REFLECTIONS ON NATURAL HAIR…
The way we choose to wear our hair is a part of who we are, and obviously, how we see ourselves and how we want the world to see us- are two different things. We see bright hair colors and label someone free-spirited; we see permed hair and may assume this person is simply a conformist; we see locks and assume the person is either a deep thinker or smoker of good green. My experience with natural hair has been quite an interesting one.
Hair is an ever-changing thing. Growing up, I wore my hair straight. I was an every 2 weeks visitor to a hair salon, spending entire Saturdays waiting for my hair to be fried and laid to the side. Wearing my hair straight was the easy way for me subscribe to the societal conditioning that my hair was “too much” to deal with. It was too thick, too nappy, wouldn’t “lay down”-when I wanted to slick it back into a ponytail. With my hair straightened, I was able to avoid the sneers and baseless jokes about having “nigger naps” and “going back to Africa” from my classmates. I figured having an African name that was hard to pronounce was enough torture, and I never got accustomed to the consistent use of hot combs and hair grease on my hair. Simultaneously, this process helped shape my identity amongst my social circles throughout school and made my acceptance readily into the crowds of Jordan-fiends, weed-smokers, ball-players, and pseudo-gang members. I never quite fit into these groups either – I’m a people person, so it wasn’t necessarily challenging to adapt – but it was about survival. Having hair that was easy to manage- made life easy to manage. Sure, puberty and the discovery of boys may have been rocky, but not nearly as rocky as it would have been had I let my natural hair rock out at that time in my life.
After high school, I took a semester off to figure out what to do with my life. Seemingly, effortless in this process was the experimentation with my hair and the transition to the all-natural ‘look’ that I wear now. I no longer had the dilemma of fitting in to help dictate my decision in how I should or shouldn’t wear my hair and was left to my own devices. By the time I started college in the spring of 2004, I’d decided to go all the way: no more hot combs, just a well conditioned afro. A part of this decision was my desire to become a new me. I wanted to be taken seriously for my thoughts and actions, not how I looked or dressed. Along with this, also came the insistence that people pronounce my full name (and properly) and the ease into which I flowed in and out of social groups of people who had seemingly made the same type of decision. By the time I got into the swing of things, wearing my hair natural seemed like a no-brainer. I no longer had the same luxury of spending all day in a beauty parlor, I had papers to write.
The convenience of wearing my hair in its natural state far outweighed the convenience I thought I had when I wore it straight. I no longer was afraid of the rain, I learned how to style and care for it with greater flexibility, and I saved the money that I usually spent on getting it straightened and began indulging in more expensive deep conditioners to keep it soft and touchable. In addition to which, something else occurred that I didn’t expect: I got to learn more about myself, not new or old, but authentically me. For most women who straighten or perm their hair, it’s usually a tradition that starts very young, and kept into adulthood. Thus, most women who undergo this process have no clear recollection of what their actual hair texture looks or feels like. This is a frightening thing to reflect on now, the idea, that, had I stayed on that path I’d never know what it feels like when my curls need a little extra love, they way they bounce back when you tug it- ever so slightly, or its real needs and wants. I had relinquished control of an integral part of my identity from the reins of my beautician and took control of my body, my look, my appearance before the world stage. My hair by association is a part of me, as it is attached to my body, and the process of learning what works and doesn’t work for my hair in its natural state was one of the most enlightening experiences of my young adulthood.
One of the most astonishing parts of going natural wasn’t merely in the freeness of doing what I wanted, but the new labels that were associated with describing who I was. I had officially joined another team, without full knowledge of what I was getting into. Prior to my transition, I was “cool, flexible, laid back”. Now, I’ve been described as “natural, authentic, real” as if I had been something artificial before, a clone of some sort. Yes, I was a part of the seas of doobies and wash and sets, undetectable in a sea of straight hair, but I still felt like I was an individual. After all, no two people are alike, right?
Yes, it’s true. No two people are alike. But the way we naturally judge people continually puts us into categories because it’s easier, which is just a normal human process. Wearing your hair in its natural state – whatever state that may be – seemingly comes with a stronger identifier in terms of who you are because you are announcing to the world that there will be no “rectifying” of what society may deem as wrong. The conclusion that is usually drawn about people that wear their hair in this manner is that along with being ‘unkempt’ and ‘wild’, we are ‘rebels’ and want to buck the system because of our intolerance for chemicals. It is this same level of intolerance that may prevent a natural and well conditioned afro such as myself from obtaining professional positions, however many people compliment me on it everyday.
Even from within my family, there has been an adjustment, as traditional southern women still consider it improper if your hair can’t let a fine tooth comb pass through easily. But wearing my hair natural was about me, and no one else. Once I got past a few rude comments from ill-informed people, I was able to gain a level of ‘not-give-a-damn’ that I had never experienced before. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about my appearance, (I still take great care to keep my afro soft and manageable) but there came a certain level of not caring what anyone had to say about my afro. My hair is healthier than its ever been, and as a part of my body, I’d rather it be in good condition like the rest of my body than have to worry about outdated standards of beauty that never fit well on a girl like me anyway. Did I look good back when I had straight hair? YES. But the beauty I carry now feels so much different on me because in wearing my hair natural, I get to be completely me. I can say hands down, that my natural hair has attracted more people to me, of various races, than it did when I wore my hair straight. I get compliments from men and women alike on my hair all the time, and I can say that as possibly a result of such (paired with my developing maturity) I feel better about myself.
In recent times, I find that I am not alone. There has been an upsurge of afros and curls and coils separating themselves from the pack, declaring hair independence and gaining visibility. I pass women on the street with that same amount of pep in their step and we give each other the ‘look’ that lets each other know we’re in on a different kind of freedom. The community of natural hair wearers is ever-growing, and I learn more from my comrades everyday, sharing in the wealth of information within a growing market for those wishing to give up the hot combs and creamy crack. There are impostors among us: women going for the ‘natural look’ since some believe wearing your hair in its natural state is a ‘passing fad’, all in hope that one day we’ll return to our local beauty supply store for a fresh box of relaxer. In addition to which, there are many sub-categories for women who may not have their hair straightened, but instead color their tresses (which is a form of processing) or wear weave pieces, wigs and so on. But I firmly believe that once you experience the true liberation of wearing your hair all-natural without additives of any kind, you’ll be more upset than anything that you didn’t transition sooner.
I love my hair. With my hair in its natural state, the options are endless, even if most times I don’t bother and just wear it in its natural puff. My hair and I have a more intimate relationship now that there is no middle (wo)man, and the luxury of getting out of bed in the morning and simply running my fingers through it before I walk out the door is priceless. I know that there are still many people who are ill-educated about natural hair and still attach negative connotations to it (a few days ago a man on Kiss FM used the word “nappy” effortlessly in a sentence) but the benefits far outweigh the cons. Personally, I think that declaring that “I am not may hair” is cool, but then allowing those moments when declaring such to become teachable ones helps educate those still in the dark about identity, education, and professionalism so that a genuine tolerance can be developed and spread all over. Yes, I am more than my hair. But my hair is a positive reflection and extension of me and getting to know the person instead is always better than any outward assumption or short hand declaration you could make.