On ditching the relaxer

I never thought my personal choice to relax my hair was part of the problem. I never thought about how my choice would conflict with my belief in praising and uplifting black beauty. I never even considered how my choice to use a chemical relaxer to alter the texture of my hair would be contradictory to my belief of women embracing what they were born with.

Relaxers were introduced to be by my aunt. She had just obtained her cosmetology degree from Dudley Beauty College and had just opened her own business. We didn’t have a choice. She decided she wanted to put a relaxer in me and my sister’s hair–without my mother and father’s consent. I can remember the look on my mother’s face when she discovered what my aunt did: a look of resentment and annoyance. I can remember feeling, at the age of eight, perplexed why my aunt would do such a thing without my mother’s consent. I pushed this memory into the back of my mind until last year when I began to think about why I continue to relax my hair.

Throughout school, people always complimented me on my hair, telling me I had “good hair.” It had good texture, length and shine. See, I wasn’t like many young black girls who got relaxers put into their hair and suffered from severe damage from lack of care and maintenance afterwards. I guess you can say I was one of the lucky few who survived the post-relaxer hair meltdown. My younger sister wasn’t so lucky. She suffered from severe damage because she allowed other girls to do her hair, put braids and other copious amounts of products into her hair and failed to take care of it. My hair wasn’t very long; about shoulder length and was thick and healthy. I even had one white high school classmate who commented on my hair, noting it was “short” like the “other girls.” I told the student thanks and ignored her racist, ignorant comment.

I can honestly say that every black girl at my high school had her hair relaxed. Natural beauty was not in during the 1990s and early 2000s in my neck of the woods in the south. All that changed when I entered college. That’s when I began to noticed that there were some black girls who were proudly sporting their natural locks.

The natural girls and women in college never made me feel inferior or less black because I relaxed my hair. Nobody cared. It wasn’t discussed. All we cared about were passing our classes, hanging out with our friends and spending as much time partying that was reasonably possible. The discussion of relaxed vs. natural never came into the forefront, but I nevertheless noticed there were many black girls who were natural on campus. I can honestly look back and think I felt slightly self-conscious about my relaxed hair and wondered if they judged me for my straight mane. But, like I said earlier, no one cared, so I didn’t care.

It wasn’t until I graduated and discovered a slew of black women bloggers (not necessarily the wildly pro-natural sistas, but the social conscience ones such as Womanist Musings) when I began to question why I relaxed my hair.

The question never came to my mind why I relaxed my hair. It was just something I grew up doing. Even as a teenager, I never asked myself why I was hiding my natural hair from the world. It was something I just did and continued to do until last year. It was just something all the girls did when I was coming of age. It was just the thing to do.

Was my natural hair bad or unmanageable for my aunt? Did my aunt not like dealing with natural hair (even now, she does not have any natural hair clients)? Was there something inherently inferior about my hair that made my aunt want to get rid of my kinks? I do remember my natural hair. It was thick and long; probably not considered “good” hair with softer kinks, but not very coarse. As a child, I was known as a “tender-headed” child who hated getting her hair combed. But to my knowledge, no one ever complained about having to deal with my hair. So, why did my aunt feel the need to permanently alter my kinks?

I’ve never asked her this and probably never will. While I wouldn’t mind putting forth the question, I honestly don’t feel the answer wouldn’t matter much today since I have the power to put a stop to the practice. While it may provoke more questions than answers, it won’t have any impact on how I feel about her. There are times when I feel angry and resentful of my aunt. Why did she do this without my consent, without my mother’s approval? Why did she rob me of the experience of growing up and coming of age as a natural sista? Why would my aunt, a family member I truly love, even consider putting these chemicals–which we don’t even know are truly safe–into my hair?

Some part of me always feels like I missed out on something; like part of my life was intentionally altered to make my aunt feel better about doing my hair. But, when I think about it, I could have stopped this long ago. I could have started this transition process many years ago. So, it truly doesn’t do any good for me, a legal adult woman for nearly 10 years, to bitch and complain about something I could have stopped long after I reached the age of 18.

Over the past year, I’ve pondered why I really relaxed my hair. For a while, I remained in denial that I was perpetuating the same unrealistic racist white, European beauty standards I loathe. I was sure that I did not relax my hair because of some subconscious fear or worry about not fitting into the narrow model of how the white world expects black women to look. How can I, a black feminist and womanist, even allow myself to subconsciously promote such rigid standards of beauty that inherently tells every yellow, red, brown and black-skinned women with curly or kinky hair, wide hips, broad noses or thick lips their natural looks are inferior and subhuman?

