A few years ago, singer India Arie penned a hit titled “I am not my hair”. My response to that? De hell. I’m not.
Hair is a big issue for women. For African American women, hair can be life-impacting. Depending on how you wear your hair as well as the thickness, length, texture and curl pattern, something as simple as going to the gym before coming to work must be thought out. There is constant debate in the professional realm about what is acceptable for the workplace. The 21st Century workplace acknowledges, and often welcomes, Sisterlocks, 2-stranded twists, Ty Zillions, Kinky Twists, afro puffs, and flat-ironed hair that magically swells as the day wears on. Even if coworkers don’t quite know what the name of each style, they can recognize that it appears more “natural” and often healthier than styles from the previous two decades. In fact, a friend recently shared her observations that, as a professor, she and other professors are actually taken more seriously when they have their hair worn naturally in soft and tight kinky curls or Afros.
Within the African American community that debate is relentless. Over the last ten years, with the help of the natural hair care movement and YouTube tutorials, I have seen a lot of progress in education on healthy hair for African American women. Education about the differences in essential maintenance, oils, and cleaning techniques are not just passed around in private circles of “socially conscious” women. As recently as five years ago, I was told by several stores in my area that they did not know what I meant by the term ‘natural hair’ and they did not carry “specialty products” because they would not sell. These same businesses have since wizened up! Still, learning about my own hair and placing the health of my own hair over the look and expectations of others has been a journey.
I started chemically abusing my hair when I was in high school to fit in…not with white students, but other black students primarily. Later, after many hair heartbreaks and failed attempts at detoxing from the creamy crack, I made the plunge in 2005. At first, I was like a newly saved Christian – witnessing to everyone about my hair victories and progress. I have a group of friends that are now natural, some of whom say it was after watching me make the transition.
Eventually, however, I felt as though I was in more of a box than I was before going natural. I am hair-illiterate. I reached out to communities of women who wore their hair natural. Every time I reached out to be in these sister circles, the requirements got more ridiculous than the next. It would take me years to accept that this was just another form of rejection. Use this, don’t use that. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Don’t do your own two-stranded twists because it will break your hair off. Wash your hair twice a week. Only wash your hair once every two weeks. Don’t use deep conditioners because that can change the natural hair curl pattern. Deep condition once a week. Your natural hair care date is the date you have decided to stop relaxing it. Your natural hair care date is the date you decide not to get the perm. Your natural hair care date is when you make the big chop plus one inch for excess permed hair that may be at the scalp. If you put color in your hair it is not natural. If you straighten your hair or put heat on it is not natural. Buy organic. Only buy products from independently owned businesses. That conditioner has glycerides in it – that changes the texture of your hair. Some natural hair care vigilantes would say I shouldn’t use shampoo.
To add insult to injury…I was getting it from the other angle as well: my mom would joke and said she was gonna slap me with a relaxer while I was sleep, my husband would laugh and say ‘are you gonna go to work like that?’… friends and coworkers would only approve of my hair when I had it in african braids or other deeply controlled styles. Styles that hurt my hair and scalp and left me unable to touch my own natural hair in the way I wanted to.
Eventually, I had to quit listening to everyone else to an extent. Since then, I have enjoyed playing around with my hair. Below, is a collage of my hair since I have “gone natural”. It has been such a freeing journey. As an adult that has found her own identity I won’t subscribe to anyone’s view of what is natural – because you have to define what that means for you. What is your true authentic self.