by Latoya Peterson
*Warning: Strong Language*
Regular readers might remember a piece I wrote a year or so ago, called Hair, Apparently. In the piece I wrote about an incident where I felt like someone had insinuated I was a “house nigga” because my hair was straightened with a chemical relaxer.
The piece sparked an interesting conversation in the comments and I was comforted by the reactions by most of the readers – do you and let it be done. The overwhelming consensus was your hair is your hair and you should be able to do with it what you please. (Should is the operative word, but more on that later.)
However, a lot of time has passed since then. In the interim, I read Tami’s piece (the original version of the piece posted here), started reading Afrobella’s blog regularly, and watched as my friend Spiffany transitioned from chemical relaxers to a beautiful and natural do. I admired what people could do with their naturals, but never felt motivated to do it myself.
Yet, Tami posed a little question in her original piece that always stuck in my mind.
Earlier this year, a fellow blogger very smartly observed that black women may be the only race of women who live their whole lives never knowing what their real hair looks and feels like. Think about that.
I was one of those women. Aside from a happy little puffball photo from the fifth grade* and a couple of shots of me with pressed hair, I had a relaxer for as long as I could remember. And that question stayed with me, for the next six or so months until I had my third Catastrophic Relaxer DisasterTM and found myself bald at my temples and missing a big chunk of hair from the back of my head.
From that day on, I was like “Fuck it – I’m letting it grow.”
And so it has. Today, I’ve been relaxer free for more than a year. My hair is fully natural – I cut out the last of the chemically straightened hair six months ago and haven’t really looked back. I love my hair now, love everything it does, how it looks, all that.
But it occurs to me that this was strange journey for me. Navigating transitioning my hair out was never really about my hair – it was about notions of societal influence, beauty, intra-group standards, cultural conditioning, and asserting my own personality. It was about my hair as a political battleground – where people read the pattern of my stands like tea leaves, trying to divine my personality and political views. It was about everything except what I actually wanted to do – which was stop relaxing my hair and wear a new style.
While I scoured all the pro-natural sites on the net for advice, all I learned were new styles. No one told me how to cope with the transition itself. Everyone cuts to the happy – “You’ll love yourself! You’re free from chemicals!” speech, but no one really talks about how tough that road is to walk. So, let’s look at a few of the things we tend to gloss over when we talk about natural hair.
The Influence of Men and the Perception of Attractiveness
Let’s start with the outside influence aspect of things. About two weeks out from the Catastrophic Relaxer Disaster,TM I was hanging out with my friend KJ, the natural haired friend I referred to in the first piece. Artfully rocking a cap and a long bang to cover my bald spot, I excitedly told her my decision – I was switching to natural hair.
She stopped fumbling through earrings and looked up at me, face locked in a hesitant expression.
“What did your boyfriend say?” she asked carefully.
I was kind of shocked that this was the first comment from my pro-natural, all organic food eating, anti-make up, womanist, vegan friend. However, she was simply expressing a sentiment from her own experience – sometimes, something simple like transitioning your hair can end your relationship. KJ still felt the sting from prior relationships that were seemingly full of love, trust, and shared personal politics – except when it came to the issue of her hair. In that case, she was encouraged to conform to a beauty standard she did not believe in to please her boyfriend with a long sheet of silky hair – after all, she’d been growing it out for years, so it should be really long by now, right?
Luckily for me, the guy I am currently dating was 100% down with natural hair. So that hurdle was crossed. However, about nine months into the transition, I got a reminder as to why this is an issue in the first place.
My boyfriend and I were invited to a wedding, where I was seated with a group of other young, soon-to-be-married couples. (My boyfriend was in the wedding party, so he was at the head table.) The other women I sat with all had shoulder length or longer weaves. They entered into a conversation about the proper upkeep of their hair, and one women politely decided to include me.
“I like your hair,” she said, looking at my curls which – on that day – looked like they belonged in magazine. Another woman mentioned that she too liked my hair and would love to try cutting her hair off and doing a natural. Her boyfriend shot her a look before coughing into his napkin. The first women quickly added “Not that I could – [my boyfriend, he] wouldn’t allow it.” The first woman’s boyfriend carefully nodded, and with a glance at me said “Well, that kind of thing only works for some people.” He went back to his food.