After months of wrestling with my conscience, I decided I was a hypocrite. I came to the conclusion that I could not reconcile with myself using these chemicals to permanently alter the texture of  my hair. As a vegetarian who is committed to living a life that reduces my carbon footprint as much as possible, how could I ensure myself that relaxing  my hair is not in direct contradiction about my life and my feminist and womanist beliefs?

So, I got my last relaxer in November and I’m in the  process of transitioning back to my natural state. I made the decision a little bit on a whim in February, but after much process, I’ve concluded I made the right one. And I’m scared shitless.

Yes, I will admit I am scared about what this will do. As I type this out, my eyes are getting misty because I just don’t know what the hell to expect with this change. My mind races each and every night about all the possible outcomes of my decision.

I’m afraid I may lose my job; that people will view me as less attractive or more radical; that men may view me as less attractive; that I will lose the respect of the sources I’ve built in my job; that my boyfriend (who is white, which is worth an entirely different blog post) will view me as less attractive and not want to be with me anymore; that I will not like my new look and will regret  my decision. My hair has never been shorter than my jaw line, so I have no idea what to expect with this new look. I’ve fretted about this night and day: did I make the right decision? Am I ready to do this? What impact will this have on me getting a new job?

But when I read the blog posts and see black women with natural hair and I am reminded why I need to do this. These women who are wearing their natural hair in the face of white beauty (and many of them aren’t even aware of the power their decision has!) and whiteness have been nothing short of inspiration. Whether they know it or not, these women and their decision to embrace what’s naturally theirs gives me the power to know I have to do this without hesitation and intimidation.

The people who reject me because I changed my hair are the ones with the problem; not me and my hair. The people who won’t hire me because of my hair are the ones with the problem; not me and my hair; my boyfriend who may reject me (which he said he won’t; he consistently says it’s my decision and he will support me no matter what) is the one with the problem; not me and my hair. The sources and white people I work with on a daily basis who notice their opinions of me change when my hair does will be the ones with the problem; not me and my hair. The black folks who turn their noses up at natural women and who will no doubt do the same to me are the ones with the problem; not me and my hair.

Let me be clear: my decision to ditch my relaxer is not an indictment on other black women who continue to use them. The decision to go natural is an immensely personal one that each woman will have to make on her own. I am not judging or criticizing any black women who continues to use a relaxer. It is a personal preference, but for me, it’s a personal preference I can’t justify doing anymore. You won’t see me become one of those natural women who blogs about how much they hate relaxers and women who use them. I have no use for those kind of natural sistas and don’t expect me to become a raging naturalist once I do the big chop. My natural hair is about me and I won’t use it to preach about how women need to leave behind the creamy crack.

Just know that if you’re going natural for appearances or because you’re interested in what you think is a” trend,” then you will be doing it for the wrong reason.

Letting go of my relaxer has in essence been a lifestyle change. You may laugh at that, but women who get relaxers have become accustomed to the feel of that cool, white creamy consistency that’s lathered up on your roots at least every six weeks.  They’ve been accustomed to not making white folks feel uncomfortable because their hair is straight like theirs. They’ve been accustomed to the ignorant black men who will give all their attention to a relaxed woman, but won’t look twice at a natural sista. They’ve become to people not questioning their political or social beliefs because of the historically inaccurate connotation that natural hair, specifically Afros (aside: not sure why that’s capitalized; maybe because it’s a proper noun?), are inherently anti-establishment, anti-white or means you’re a proponent of black militancy.

Letting go of my relaxer has allowed me to embrace who I am as a black woman. It’s allowed me to get used to the feeling of my kinky roots. It’s allowed me to get used to having to work harder to detangle my hair after I wash it. Letting go of my relaxer has given me the opportunity to learn that if I will almost always need to at least co-wash my hair if I sweat heavily after running. Letting go of my relaxer has given me the creativity of imagining the shape of my head and how much will I resemble my mother after I do the big chop. It’s allowed me to envision breaking out of the same hairstyle I’ve pretty much had since I was in college (with the exception of a short bob I had the last few years).

The transitioning process has been a learning experience. It’s an experience I wouldn’t even consider two years ago. It’s an experience in which I am learning something new day by day. It’s an experience I do hope many black women will elect to go through.

Ironically, though, it’s an experience I hope my own children will never have to go through.