You may be wondering, “What’s a relaxer, Lea?” Well, it’s sort of the opposite of the perm aka the plague of the ’80s. A relaxer, using all sorts of unpronounceable chemicals, breaks and reforms the natural pattern of hair. But instead of adding waves and curls, it straightens and smoothens. Armed with that knowledge, I’m sure most of you could infer who mostly uses relaxers: black women. And we have been using relaxers to tame our typically coily, knotty hair for decades. Who wouldn’t want that straight, shiny hair in all the commercials we see? It makes sense. Relaxers give us easier hair management and the look we commonly desire.
But one day, people began to realize what else relaxers did. The chemicals used to break down hair patterns, in concentrated form, melt through Coke cans. The price of these relaxers at salons can reach $100. But most importantly, to me at least, while relaxers chemically mold our hair, our acquiescence conveys our attempt to mold to social norms and unrealistic standards we set for ourselves. And so, when black women began to “go natural,” it was a shift physically but also ideologically — a girl walking down the halls with a curly fro was a statement of dissidence from the norm.
And yet, I still wonder why, or how, chemically altering our hair is norm, and why refusing to do so is unconventional. When I go shopping for hair care at Walmart or Target, I can’t just stroll down the aisle where all the shampoo, conditioner and styler typically are. Instead, I walk down one more aisle and stop in front of a corner labeled “for natural hair.” One might think I am a tad upset about the small selection of products available. And I may or may not be. The small selection makes not only makes it difficult for women who have natural hair but can also discourage those considering changing their hairstyle simply because of the affordability of those few products.
But what really grinds my gears is the actual labeling of this secluded corner: “For natural hair.” Shouldn’t it just be “for hair”? There is nothing vaguely phenomenal about “natural hair.” It’s natural because I let it grow out the way it does. My friend Red, aptly nicknamed for curly red tresses, does the same, but no one ever thought to label the Aussie that she uses “for natural hair.” While the term “natural hair” is now commonly used for black women who have strayed from relaxers, the simple fact that there needs to be a term at all to describe this event is a little ridiculous.
I’m not exactly sure when this “natural hair” movement even began. Maybe it was around the time comedian Chris Rock released his hilarious yet insightful documentary, “Good Hair,” which posed the questions, what is good hair and how that perception affects young black women. Maybe it was when soul artists like India Arie and Corinne Bailey Rae started speaking of hair as an entity separate from the make of a woman. I know when it hit home though.
After just a year of college, my older sister showed up on our doorstep with her once long locks chopped off, leaving a mass of small coily curls in their place. I was shocked but more excited than anything else. Here was my sister, bold enough to change a physical aspect that had been a part of her for so long, brave enough to “let it all hang loose,” if you will. Unfortunately, my parents did not relate. On my mom’s face was thinly veiled sadness. And on my dad’s was blunt worry about the implications of the change. A Jamaican, my dad had had many encounters with natural hair, dreadlocks specifically. Though they were a part of the culture, he himself never got dreads, simply because he saw how they could hinder one’s getting a job or just being taken seriously at all. He did not want this to be my sister’s fate.
Luckily, my sister’s Hopkins degrees have continuously outweighed her risque chop. And seeing this has helped me become comfortable and confident with my hair. Before any interview or dinner during high school, I always stressed over how I should style my hair. The curls usually won, simply because the time to style with a CHI flat iron took too much time on natural hair. But even after making that decision, I would self-consciously pat my hair or pin it down. Now I realize, I don’t want to fool anyone, most importantly myself. On a personal level, while my hair does not define me, it is a reflection of my Ethio-Jamaican blend, a heritage I’m proud of and now realize I never want to mask. And frankly, if a date or potential employer forms preconceptions about essentials like character, work ethic and intelligence over something as inessential as hair ... well, chances are I’m better off without them. So now, taking the advice of fellow naturalist and Jamaican Bob Marley when it comes to my hair, I leave my worries and CHI far behind.
Lea Trusty is a freshman from Saint Rose, Louisiana. She can be reached at email@example.com.