Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Politics of Natural Hair: The Storyteller's Hair Journey

Aevin Dugas boasts the world's biggest afro - measuring an incredible four-and-a-half foot around the middle

It seems to me that since Black people have been living in America, anything we do that seems out of the "norm" becomes a meme or zeitgeist that keeps tongues in Middle America, the Upper Eastside, and Hollywood wagging. Be it jazz, hip-hop, twerking, our use of Twitter, the way we praise the Lord, or the way we wear our hair if it's different than it's something to be discussed, analyzed, and researched instead of just being accepted as an everyday part of Black life. The latest Black American pet project that continues to make headlines is the way we wear our natural hair.

The New York Times recently discussed the apolitical afro; to me a non-story considering all the natural hair blogs who profit from telling men and women how to style their natural hair into shapes and forms that will keep the masses tame. Then there are the Black blogs who over the last five years have discussed the pros and cons of natural hair in the workplace and on self-esteem. A Google search of natural hair will bring you everything from news articles, to blogs, to videos, to advertisements for products that will turn your coils into kinks.

I am currently embarking on the natural hair journey for the third time in my life. The first time I went natural I was 15. For the majority of my childhood and teen years I trained as a dancer. Ballet, jazz, modern, tap, flamenco, salsa I did a lot. Being that active with relaxed hair can work, but I grew tired of it, so I simply stopped getting my hair done. I pulled my hair into a sock bun, gelled my edges and kitchen, and kept it moving. Once it became obvious my hair was snatching back to its natural state came the questions from friends, family, family friends etc. of "When are you going to get your hair done?" My answer, "I don't know." I was eventually convinced to get it braided so I wouldn't be out in the streets looking like who shot John. From that point on I got my hair corn rowed (with extensions) into a different style every two weeks. 

This lasted from June 2002 to April 2003. I got bored, took my braids down, didn't make an appointment to get my hair re-braided and was facing an "Oh shit, what do I do now?" moment in the mirror. In 2003 natural hair was still very much a statement of difference, of otherness, of militancy even if Black consciousness or righteousness was not my goal. The natural hair industry now was not even a blip on the internet's radar then. Confused, pressured, and facing my high school peers everyday I returned to the relaxer I had known since I was nine. 

Fast forward two years and there I was again looking in the mirror wanting something different. A college co-ed on a shoe string budget tired of doing her hair after a summer of serious dance training and performing; I'd had it. I wanted to get my hair cut, but the stylist in the random Black salon I went to convinced me that cutting my hair wouldn't achieve my goal. I went a few blocks over to the Africans and got kinky twists. I went back to school with my hair twisted. That lasted three months. On take down day I noticed I had about an inch or two of new growth and permed ends I no longer wanted. I told myself I would make a phone call to get a relaxer for that day. If they had an appointment available right then I'd straighten my hair otherwise it was getting cut. 

Of course I was setting myself up. What salon, Black, White, Brazilian, Dominican, etc. but especially Black isn't typically booked up to weeks in advance? In a college town where girls went to the same guy to get their locks loved on I knew in the back of my mind there was no way I was going to get in to get my hair fried. But I could always say to the naysayers, "Hey, I tried."

That September 2005 afternoon, while my roommate napped between classes, I drove to Super Cuts and told the lady to cut off my perm. This act is what is now known in the natural world as the Big Chop. 

At 19 I didn't know what I had done to my hair was radical. I did not know I was making a statement. All I knew was that I felt free. My family either loved or hated my hair. My grandmother hated it and referred to it as nappy often. It was. I didn't care. My brother thought it was cute. My cousin said I had a little bush. My mother accepted because she loved me but always tried to get me to find a way to soften it up. 

Left: January 2006, Right July 2007
Over the course of my college career my hair grew from what is now referred to as the TWA (teeny wenny afro) to a full on afro. No matter where I was on campus people always knew it was me by my 'fro. All I knew was that I liked my hair the way it was and I didn't have to pay anybody to do it for me. When you're already trying to make a meal out of Top Ramen, cutting expenses like $65 every two weeks for a wash and wrap just makes good cents. 

3 Months Post Texturizer
My senior year of college, I let my mother convince me to texturize my hair. Basically she put a relaxer on it but didn't let it set too long. My edges were laid, the middle of my hair was a mass of loose Tracy Ellis Ross like curls. This my friends was a mistake. I only texturized it this once, but it was the beginning of the end of my fro. That entire year as the process of leaving school and beginning life became more of a reality I began to feel the pressure to conform. I was a communications major who wanted to become the next Brian Williams/Oprah. Straight hair just had to be answer right?

