My Journey: From Natural to Relaxed and Back
“You look like a poodle.”
“You look like a bush.”
“Why is your hair like that? What’s wrong with it?”
“You look homeless.”
Ahh, the joys of attending predominantly white schools, in predominantly white areas. I’ve heard every creative, hair-related insult in the book. Even adults told me my hair was unattractive—friends’ parents, when I went round to play after school. I never bothered getting upset, because they didn’t seem to realise what they were saying. Ignorance must, indeed, be bliss.
So is it any wonder that by the age of nine, I’d finally worn my mother down and convinced her to straighten my hair?
I still remember that first day back after the weekend. Not only had I endured washday, but I’d sat (mostly) still on the living room floor, between my mother’s knees, while she painstakingly blow-dried and flat-ironed my waist-length curls and coils. And Lord, it was worth it.
I felt like a princess. For the first time, I almost looked like one. There were no Afro princesses, after all, but there were plenty with silky-straight hair. I hung upside down on the railings outside of school, smug as I felt my smooth locks graze the tarmac beneath me (mother wasn’t there to screech about potentially dangerous falls). Because my hair was straight, the usual braids and brightly coloured clips were absent. My hair was half-up, half-down, just like my classmates often wore it.
“Woah,” said one of my most vocal tormentors. “Your hair looks so pretty.” And I was hooked.
So why did I ask for it to be straightened, and later for it to be relaxed? Simply so that people would leave me alone.
Even my mum seemed pleased with my straight hair. Yes, it took a chunk out of her Sunday to straighten it, and yes, it cost a bomb to relax—but she no longer had to worry about me coming home with braids cut off, or explain to me that, No, sweetie, you can’t wear your hair out like the other girls.
But I’m a low-maintenance girl, and getting my hair done felt like nothing more than a pain in the arse. Plus, it didn’t take long for the thick, silky, waist-length hair to break off and dry out into a brittle, damaged mess. So every so often, when I got fed up, I’d try wearing my hair natural again…
And the insults would return. In fact, they were even worse than before, because now my hair was horribly damaged. The relaxer never took right, so I had strands that were straight, then wavy, then tightly coiled, then wavy again. I had heat damage, too, from flat-ironing the hair that the stylists couldn’t relax into submission. So now I wasn’t just a bush. I was outright ugly, gross, disgusting. And eventually, I forgot that my hair was normal. Eventually, I decided that they were right. It was ugly.
From around the age of fourteen, I absolutely despised my hair. I viewed it as a separate entity from myself, a time- and money-consuming waste of space that existed only to embarrass me and ruin my appearance. I kept it straight, because God forbid I walk around looking like a bush. After all, no-one ever hid pencil sharpenings and bread crumbs and pieces of paper in my hair when it was straight. But I still hated it. So, when I was seventeen, I shaved a huge chunk of it off.
It was an undercut—my mother had had one years before, and I thought it looked cool. Plus, the less hair, the better. It was with that maxim in mind that I stopped clinging to the now shoulder-length, damaged ends of my hair, and had it cut into a bob. The less hair, the better! And then, what the hell, I shaved off the other side too. A double undercut, and a chin-length bob. THE LESS HAIR, THE BETTER.
I was eighteen at this point, and the unbelievable was occurring—I was actually starting to like my hair. So much so that when the undercuts grew out a little, I wouldn’t rush to shave them down again, but let the tiny coils hang around until I next remembered to pick up the clippers. It was during one such lazy period that my boyfriend ran his finger over the inch of natural hair growth above my ear and murmured, ‘This is pretty’.
I rolled my eyes and changed the subject. He smiled and let me. But a couple of days later, as I put my hair up and caught sight of the coils beneath, I remembered a time when I thought it was pretty, too. And I ran my fingers through the regrowth and said, out loud: “This is pretty. This is pretty. This is pretty.”
A few days later, I saw a picture of a girl with hair like me on Instagram. “Your hair is lovely!” I commented. Then I scanned through her hashtags and saw one that caught my eye: ‘natural hair’. I pressed it.
It only took a week. I hadn’t been active on Instagram before, but now I followed over 200 accounts. All of them posted pictures of people like me. People like my siblings and mother and father and cousins. With hair like us. I screenshot one, a girl with a tapered cut, and brought it to the bathroom with me, after my mother fell asleep. I took her stylist’s scissors from the bathroom cabinet and snipped every single straight strand off.
The next morning, I took a picture and posted it on Instagram with caption ‘I cut it off!”
That was about a year and a half ago, and since then my hair has grown more than it did in four years when relaxed. Have I been tempted to relax, or even straighten it again? Nah. Not even a little bit. Not even when it really is a mess, and my hands aren’t working and I don’t have a hope in hell of detangling it. Or when I meet up with my school friends, and they casually run their fingers through their silky-straight ponytails. Not even when people tell me my hair is ugly.
Because I don’t hate my hair anymore. In fact, I love it. I really, really do.