***This post was inspired by a video I watched last night on YouTube from Whitney White, a natural hair influencer that I took note of years ago when I began my natural hair journey. See the video here. While watching the video, I felt the deeper implications of the joy Whitney felt when she cut her waist-length hair. Whitney’s subsequent Instagram post about said haircut really got me thinking: as Black women, our relationship with our hair is so, so deep. And I wanted to talk about that. So here we go.***
My relationship with my hair began when I was about 12 years old, when I received my first relaxer. Prior to that seminal moment, I was an energetic kid; not really focused on my messy pigtails and all of that. I really had no concept of those things. In the adult world, however, my mom was hearing from some relatives that my hair, along with my sister’s hair, looked “wild”. Peer pressure is powerful, and it certainly doesn’t wane when we grow taller. My mom responded to this “wild” talk by taking us to our very first salon visit, where I received my first relaxer. Yep, it burned. Yep, I said nothing as it burned because I wasn’t one of those kids that spoke up. (Whew.) Born from that was something I had never known before: straight hair.
Unbeknownst to me, also being born was the direct tie between my self-image, my sense of beauty, and my hair. This is universal, by the way. All women go through this at one point or another. But when it comes to us as Black women, Black girls, the path is altogether different and far more complex. The kinky and curly hair we’re born with, when it’s straightened and “relaxed”, now becomes largely acceptable, malleable, presentable. Westernized ideals of beauty become us. I remember feeling a sense of anticipation before I walked into the school the weekend after the relaxer. My long hair hung down my back. I felt pretty. And needless to say, I was the center of attention that day. “Look at your hair!” I heard more than once from a variety of girls. It was amazing.
From then on, I would beg my mother for a relaxer when the straight hair reverted back to its curly texture. If you know anything about my mother, you know that this begging typically fell on deaf ears. Despite her now knowing how to apply the creamy stuff, relaxers would be saved for specials occasions (like our annual worship meetings) and nothing more. Once in a while, once, she’d give in to a random relaxer request, but overall, it was usually a no. Needless to say, when I finally started making money and working for myself, I took myself to various salons for my touch-ups and things of that nature. Again: the state of my hair was wrapped up in how I felt I was being exposed to the world. I’ve mentioned the long struggles I had with my self-esteem and self-image. I can honestly say that when my hair was straight, I felt valuable. There was power in those strands.
But as I got older, something started happening. I wanted to experiment more with my hair. Straight, long hair wasn’t enough for me. When I turned 30, I cut it all off and opted for a chic (still straight) bob. My mother nearly passed out. I think she thought I’d shave my head. (That came later.) From there came more experiments: an even shorter bob. An asymmetrical cut with one side shaved and the other side long. Weaves. My hair now became a canvas, a tool for expression. Black women: for many of us, our hair is our art. It certainly became that for me. Still holding its power, yes, but also very much mine. I still had a relaxer, though. Because it was all I knew. Remember: my hair journey began with it being straight. Prior to that time, I didn’t even care or notice.
Whitney says this on her Instagram post: This was more than a hair cut to me. I NEEDED THIS. I NEEDED to see myself as I felt inside.
Reader. Those words hit me. Because after years and years of experimentation and yet maintaining the straight look that still felt acceptable to me and to the world, I woke up one day and didn’t want straight hair anymore. Can’t explain it. I remember being in that revert/touch-up time and feeling the roots on my scalp and loving how those curls and coils felt against my fingers. And like Whitney said, something was happening inside of me. That prison of low self-esteem and feeling like a zero was losing its hold on me, and somehow, my hair was following along. I wanted to be myself. And I wanted the hair on my head to reflect that. When I told my mother I was returning to my roots, to my natural hair, her excitement was indescribable. “Your natural hair was so beautiful,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re going to see it again.” It reminded me that hearing that her children’s hair was “wild” hit her hard. She had no intention of straightening our hair. But such is life. She was happy the choice became mine.
Says Whitney on IG: It was suffocating and I was no longer someone who needed the extra length, the extra baggage to define her. I DEFINE ME by BEING ME. And just like I no longer wanted to carry MY extra baggage with me into the future, the hair could kick it too. Those words describe my Big Chop in 2012. Shaving my head in 2018. And all the styles and haircuts in between. Women: some of us, a lot of us, hold emotion in our hair. I certainly did. And I continue to do so. It’s no surprise that, while in reflection, I realized that a lot of heartache and disappointments in my life preceded my hairstyles and/or the reduction of length.
Whitney: Also, while yes – it IS just hair, it will always simultaneously be MORE. It’s more than “just hair”. It’s a lot. Art. Emotions. Power. Wherever you are, whoever you are and whatever hairstyle or texture you maintain (because I’m not a guerrilla girl; I returned to natural on my own accord, so do you do you do you):
That’s the bottom line.