|The various stages of my hair. Top (L to R): Relaxed, Wig|
Bottom (L to R): Weave, Three Years Natural
I was seven years old when I got my first relaxer.
Spurred on by promises that my "unmanageable" and kinky natural hair would be transformed into the silky, cascading waves of my mother's hair, I happily climbed into the hairdresser's chair and subjected myself to the unique agony of a chemical relaxer. There is no exact natural equivalent to the pain that a relaxer causes, except perhaps fire. After the white paste is applied to roots of the hair (or in the case of seven-year-old Amanda, all of the hair), it must remain there for at least ten minutes (though generally more on particularly coarse hair like mine). After a few minutes, pinpricks of concentrated heat begin to feel as if they are sprouting from the skull itself and then, like hotspots in a forest fire, eventually spread and escalate in intensity and temperature, burning the undergrowth and covering the entire scalp. After a while, comparing a relaxer to the feeling of being burned becomes inadequate. Near the end of the application, the feeling is more akin to serrated knives raking haphazardly across the scalp. Then, after the hair has been rinsed, neutralized, conditioned, dried, and pressed into an ornate coiffeur, dime-sized raised scabs linger on the scalp for a week, making combing, styling, and sometimes even sleeping nearly unbearable.
I committed to this same routine every six weeks for ten years, clawing at the arms of hairdresser chairs and denying the water in my eyes because I wanted to be pretty. And for myself and many other young Black girls, being pretty meant being White, or at least anything other than Black (hence the reason why Cherokee Indian Chiefs are so frequently found in Black family trees). I cultivated a refined jealousy of other Black girls whose hair had the coveted "bounce like a White girl," particularly as they shook their long, straight bangs and swished their hair down their backs, a feat for me that likely would have involved sorcery and the sale of my nonexistent first-born child.
But in my petty jealousy, there was an intense sadness and the unshakeable feeling that I was inadequate because my hair simply refused to submit to the acceptable norm of the relaxer. Of course, in my narrowed vision, I excluded the undeniable truth that most Black girls with relaxers had hair that looked just like mine-- hair that was puffy at the roots, snaggly and dry at the ends, and only grew to about chin-length before the relaxer broke it off or an overzealous hairstylist arbitrarily decided it was time for a "trim."
Relaxed hair is a finicky animal-- a lot of moisture (which is what Black hair needs) makes it greasy, limp, and incapable of achieving the "White girl bounce." However, never moisturizing it after the hairdresser fixes it gives it temporary bounce, but ultimately causes it to break off and split. And from my adolescent perspective, my inability to grow my inherently chemically-damaged hair was a mark against my value as a person. There was nothing I could have done to make my relaxed hair healthy, but every beautiful Black woman I knew had long, straight hair, so there had to be something I could do to fix my terrible hair as well.
Naturally, my next step was to get a weave.
Now, my hair was even longer and fuller, and it became a favored hobby of mine to run my hands through my "hair" and hold my head coquettishly over my shoulder, loving the way my weave cascaded down my back in smooth, even waves. Finally, I was feminine. At the time, my narrowly constructed conception of femininity and womanhood dictated that hair that was short or kinky could never be anything other than masculine or undesirable, and because my hair had either been short of kinky (or both) for the majority of my life, I believed myself to be excluded from some hallowed cult of femininity. Once I realized this, I knew it was time to take the weave off (this was also compounded with the fact that my edges were quickly becoming a distant memory).
So I cut off all my hair.
I had been obsessively watching YouTube videos of natural hair gurus before I did the Big Chop, so I was under the distinct impression that upon cutting off my brittle, relaxed ends, my natural hair would emerge looking like a cross between Tracee Ellis Ross and the models for Kinky-Curly Curling Custard (never mind that Ross and the Kinky-Curly models are mixed-race and the most popular natural hair vloggers have significantly looser curl patterns than the average Black girl). What I naively did not expect was to emerge from the salon looking like a stuffed plum, my tiny Afro totally devoid of curls and looking like a fourth member of the Gap Band. The next day at school, I received strange looks from students and teachers alike, and was called "Kunta Kinte," a "slave," and other derogatory remarks. Who would have known that wearing my hair the way it grows naturally from my head would cause such a fuss?
However, as I re-learned how to care for my natural hair, a creature that had not been seen or heard from since early childhood, I developed a form of confidence in and respect for myself that had not been present during all the years that I worked so hard to achieve a limited and impossible beauty ideal. My hair is dense, kinky, shrinks when wet, prone to dryness, and tangles easily. But it is also beautifully thick, voluminous, and can be worn straight, curly, or kinky, depending on the day. My hair is different, and that's okay. It takes courage to be different, courage that I never knew I had. it takes the ability to totally disregard what boys, your friends, and society think of you to live your life the way you want to, the opinions of others be damned.
I take pride in the fact that no one on Earth has hair exactly like mine. It is a unique mixture of different curl patterns, textures, and kinks. It cannot be purchased in a store, and it is impossible to go to a hair salon and request the "Amanda." There was a time when I would have been ashamed to go to class or out in public with my Afro, feeling uncomfortable in my difference and the attention that it drew. But now I could not imagine a life centered around being anything other than different, and if my hair looks so good that people feel the need to stare, then I must be doing something right.
After all, it's just hair anyway.