I got my hair pressed for an interview for a job I didn't get. I kept it pressed for graduation. With an interview lined up shortly after graduation I finally succumbed to my mother's words, "It'll be easier for you to get a job with straight hair."
Fresh relaxer for an interview. I didn't get this job either.

I now know how wrong her thinking was and still is. I am five years removed from college. That is five years in the working world and my hair has taken on all manner of styles to fit my whims; braids (micro and box), twists, Halle Berry inspired pixie cuts, bangs before anyone ever knew Michelle Obama would become first lady, and my new favorite twist outs/braid outs. (I've worn twist outs/braid outs since I saw Sanaa Lathan at the end of Love and Basketball with the style. I'd ask my mother to french braid my hair while wet. When it dried I'd unravel the braids half way, put small rubber bands in to keep the front together and voila... braid out.)

I decided to go natural this time because I hate being burned. Remember that scene in X where Malcolm Little left the lye on too long and put his head in the toilet to get the conk out? I've been there one time to many in a supposed trained beauticians chair. They blamed me for scratching. I didn't. If you've been getting a relaxer for more than a decade you know better than to scratch on touch up day. They blamed my hair's thickness as the reason it had to stay on longer. After my touch up two weeks before I got married last year, I knew then I was done with the creamy crack. 

The reason I held on to it so long after I entered the working world is due to my hesitation over my now husband's reaction. He told me right after we started dating that he didn't approach me the first time he saw me (we met in the gym) because I looked like I needed a perm. 

I'm now more than a year into my transition (from relaxed to natural). This time when my relaxer began growing out and a flat iron just wouldn't do I got braids to let my hair do what it needed to do. Then I set a standing appointment to get my hair pressed every two weeks. I was back to the days of my mother and grandmothers (both were trained beauticians) doing my hair and holding my ear. But as has become apparent in this blog/personal essay, I'm active, as in bike, swim, yoga, and sometimes jog. Pressed hair and exercise don't mix, and being fat/out of shape for me isn't cute. So I've dived head first into the world of naturalistas and boy oh boy it's fun, frustrating, overwhelming, but for me so very worth it. 

I follow a few natural hair bloggers on YouTube and have just started visiting CurlyNikki.com to see not only the possibilities of my natural hair outside of an afro, but the best products to use to keep my hair healthy. The list of styles and products is endless.

What I use to do my natural hair.
 My hair in its natural state has been a starting point of conversation more than any other style I've ever worn in my life. My boss has asked me on more than one occasion if I'm in witness protection because my hair changes every time he sees me. I laugh it off and tell him it will probably be different next week as well. My anchor, who is Black and natural (but she gets a keratin treatment to keep it straight and TV ready) compliments my curls all the time, other co-workers wonder how I keep my hair together. My mother will still sometimes ask, "What are you doing with your hair?" but she doesn't really care any more. She's even helped me twist it up. 

Getting to this point has obviously been a journey. A journey filled with criticism, misguided advice, pride, nonplussed attitudes, concerns and compliments. For some my natural hair journey is an exhibition of Black pride that hails back to the days of Angela Davis. In a way it is, but it's not something I get hung up on when I'm washing and twisting. For others my hair is twisted artwork to wonder at and beg to touch but never work up the courage to ask for that permission. For myself my hair is just my hair. It's the lowest common denominator that allows me to live the kind of life I want to live. A life where I can do Baptiste Yoga and sweat my ass off and not have to worry about my press or my perm and how I'm going to slap it back together. My hair allows me to live a life where my husband still gives me the side eye when he see's just how natural my transition is becoming, but then breathes a sigh of relief at the twisty curly end result. My hair allows me to be who I am without conforming to arbitrary standards of professionalism and proper office attire.

Transition Press Oct. 2012.                        Flat Twist Out March 2013.                     Bantu Knot Out July 2013

For so long Black women have been taught that who we are inherently is not good enough and so we need to alter our appearances to fit in and be less different. It is an ironic lesson in a country founded on difference and otherness. The way we wear our hair is as much about comfort, beauty and self-esteem as it is about pleasing others. At some point we all just need to please ourselves and let the follicles fall where they may.


1. Is going natural a statement or style?
2. Are you natural? Would you go natural? Why, Why Not?
3. What has your hair journey been?
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