I signaled for another glass of champagne.
Speaking from personal experience, it appears that men – and their perception of beauty – do hold a lot of influence over how women choose to wear their hair. Men supply their (often unsolicited) opinions and negative ideas and negative reactions have a tendency to paint how we see ourselves. When I was a teenager, I remember hearing a male friend make an off-handed remark that there was nothing worse than seeing a fat girl with short hair – and the group of guys he was with wholeheartedly agreed. Another guy added, “It’s worse if the woman is black. It’s like she’s not even trying to be pretty.”
That sentiment stuck with me – especially as I have heard it echoed in different forms by men I met in adulthood. While there are some men who will bitterly argue that a woman without a relaxer is attractive because she is confident in herself, in my experience, those men are in the minority. Yeah, everyone’s fine with the curly headed girls – the ones who have loose ringlets, or cute little crimps hanging down. But dealing with kinks? Or naps? Oh no, that wasn’t the natural they were thinking of. Is it any wonder that some women with naturals actually start using things like silkeners to achieve the “right” natural look?
In addition, the way we present our hair often “compensates” for other, perceived flaws. Some of us use our hair to hide other flaws (like a strong jawline, or broad features) or to try to balance out a chubby figure by using extensions to create volume. Switching up your style can cause all kinds of issues of both confidence and wardrobe.
When I called my Mom and told her I was transitioning, she rolled her eyes at me over the phone. (She does this often.)
“Latoya, why do you want to go back to dealing with that?”
That, she says. I replied as honestly as I could.
“Because I want an Afro, mom.”
And I really did too. Spiffany’s transition produced lush layers that were easily coaxed into a full, luscious ‘fro. Visions of Afrodite danced in my head, and I even bought a tee-shirt for ‘fro inspiration.
My mother laughed, and said “Your hair won’t give you an Afro, Latoya. All you’ll get is a pile of frizz. You better buy a wig if you want that.”
I didn’t believe her. After all, as long as I could remember, my mother has been forcing weaves on me. She is a fake hair devotee, who has recently started selling lace front wigs as a side business. Mom’s shoulder length weaves are her trademark, and when the relaxers damaged my hair while I was in middle school and high school, she would often force me to sit down while she glued tracks in my head to cover the damage. She did a good job – as a former beautician, that was her trade – but it never felt like me, and I resented all the upkeep. When I was about fifteen, I rebelled against the tyranny of fake hair, forcibly pulling out the tracks (and damaging my hair even more in the process) and ignoring all edicts to sit still and start looking civilized.
To this day, I still don’t go within five feet of weaves or foundation (something else that was also forced on me.)
So, while I was transitioning, I didn’t see my mother unless my hair was pressed out.**
This past Thanksgiving, I was finally ready to show her my hair in its true form. I was comfortable with it, confident in my ability to style it, and pleased with the result. My mom opened the door and was shocked.
“Oooh, that’s cute,” she said.
However, I should mention that she was correct in her initial assessment. I do not have Afro hair. That fact, to me, was the hardest thing for me to take during the transition. For some reason, I had equated black hair to ‘fro in my mind, and found myself disappointed at the waves and curls that naturally sprouted from my head. Oh, I can pay someone to blow my hair out and to shape it so it approximates a ‘fro. But if the wind hits it, the jig is up.
So, after a few months of preparation, I met my mom with my hair – mostly curly, in parts wavy, and kinky one small part at the very back of my head.
She patted it for a second as if trying to figure out what it was.
Then, she said “I got some new lace fronts – come try them on!”
One of the things I wished people had told me before the transition was that if you are a style chameleon, like I am, your hair will take over your life. Some people love the freedom of not having to worry about their hair every day and are happy to wear their hair as it grows or in a once-every-few-months style like braids.
Not me. I like to change my hair all the time. And I generally have two style settings: (1) conservative hair + vivid color or (2) conservative color + styled hair.
