My First Childhood Hair Memory
My first childhood memory involving my hair is similar to the experience many other mixed curly girls have gone through. I was 3 or 4 years old… My dad and my step-mom had taken me to my granny’s house. It was the most memorable experience. Filled with so much joy! I tied Weeping Willow branches together and made makeshift swings with my cousin, I showed my granny that dunking Oreos in your milk was the only way to eat them, and my grandmother trimmed and styled my hair. It was a normal family visit. Nothing seemed out of order to me.
My hair was very dry, damaged and unhealthy. I overheard my grandmother telling my father that it would be easier for me to start growing out my hair naturally at a younger age. He agreed. My granny first washed my hair then she toweled it off a bit and cut off the damaged hair. I ended up with hair that was about 1/2 an inch long. After it curled up it was very close to my head and I looked like a boy. It was cute and short, but it was still long snout to put little clips into. My granny told me I was beautiful and I believed her. I was a happy half black child on a grand vacation! The fact that my granny had changed my hair didn’t matter to me. I was loved, and happy, and safe.
When my dad dropped me off at my mom’s I couldn’t wait to tell her about all the fun that I’d had. I never got that chance… My mom took one look at me and started crying and yelling at my dad. I was confused. She was furious.
This moment had a profound effect on my sense of self.
It didn’t occur to me until later in life, that this moment had a profound effect on my sense of self and my feelings toward my hair for the majority of my young life. There were of course other influences. Actresses, models, magazines, and society as a whole, but this specific moment was pivotal for me.
Every month for as long as I could remember my mom “permed” (straightened, in black communities a relaxer was called a perm then) my natural hair. It was quite the process to go through as a child. First, we would wash and dry my hair to clean it. Then we would wait 2 days without adding any products to my hair to ensure that it had time to rebuild some of the protective sebum on my scalp. Then, my mom would mix the perm and apply it to my roots a small amount always got on my previously processed hair (which furthers the damage). These horrible smelling chemicals were left on my hair for 25 minutes all while my mom combed through my hair to help break the bonds of keratin that hold your hair in its curl pattern. The chemical is not supposed to touch your skin. It is potent. Often times, during the combing process enough would get onto my scalp that we couldn’t wait the full 25 minutes. It burned. I would let it burn for as long as I could tolerate it before I’d ask my mom to wash it out. Then, she’d give me a washcloth to cover my eyes. I’d bend over the sink face down while standing on a chair and she would use lukewarm water from the sprayer to rinse the chemicals out. If it was too warm it would sting the chemical burns freshly formed on my scalp. But this was the price I had to pay to be beautiful, so I did. After it was rinsed out we had to use a special neutralizer to stop further processing. The neutralizer was then rinsed out and she would blow dry my hair and then flat iron it to make it as straight as possible. Over the next couple of hours and days I’d often have little yellow crusted spots on my scalp where lymph fluid had pushed out the chemicals that had made it too deep into my scalp. These spots would itch terribly, but if I scratched them they’d bleed and then scab. We continued with this monthly routine until I was 17 or 18. I’d finally had enough of the burning, oozing, bleeding scalp routine. I wanted to have long beautiful hair, but the pain caused by chemically straightening and then daily flat ironing causes me to have dry brittle hair that never made it past my collar bone. It just didn’t seem worth it anymore.
I unknowingly started the process of transitioning for a month or two by simply flat ironing the roots or curling the ends to help the new growth blend in.Styling it was difficult and in a fit of furry I cut all of my straight hair off. That didn’t go well. I’m NOT a hair stylist and it showed. I cried and then went to the nearest black salon and the woman kindly fixed the mess I’d made. When she was done she spun my chair around and I looked in the mirror. I saw that little 3 year old girl staring back at me. The one who had caused her mom to react to strongly all those years ago. I hated her. I hated how I looked.
