!
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that my head wasn’t going to break out in nappy curls right away. With the exception of some faint kinking at the roots, my hair was still straight. I would literally had to grow into this change, which meant I had time to figure stuff out.
I went to the internet and typed RELAXED TO NATURAL OMGHAIRFLAIL (or something along those lines) into Google. Bam! A myriad of websites, blogs and vlogs about the wonderful world of natural black-people hair.
I knew of women who went natural by doing what’s know as The Big Chop. Essentially you cut of all your relaxed hair in one go and re-grow it from scratch. That scared the shit out of me. My hair wasn’t spectacular…but I needed it. Otherwise, I’d just be a face and a smattering of naps, which…ack and…I couldn’t…and NO!
Another Google search revealed that going natural without a big chop is totally a thing. I could let the natural texture grow in while doing “mini-chops” every few weeks to gradually remove my relaxed hair. It would take a long time – a year, maybe two – to rid myself of all the processed hair. It would also be far more challenging to maintain the health of my hair. But the alternative was super-short and that was SO NOT HAPPENING! So I got myself a pair of trimming scissors and settled in for the long transition.
It took about ten weeks before I really started to notice a substantial change in my hair. My new growth was
dense, extremely curly and kind of coarse. Managing this radically different texture while the rest of my hair was straight got challenging. My hair started snapping off at the place where the two textures met (typical during transition). If you’ve seen me lately, you may have noticed my hair is usually done up in multiple twists or loose but wavy wild. Those styles keep my fragile hair reasonably protected and help conceal some of the transitional awkwardness.
Something I heard time and again from the natural hair community was that changing my hair was an emotional journey, that I might be surprised by what came out of the experience. That was and is totally true. Ever since I’ve started this I’ve had all these different feelings – fear, excitement, fear, joy, fear, fear, pride, fear, absolute fucking terror, fear, wonderment, fear.
Several weeks ago, I was in the shower, washing my emerging coils and I thought ‘I like these.’ It was nice and very new not to feel at odds with the kink. Suddenly I was overcome by curiosity. I really wanted to see what that hair would looked like all on it’s own. I got out of the shower, found my scissors and cut all the relaxer off a discreet lock near the nape of my neck. Once they were free, the remaining strands popped back toward my scalp like a tightly wound spring. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that’s my hair.’
I wanted that hair…just that hair. But I was still terrified of The Big Chop. It was too drastic. Yes, it would grow out eventually but it would take months, years even to regain any significant length. What if I looked awful in the meantime?
But every time I put my hands in my hair my curiosity grew. What was going on up there? The darn relaxer was in my way, distorting my texture and altering my curl pattern. I began trimming more aggressively. I cut off more near my neck. I went back to YouTube and watched videos of other women who had big chopped. Many had been afraid going into it, but they all seemed so happy once it was done. I began to think maybe, just maybe I could do it too.
First I’d have to find someone to do the chopping. It was one thing to self-cut small sections of my hair but no way could I shear the my entire head without making a hash of it. I didn’t want to see my old stylist for fear they would try to talk me out of my natural plans. After careful consideration, I asked my mom if she would do it when we came to Toronto for a few days, before heading to the west coast. She agreed and I resolved to do it. The Big Chop is happening in three weeks!
Even after I made the decision, I had a great deal of anxiety about having super-short hair. And this is where I get a little heavy. I appreciate that you’ve stayed with me this long. Hang in a little longer, ‘k.
I was worried about what others would think. But when I told people my plans and got nothing but support in return. The MoMs was uber-excited for me. When I mentioned it on Facebook, people wrote back with encouragement and compliments that made my heart swell. I certainly didn’t have to worry about being shunned by my community.
I was very worried about the fact I didn’t know what I’d look like. I still don’t. A super-short style will change the dynamics of my face, even my body, but who knows what the results will be. I might be less attractive than I am now. And then it struck me, in a super-clear moment of disempowering shame that that thought of being unattractive, scares the crap out of me.
I legit love clothes and make-up and all look-y look dress up stuff. I adored styling my dolls as a little girl and now that I’m grown, I’m like my own doll, except way better because – score – I’m not plastic, I’m a real person with thoughts, a heart, a soul and a life.
Even though I enjoy clothing and grooming myself (in ways that are very much line with conventional notions of femininity) I also feel I’m expected – if not to attain – to at least strive toward certain beauty standards. I should want to be pretty. If I can’t be, I should feel badly about it. There are times when I really do feel that my right to be seen, to be heard and to take up space in a room depends on my perceived level of attractiveness.
I suspect I’m not the only person who feels this way. I constantly hear women apologize and castigate themselves because they’re the “wrong” size or they’ve worn the “wrong” thing or committed other perceived offense, which basically amounts to I Am In The World Looking Like What I Actually Look Like. I want to tell them to stop saying those things and sometimes I do. And maybe that’s helpful but it’s also a bit hypocritical because the truth is I struggle with those feelings and I feel the weight of those expectations big time.
I do feel, at times, that beauty is my obligation and that making myself attractive is a major clause in my social contract. I feel like I’m always expected to care about how I look – that being pretty is something I’m supposed to want.
Except it isn’t true. It’s pervasive and I feel it, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a big pile of toxic bullshit that crapping all over my self worth. And yes it gives me feelings; feelings that are very strong and very real. But the truth is, I can choose to take beauty off my list of priorities and that is totally okay.
I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago and sat down to have a serious talk with myself.
I said to myself, ‘Self…
Don’t make choices based on toxic bullshit. You know what you’re worth. You know you have value no matter what you look like. This is your body and your hair and you’re allowed to do whatever you want to do with it. If you don’t love the way short hair looks on you, that’s okay. You can still love who you are. So get over yourself, Nadine. It’s just hair.’
My real self-talk wasn’t quite so Hallmark-ish but the that was the gist is the same. I definitely felt more courageous about The Big Chop. I am embarrassed to be using the word “courage” in relation to a hair cut but that’s honestly where I’m at. Don’t judge me too harshly…okay?
It’s taken two decades of hair trauma and six month of transition but I’m finally ready to embrace my hair, as is. I cannot wait to have these ends gone, so I really get reacquainted with my kinky, nappy head. I’m actually a bit sad that I won’t be able to show my Ottawa pals my “real” hair in person. But I promise there will be videos and pictures galore, because I’m not so scared anymore.
Not so scared at all.