One of my great vices is hair dye. My mane has been every color under the sun except for green and blond. (I don’t go blond for a lot of different reasons, and having green show up in my hair would require me to bleach large chunks for the color to hold.) When I first figured out what my hair can do, I was thrilled. I hate doing things like wrapping my hair at night and now, I don’t have to. I literally have four steps: take a shower, conditioner wash it, blot with a towel, work in product. My hair takes five minutes of prep, ten to fifteen minutes to air dry, and I am out the door.
Then I realized my curls might look a little different with pink streaks running randomly through them. Or blue chunks.
Suddenly, I found myself trying to figure out how to style my hair. (And I dyed it an all over brown color.) Learning the various up-dos, bantu knots, twists and rolls has been a pain in the ass to this hair challenged blogger. Natural hair salons (and my stylist) are happy to do whatever style I want to achieve – for a hefty fee. I thought getting relaxed hair done and styled was expensive at about $60 a salon trip, plus tip. Natural salons in my area charge the upwards of $80-150 per style and my stylist (who does both relaxed and natural) clocks in around $70 ever couple of weeks. Ouch. While I may make the investment to learn how to do flat twists, having a quick change hair personality is proving to be costly.
I also realized that having natural hair freed me up from a lot of styling constraints. There was a stint over the summer where I wore it curly so long, I actually forgot how long it takes to style straight hair. Curling iron? Pssh…pass me a misting bottle, I’m good.
But the heat styling and associated accessories gave way to a new hair holy grail: The perfect product. Here’s the issue with my hair: My hair loves a good, creamy styling product. A couple dabs and I am good to go. The problem is that the perfect product changes based on season, humidity level, and geographic location. Walking around Manhattan last Friday, I drove Andrea crazy by setting up shop in a Ricky’s. Unlike the stores where I live, where finding products for natural hair requires a trip to the salon, Ricky’s had a whole aisle dedicated to product. With testers.
And, it should go without saying that the products my hair loves (Ojon!) are the products my wallet hates ($50 a tub, are you serious?!?)
A few months ago, one of my friends was applying for a job, and noticed something strange in their employee policy book.
“It says, ‘No ethnic hair styles’ in the professional dress section,” she read to me.
Uh-oh. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?
“Ethnic” can mean anything from wavy hair to cornrows to Afros to braids. We were both puzzled at this description, particularly as there were apparently no models from which to see what hair qualified as “appropriate.” Many of us remember the big to-do back at Glamour last summer when a staffer mentioned that Afros were political styles, inappropriate for the workplace. That particular instance made the rounds of the blogosphere and magazine trades, but there are actually millions of microaggressions that play out in offices every single day on what kind of hair is considered professional.
One would think professional would sway toward neatly groomed and clean, but apparently, different people have different interpretation of what “neatly groomed and clean” means. To some prejudiced eyes, braided, twisted, and locked hair will never look clean, regardless of what the actual upkeep of the style is. And while I have been fortunate enough to work in more web based/creative industries that allow me a lot of flexibility in wardrobe and styling, I still feel quite a bit of pressure to start out pressed and ease people into my curly reality.
No, I shouldn’t have to straighten my hair before I go on a job interview or on an appearance or what have you. But it’s easier if I do. I remove one less variable from the equation, one less thing I have to try to work around. I already have enough race baggage from my given name. So while I stand by my choice to use my first name, and not default to my more race neutral middle name, adding natural hair into the equation gives me a headache.
Even thinking about simple things, like headshots for my website, brings up a whole host of issues tied into racism and perception. I have already decided I am going to need pics of both straight and curly hair – but which one will be the dominant pic? Which picture will I post here, on Racialicious, so people can start sending me anti-Black hate mail instead of anti-Asian hate mail? (Obviously, those sending said hate mail have issues with reading comprehension.) If a magazine wants me to write for them, will rocking natural hair and a black face get me bounced off the contributor page?
Once again, should I have to ask myself these questions?