I cried the whole way home. Once I arrived my mom made an offhanded remark. She didn’t mean anything by it, but it stung. The next day I went to a black hair shop and bought a couple wigs with nice loose B and C sized curls. I wanted to hide how ugly I’d become from the world. I’d see other black women with short hair and wished I was “that brave”. As if bravery was the reason they “suffered” short hair. It never occurred to me that they truly wanted short hair, that maybe they weren’t making some profound statement. They were just enjoying what they were given. That was something I couldn’t even fathom.
After my hair grew to chin length and I was off to college I started back up with the routine of flat ironing my hair regularly. It was much healthier, and I even wore it curly once or twice in the privacy of my own home. It still never got past my shoulders, but I was really into bobbed hair. So at that point I was ok with what I had. Unless it rained. Then, I was like the wicked witch of the west hiding under anything that would protect me from frizz and the dreaded appearance of curls.
During college I met my future husband and throughout my relationship with him he became witness to the many unseemly things I did to my hair… I attempted to sew in my own weave to save money which he helped me take out while I sobbed in his lap. I tried dying my hair a few times, which landed me in the ER with second degree burns on my scalp and a sub-dermal infection that made it look like I had a slice of a baseball stuffed under my forehead. Turns out I am allergic to hair dye… Throughout this whole process I never stopped flat ironing my hair and my future husband never stopped praising my hair on the rare occasions that he saw my natural texture. I was afraid, ashamed, and appalled by my natural texture. I had no idea what to do with it when it came to styling. I didn’t know it could be managable. In the process of searching for something better my mom and I discovered keratin straightening treatments. I thought they were the answer. They didn’t cause nearly as much damage. They made my hair straighter and softer than it had ever been before. It had a glossy shine and blew in the wind in a way I’d only ever seen a white woman’s hair move. I felt beautiful and happy. The four hours and $300 it took to get me 4-6 months of “good hair” felt worth it.
The Girl That Changed Everything
Fast forward through my marriage, one son, and two miscarriages. STOP. I was 31 and pregnant again. This time not only was it viable but, there were two. One of the babies was a girl…
Her existence started a line of questioning I wasn’t expecting. I wondered, like any parent, what her hair would look like. Would she look like me or her father. He’s of Jewish descent so it was inevitable that she would have curls, but how tight would they be? Who would she take after? What skin tone would she have? Those simple questions lead to a more philosophical and ethical line of questions about how we were going to raise our daughter.
I knew I didn’t want her to go through the same haircare journey I had. I refused to consider straightening her hair. I refused to instill in her the curly-hair-negativity that permeated me. I loved her before she was born, all of her. I wanted her to feel the same way, to love her whole self. I was going to teach my daughter to love her hair.
For so long I had been trying to make my hair be something it wasn’t. The constant obsession I had with straightening my hair had a lasting impact on who I thought I was and should be. I’ve spent thousands of dollars over the years trying “fix” my hair and wishing I’d been born with “good hair”. The assumption that straight long hair is the ultimate testament to beauty is finally seeing an end. It is extremely difficult to maintain length with chemically processed hair and it gets expensive fast. I was fighting a battle I couldn’t never win. And for what? Why is natural hair viewed as such a bad thing? Why is unhealthy, damaged, dry, brittle, straightened hair seen as an asset? Becoming a mother to a daughter of my own taught me that there are no good answers to those questions and, there was no good reason to continue.
I’ve learned to love my hair and work with it, not against it. It took two and a half decades for me to realize my hair is a part of me and to truly learn to love who I am. My story is not unique or special. It is sad and unfortunate, but it’s a story many women have lived. The amount of mental, emotional, and physical pain caused by straightening a child’s hair isn’t worth it. It breaks more than just the bonds of keratin that hold their curls. It breaks their sense of self. It breaks their confidence. It breaks them.
I hope my story, my journey helps you and others realize what “simply” straightening a child’s hair truly does to them. I’d love to hear your stories about your hair journey, the good the bad. All of it! Share with me in the comments how you arrived at your natural hair journey.