My Natural Hair Journey

...i'm the only woman in my family with naturally curly hair...but i haven't always embraced my curls...especially since i didn't acquire them until i hit puberty sometime in middle school...instead of breasts, my menstrual cycle was accompanied by new hair growth that was thin, curly, and frizzy...

...for those of you still reading after the mention of my menstrual cycle, allow me to share a picture of what my hair looked like during the process of growing new curly hair and living with board-straight ends:
...i began my obsession with writing in middle school...
...it wasn't pretty...especially since my dirty-blonde hair reached nearly to my waist...

...Grandma devised three solutions...the first was to wet and braid my hair before i went to bed...so i'd sleep on wet braids, my pillows would get damp, and i'd wake with a migraine...once she took out all of the braids the next morning, and finger combed each section, only the last few inches of my hair would be straight for the day...thus i looked exactly like this:
...i was actually kinda cute back then...
...my mother is still convinced this method of wearing wet braids to bed is what really "turned my head curly"...personally, i think it's why i had pneumonia...twice...

...solution number two was a bit less involved for Grandma, but made for a difficult night's sleep for me...she purchased 200 small pink foam rollers, the self-locking kind, and sectioned my hair into 200 squares..then she wrapped my long wet strands around and around and around and around the sponge until it resembled a barbell...she locked it in place and repeated the process until she got through all 200 strands...then i slept like this:
...i couldn't find a picture of me sleeping with my eyes open...
...but this is pretty close...
...the next morning, Grandma freed the rollers that hadn't escaped from their lassos--there were a litter of refugees in the bed--then she used a pick to fluff it all out...she took a big clip or a scrunchie (don't judge, this was the early nineties) and tied back the front curls--which were always kinkier than the rest--so i could see...at the end of this process, i looked like this:
...those of you who own a copy of Almondale Middle School's yearbook for
my 8th grade year will recognize this as my class photograph...
...Grandma's last line of defense was to blow dry my hair...she owned a hand dryer that was older than my mother and resembled a child's toy...it worked well on her straight short helmet, but for me it simply did this:
...this is the only photo i have of my blown-out hair...i hope you get the idea...
...seven inches of hair got chopped before i began high school...that way, i only had to deal with the ten remaining straight inches and my curly roots...Grandma bought me a set of curling irons and i spent about an hour every morning curling my hair into loose waves...and wishing the entire time i had straight hair just like all of the other smooth-headed girls in my school...i used the irons, and a shellac of hairspray, to straighten a set of bangs for myself, so desperate was i to fit in with the rest of the crowd:
...here's a candid shot of me straightening my bangs for school...
 ...every magazine, movie, television show, and cassette cover glorified straight hair...shampoos and conditioners promised to tame frizz and straighten locks...i followed the directions daily--lather, wash, rinse, repeat--yet my hair seemed to get curlier and curlier...

...eventually, i got enough trims so i didn't have to camouflage my straight ends anymore...the curls completely took over...and i got bombarded by comments from my family about being the only person with curly hair--the freak, the standout...i was given hairbrushes, hair dryers, flat irons, and serums to straighten it all out...that way i'd look like i belonged in the same house...
...my sisters in the far back, mother on the left, and grandma on the right...

...eventually, perms were en vogue...and for second i was envied...Grandma bought me Mane n Tail conditioner...something called a diffusing sock was given to me as a stocking stuffer one christmas...my long curly hair was not the thorn in my side it had been...

...a week later, madonna straightened her hair...

...so my only two hairstyles became a ponytail, with straight-ironed bangs or a half-up, half-down blown-out catastrophe...i spent about a quarter of my life wishing i could simply wear a wig over the disaster that was my natural hair...

*    *    *

...i sprouted white hairs when i was seventeen, mostly because perms fell out of fashion and i began to, again, long for straight hair...along with damaging it with brushing and heat-drying, i started to cover my white with dye...by my twenties, my curls were very damaged, so i underwent a big chop...i had a stylist cut it down to an inch all over...it was the first time in my life i didn't have to do a thing to my hair in order to leave the house:
...me at my sister's wedding...
...just looking at this picture makes me long for my short-short hair...
...and everywhere i went, people thought i was a lesbian...i'm not sure why having short curly hair made me a lesbian, but there you have it...

...after the big chop i promised myself i would never torture my hair again...i was going to embrace my curly hair even if learning how to care for it caused me to pull it all out in exasperation...i bought books on caring for curly hair...i learned about pattern and texture...that i actually have 3 patterns of curls on my head, thus i can't treat all areas in the same way...

...i let my curls grow and stopped trying to straighten them...

