I've been meaning to write the story of my hair. It has a history of its own now. And my decision to document it is not an effort to romanticize my natural journey as is trendy to do now, but to use it as an example of a lesson I recently learned and as a motif in my transition to adulthood.
My hair regimen used to be a complex process. First stop, the beauty supply. It appears modest from the outside, but once you enter the little white door, bell ringing at your arrival, you see hair hung from floor to ceiling. Any type of hair you could dream of donning: long, straight, wavy, curly, blue, green, yellow, blonde, wigs, tracks, pieces, bangs, ponytails, they're all there. As a regular, the decision doesn't overwhelm me. Routinely, I request "Three packs of 'Tasha Deep Wave', two of them in a number two and the third, a number 2 and 33 mix, please". In translation, two packs in deep brown, my "natural" hair color, and the third pack, deep brown with honey blonde highlights. The beauty supply has a language all it's own. If you're familiar, then you know what the terms Yaki, Remi, Wet n' Wavy, and synthetic refer to. You know the number that represents your real hair color and that which represents the hair color you wear most. I already know the price of this style. $34.00 altogether. My requested packs of hair are retrieved and tossed into a black plastic bag. I once concluded that they chose the discreetness of a black plastic bag so as to stay true to the illusion. Who would want the public to see their hair in a package before its made it to their head perpetrating a glamorous fraud? Next stop, the beauty shop.
My beautician submerges her fingertips through the jungle of my new growth until reaching my scalp. "Ooh wee," she utters in reaction to the thick crop of texture that has interrupted my relaxed tresses. In an instant, she's slicing through the treachery of my roots with a parting comb and slathering a cold creamy relaxer into them. She smoothes it through until my whole scalp is covered and the familiar chemical rids my hair of any unwanted kinkiness. I then transition to the sink where she rinses out the relaxer, fingers now slipping effortlessly through my flat, thin strands. By the end, I emerge from the sink with my hair slicked straight back on my scalp, which tingles now in reaction to the process. At this point, about 95% of my hair is thrust into a modest bun with only a portion in the front left free. This is for the sole purpose of blending my natural hairline with the weave. After a spell under the dryer, I'm prepared for an hour in the salon chair. My beautician retrieves the tracks of hair from the first package holding them from end to end like strings of garland and begins glueing them to my head. By the end of this process, the salon chair twists me toward the mirror to reveal me with a head of full, silky, shoulder-brushing, perfectly spiraled curls that could pass for my own. Scents of hair glue, gel, and spray still linger in the air as I peer into the mirror satisfied, feeling beautiful.
This style was my signature look. I used to go to the store, spend money, chemically straighten my hair, sit under a dryer for an hour, and sit in a chair for another hour getting things glued onto my head to achieve a head full of beautiful curls. Imagine my excitement when it FINALLY dawned on me that I could achieve them just by growing them from my very own scalp.
The halfway mark of my undergraduate career was perfect timing for me to start rocking my natural hair. I would soon be 21 years old and transitioning into legal adulthood. A college setting was an appropriate space for me to experiment with style and color without concerning myself with the expectations of a job environment. So I put together a collage of photos that inspired the style I wanted to achieve and made my appointment at the salon in New York. I went alone. The only support and encouragement I needed was my own. I arrived quite a bit early so I wouldn't get lost and decided to get a manicure at a shop across the street first. My appointment was made for the first weekend after I arrived back in New York, right before classes officially started. I was excited. I knew I wanted a crop of short red curls just like I'd seen Kelis rock in some photos.
I sat down in the salon chair facing the mirror, a familiar position. The stylist submerged his fingers into my roots, this time without an instant "ooh wee." Instead, he said, "It feels very dry." There was no relaxer to the rescue at this appointment. The appointment felt more like a physical therapy session for my hair. I was taken to the sink, washed, conditioned, coached on how to care for it, then taken back to the chair for my relaxed remnants to be trimmed for good, then taken back to the sink for a rinse, then blowdried and colored, then another rinse and another blowdry, then cut into a shape then saturated with some product and dried and finally I was natural, red-headed, and short-haired. I felt brand new and free. I smiled the whole way back to my dorm. And the next day I went straight to the mall to shop for clothes and accessories to complement the look. That evening I played dress up in my room and produced a Facebook-ready photo shoot to reveal the transformation. The flood of supportive responses both relieved and rejuvenated me, validating my decision.
The first time I returned home and my family saw my hair in person, they glared in pure fascination at the tiny spirals protruding from my scalp. Many of my relatives, mainly my mom, couldn't resist the urge to touch it. My grandma asked me if I curled it manually and stared in genuine disbelief when I explained that it curled like that itself, all I used was water and gel. My great aunt fawned over how beautiful I looked. I felt absolutely on top of the world. My mother, who has suffered with alopecia for the past few years, was relatively skeptical when I told her I planned to cut my hair. She said she was concerned about my style versatility, but I know she probably also hesitated with the thought of how it would look. I realized during my trip home how incredibly unfamiliar my family was with the nature and texture of natural hair. But suddenly after seeing mine, my mom started showing me proudly her newly grown natural curls that formed around the edges of her braided hair. I urged her to go natural too by insisting that her hair could look like mine also. So the evening she told me she was going to cut off her relaxed ends after she took down her braids, I rejoiced inside but tried not to draw too much attention to my excitement. Remembering how much it tugged at me that she didn't fully support my decision to cut my hair off, I loved that I was able to inspire her. It made me feel more adult, the concept of making a decision despite my mother's hesitance that, in the end, inspired her to change her initial perspective. So prior to her next braid appointment, my mom cut off her relaxed hair herself, put some grease in her virgin curls, looked in the mirror and smiled. And I pray that her scalp will take her gesture as a peace offering and that her alopecia will start to heal for good.
During this same time, my grandmother had applied a relaxer to her hair that caused an extreme amount of breakage. And the day before I flew back to New York, she said to me, "I'm 'bout to grow my hair out like you did." I smiled and said, "That's good, it will be good for it." I'm excited that my choice to take better care of myself and my hair has motivated the women in my family to do the same and see the beauty in natural hair. But what has resonated with me from the experience was the fact that I did my own research, garnered my own courage and confidence, and made a decision that both educated and inspired the older generations of my family. I feel that that's what each generation is supposed to do. Young, old, or middle-aged, everyone has room to learn, grow, and evolve.