Standing at the bathroom sink, my eyes pridefully skimmed over the sea of small waves from my scalp. My short, dark hair was finally growing and the miniscule ripples were proof of that. I hadn’t decided whether I would be like my mother and allow the nappy coils to grow free, or continue to spread guanidine hydroxide on my scalp to calm my kinks once again.
I could feel my mother’s arched eyebrows furrow despite her being two rooms away. As my body jolted upright from the mirror, I noticed she held the sapphire and eggplant shaded Precise box in one hand and a crisp receipt from Sally’s Beauty Supply Store in the other.
“Am I permin’ your hair or what?”
Promptly, I stood straight and stepped towards the hot pink throw pillow that sat between my mother’s legs. I peered over at the colorful specs in our carpet, as she pulled the bobby pins and the elastic holder free from my straightened hair and proceeded to smear the off white and creamy chemicals amidst each parted section of my scalp.
I believe my first memory is when I was four years old and I came home from getting my hair relaxed at my grandmother’s house. I was living with my biological parents at the time (that’s how long ago it was) and I didn’t realize it at the time, but my hair had just been straightened to a crisp and then twisted up into short pigtails with color-schemed barrettes. However, it was also the first night I experienced scissors; when my parents were asleep, I cut off all my hair. It’s also the first and only whooping I ever got from my mother. I was laughed at by my paternal grandmother; who will tell you to this day that I had patches in my scalp and when my hair started to grow and I was left with a short afro, or how strangers looked at me like I was a homely child. But, soon after my hair grew back, I started getting those relaxers once again.
In elementary school, I would see all types of different hairstyles on girls my age. Twists that were flattened to their scalps, or long braided pigtails that were well past their shoulders. I envied those hairstyles. The long hair that when after you played around all day, little curls would begin to unravel or in the mornings that the thin baby hairs would have a subtle curl to them. No, I wouldn’t say anything, but I wanted that.
Growing up, my mother would tell me the story of how the whole reason chemicals came into play and how my hair wasn’t as soft or as loose as people with “good hair”, so, my grandfather told my mother to relax it.
“It can’t get no nappier.” He said.
That fueled me to believe I had the world’s most hard-to-manage hair. Still, it didn't fully sink in that my entire childhood was wasted on chemicals. But, upon reaching sixth grade, my relaxers lost their regularity. That year, my hair was probably at my ears and in desperate need of a touch up. I built my life around those relaxers. The day I was told, “Come’ere so I can perm yo’ hair.” my entire facial expression lifted from a relaxed frown to a glowing smile. Finally, I thought, I can be pretty again.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school did I pay attention to other girls with loose curls and gorgeous waves with wild afro puffs that I started to think about what my own hair looked like. Was my hair as pretty as hers? There was only one way to find out.
But, still, I went with the go-with-what-you-know route and told my mother to relax my hair. Those small waves that I loved? Gone in a matter of a few rubs and washes. After that, I told myself, and my family, that I never again would I get a relaxer. I thought about the pros and the cons, like I always do. But, the one con that always stuck with me was, What if my hair is as nappy as they say? Then what? Regardless, I deserved to know what my hair looked like. Even if my family didn't accept me or felt pity for me having to deal with a nappy mess, it'd be my nappy mess.
Now, there were a few occasions when my grandmother would try to persuade me.
“If you perm it, you don't gotta worry about it sweating out cause when it sweats out, all you gotta do is straighten it again with the hot iron and go.”
I refused to flat iron my hair. Heat would ruin my curl pattern and straighten it out just like a relaxer would. My hair was beautiful with its tight kinks and I was not about to ruin them.
And by the summer of my high school junior year, I spent most of my time in the bathroom mirror twisting my curls into ten to however many thick pigtails. It would take an hour or two to finish my whole head. Spray. Moisturize. Comb. Twist. Repeat. All that time spent on a hairstyle that never lasted longer than three days; specifically because I'd end up going somewhere, and I refused to walk outside the house with my hair in short twists. However, with a puff, nobody could tell me a thing! My baby hairs were curled, my puff was thick, and my kitchen (hair at the nape of the neck) was laid. I was confident in myself and my hair.
To this day, I find it disrespectful when I'm asked to relax my hair. Think about it: you're asked, “Why don't you alter yourself to appear to everybody else's standards so that we can look at you as if you're One of Us?” Never again would I change myself from my natural state to be or to look like somebody I'm not. Letting go of relaxers changed my outlook on the world; on my family, on myself. A simple change like that showed me the true reality of everything. How other black kids all over struggle to be or express themselves freely with their hair (dreads, braids, afros, etc.)
Stopping my relaxers was a weight lifted off of my scalp. It opened me up to be more optimistic, considerate, confident, and so much more. It’s funny how a subtle change in hair can change how you view everything around you.