Color Struck Considerations
This small section could be a whole post in itself, but I’ll keep it light for the purposes of this piece. When I wrote the original piece, Hair Apparently, I only got one negative reaction. It was from a woman who felt like my piece indicated I had issues with natural hair and felt that I should learn to embrace my natural self.
I went over to her site and checked out her picture.
I remember thinking We move through the world differently, we will be perceived differently, and we have two totally different considerations when it comes to the social cost of “embracing” your natural hair.
Now, I do not believe in perpetuating the black color wars because it is a foolish division.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention having that thought (among a few others) pre-transition.
Can We End the Hair Wars Now? Or at Least call a Truce?
When I got Tami’s piece as a submission to the Things We Do to Ourselves piece, I laughed. Things had sure come full circle. Here was a piece I had read pre-transition when I had one opinion, and now I read it post transition after having gone through the process myself. I must say I do love my hair now. I am glad I found out that my hair had habitual breakage in the back because that is where my kinks are fragile, not just “because [I] have hair that doesn’t grow” as one misguided stylist told me. I’m glad I know what my natural hair looks like. I’m glad that my hair is so easy to manage now, I’m going to finally learn how to swim.
But after I transitioned, I didn’t forget. I didn’t forget how shitty it felt to have other blacks use my hair as a litmus test for my personal politics or beliefs, or how annoyed I got with the preaching of the newly converted. I hated hearing about black women having an ingrained slave mentality when for many of us, we just adapted to the way the world views beauty. It was hard enough finding a stylist I liked doing relaxed hair – you say natural stylist and it’s like you’re trying to find the password to a members only club.
And I absolutely hated the implication that everyone, without exception, will find their hair to be fabulous and flawless and will never want to straighten their hair again. I talked to a great many people while going through the various stages of the transition and spoke to women who had been natural their whole lives, who had transitioned like I had, who kept a close crop, who went from wigs to natural and back again, those who decided to stop twisting and just lock it up, and women who had done the natural thing but realized that they preferred the relaxer.
And the only thing that remained constant was that these women were happiest doing what they wanted to do.
I often say that the kinds of conversations we have on Racialicious happen on two levels – the societal level, where we look at the big picture impact of all of our choices and the individual level, where people are just living their lives, doing what they do.
On a societal level, the discussions around black hair do dovetail into politics. The ideas of assimilation, Eurocentric beauty standards, having hair investments with no financial investment, and actively embracing a nappy reality in a straight focused world are all important things to deal with and discuss.
But it is on the individual level where we deal the most immediate damage. And grasping with a decision that is so fraught with personal politics is challenging enough without dealing with everyone else’s projected value on what amounts to a bunch of keratin.
So, how about we shift this conversation? How about we stop placing value judgments based on how we choose to style our manes, and instead work on building confidence in making the choices we make?
Of all the stories I heard from the women I spoke to, it is the incident at the wedding that stands out to me most. Two women expressed the desire to have natural hair and yet would not do it because of the perceived social cost. And that saddened me, because two women subverted what they wanted to do to please others.
We don’t need to start critiquing each other’s choices.
We need to figure out what would inspire enough confidence in ourselves so that each woman would be able to choose to do whatever she wished with her hair – with pride, and without apology.
*I actually remember that day well. My mother had meticulously pressed my hair for picture day, and put a pretty little white ribbon at the top, that hung straight down my back when I left the house. The picture taken at about 2pm that same day shows that same ribbon holding on for dear life atop a frizzy dandelion-like poof of brown waves. C’est la vie.
**Sidenote: For those of y’all who have researched the transition, you will know that one of the things sites tell you time and time again is that you should not continue to press your hair while you are growing it out because you are damaging your hair. For your hair type, this may be true. However, something else you will find is that no one’s advice will work for you all the time. I grew my hair out under the supervision of a stylist who has a hair texture very similar to mine. She pressed it out once a week, and told me to just bump the ends under using low heat while I was at home. She also showed me how to style my short natural and my lengthening natural. I highly suggest that if you are transitioning your hair out, you consult with a few different stylists – that way they can guide you through the process and you will not be as frustrated.