I believe in natural hair.
I had permed hair from my earliest years. My mother, her own hair in a small afro, is not, God love her, a revolutionary; and I was indoctrinated early on.
I have been cursed with a sensitive scalp — “tenderheaded,” we call it — and I was therefore inclined to feel what a stylist once referred to as “sensation” during the relaxing process — that is, the sensation of harsh chemicals burning my skin. It was the chemical burns that inspired me to cut off all of my hair when I was 20.
But that was the second time I had decided to go natural. The summer after 5th grade, I told my mom that I wanted hair like hers. Unfortunately, my 11-year-old self did not realize the consequences of breaking social protocol, several of my middle-school classmates took my decision personally. Throughout my sixth-grade year, a group of older girls hung out by the fence that lined the bus drive, and every day they would shriek as I passed by. I began each school day terrified from the moment I alighted from the big yellow bus. One morning, I found myself in the courtyard before school started, and the girls surrounded me, invading my space and accusatorily asking me why I didn’t perm my hair. I didn’t know how to answer, didn’t want to answer, and focused on not crying until the morning bell rang, allowing me to escape into the building.
After that confrontation, keeping my natural hair wasn’t worth the punishment. And so I returned to straight hair, until the fall of my sophomore year of college, when I received what would be my last relaxer. After shampooing out the last of the chemicals, I looked at myself in the mirror for a long time. I examined the line of peeled skin beneath my hairline, where the protective grease had failed.
Looking at myself in the mirror, I was angry that this is where I was, staring at the artificially straight hair that culture, history, and a good dose of middle school humiliation had bullied me into adopting. Here I was, having burned three centuries of oppression into my skin, touching the scars created by what I knew was a racist construct of beauty. As if it were an improvement on the hair that God had given me, and my mother, and my grandmothers, and all of dark-skinned women across the world. As if.
So I said goodbye forever to permed hair that new year, and now, five years later, I have dreadlocks – and I love them. People stop me all of the time to ask me about my hair – How did I get started? How long have I had them? Are they easy to keep up? Many of the inquirers are women with perms, and I know that their queries are more than casual; I can see it in their eyes and in their interest. They are, as I was, looking for a way to extricate themselves from the expensive, time-consuming morass of perms, hot irons, curlers, curling irons, lotions, gels, combs and brushes. They dream of a life in which their natural selves are good enough.
I like to think they are my 7th grade tormenters, all grown up.
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