...and i began shopping for haircare products in the tiny "ethnic" hair section of my local store...i did this because it's what all of the books and articles i'd read told me to do, not because i suddenly felt a kinship with african-american women...i consider myself post-racial and the fact that these products were put into a separate but equal aisle burned my ass...especially since i'd lived through high school with bad hair...had these "ethnic" bottles been included in the rows of Pantene and Aussie, i may have had a better date to junior prom...

...the stares that ensued when i shopped for "ethnic" products were so laced with blatant racism that i didn't know how to respond...why was i buying "ethnic" products, the narrowed eyes of the checker asked me...in the aisle, the african-american women sporting glorious afros tisked when i grabbed bottles and began to read the "Directions for use"...and my straight-haired family members joked that i was "black"...
...my noble pose...rising above...
 ...when i began shopping for head wraps, shower caps, deep conditioning treatments, silk pillow cases, and curl-friendly hair dye at my local beauty supply store, i got the patronizing sort of racism...the kind that said, "oh aren't you cute? you think you're one of us"...when i went online and searched for protective styles for sleeping with curly hair, the first hundred thousand videos were all made by "ethnic" women...when a co-worker of mine began a natural hair club, i was the only white woman in the room, and when i began to talk about curl patterns and texture the young members all gaped at me, shocked i could speak the curly girl language...

...i'm floored by the angry comments i've recently seen on natural hair posts and blogs...was i so busy trying to look like a white girl with straight hair that i completely missed the movement to turn curly hair into an "us versus them" argument? i'm not an uneducated yokel...i minored in US History at University...specifically US Southern history from 1700-the civil rights movement...i understand that "black is beautiful" is not a universally accepted mantra, that black women (and men) have been unjustly brainwashed into believing their hair is "nappy" or "shameful" or "ethnic" and thus "inferior"...i was infuriated when the "You Can Touch My Hair" exhibition went down at Union Square--it reminded me of the accounts of white slave owners pawing over slaves on the auction block...but COME ON...it's curly hair...if we're going to make this an "us versus them" issue let's make it an "US versus THEM" issue and get to the root cause of why we've been shamed out of our natural hair: those straight-haired skinny bitches we hated in high school...

...i think back to the nights when i slept sitting up...the dozens of wet braids...the years i spent camouflaging my natural look, not just by the failed attempts at curling the straight ends, but by wearing it in a ponytail or french braid or horrific blow-out because i didn't know what to do with it, and my culture and family told me straight was the only way to go...i wanted so badly to look like everyone else that i didn't even know what i looked like...the women who've been able to share that exact feeling with me are my "ethnic" friends...so when i read articles about the need for "black only" spaces, i cringe...the need and desire for these spaces, under the context of not having to "perform" for those outside of one's race, seems to be taking a giant leap backward...it reminds me of that small "ethnic" section in my local store, the managers who place those products in separate but equal space...
...me, front, with a couple of my "ethnic" girlfriends...
...notice how i still can't seem to get it right, yet their natural styles are perfect...
...i'm no hair guru...i've been embracing my curls for fifteen years and i just learned last week to dry it with a t-shirt so it won't frizz...i still haven't mastered wearing a head wrap the way my stylish and sophisticated "ethnic" friends do (i need more pashminas, apparently)...i don't wrap my hair at night the way my Victorian ancestors used to (though i want to, so please help: if you can, come over and wrap it for me, because every time i try it falls out)...

...a rare color photo of my great-grandmother wearing her night cap...
 ...when i get a cut, i still have my stylist wash it and give me a blow out so i can pretend to be one of the beautiful people for a few days...i ask my "ethnic" girlfriends for hair tips and advice, and we joke openly about the fact that i have more in common, follically, with them than anyone in my own family...

...my six-year-old daughter has board-straight hair...she often asks me to straighten my curls...i patiently tell her that mommy's hair is curly, not straight, and she sighs and says, "i don't like your curly hair"

...when i ask her why she says, "because we don't look alike"

...i take the opportunity to turn her distressed comment into a teaching moment...we have a chat about embracing our differences, not stepping to the same drum beat, and what a sad world we would live in if we all had straight hair and looked alike...because she's six, we've had this conversation more than once...it typically takes a few reminders for these life lessons to sink in...

...what's truly distressing to me is the large number of women, "ethnic" and not, who've never had this conversation...or think it's a conversation that is beneath them...

Comments

  1. My sister and soulmate. I applaud you for talking so openly of how feeling like you do not belong because of your hair can transcend race. I love you for this. I make no joke how you are braver and stronger than I would ever be, but that you for showing we are all the same just experience this hell we call life on different planes.

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