February 29, 2016 in Editorials, Features, Op-Eds, Style, Women by

Reflections & Conditioning: My Natural Hair Herstory

Now at the very end of Black History Month, I have decided to share what is arguably my blackest personal experience I’ve had to date: my natural hair journey. (That, and also embodying the stereotype that black folks are always late–to everything, all the time, throughout my entire life. Hence, why this post is late to the BHM party. But hey, Black People’s History is a year-round celebration, right? Thought so.)

This will be the first of many articles I intend to write about natural hair and beauty. And what better introduction than to tell my own story from the beginning? Read on for a personal essay about how my relationship with my hair has changed since going natural, and to see some great photos that Renee Lopez captured of me doing my typical twist-n-fluff style after a fresh cut.

When I popped out of my mother in 1988 I had a head full of thick curly hair that only got bigger and more unruly each year. My black father and white mother didn’t initially understand that they had to split my hair into sections before detangling it from the ends up. They just combed it the best they could, and put it into one or two puffs. 

 FullBabyAfroPicsTwoPuffs

After my father died in 1992, my mom moved my younger brother and I from depressing Anchorage, Alaska to less-dreary Oregon where we started our lives all over again in Lake Oswego. After beginning kindergarten, I guess I started to compare myself to my peers and took issue with the way my hair looked. Whether it was my mom struggling to keep me still in front of her, or me struggling to see how cute my curls were, each day was a different battle.

In the first grade I apparently became old enough to have an opinion about how I looked. My mom suggested I try box braids, since we had admired the trend in black hair magazines, and I had a couple family members who also wore braids regularly. I agreed.

After going through the process of getting a referral, buying synthetic hair, and sitting down for the 9+ hours of work, I immediately loved my braids (thank God). Having long hair that fell all over my shoulders made me feel pretty for once. So for the next year or two my mom continued to shell-out the big bucks to pay for my braids. Until, that is—gasp—my braid lady left town. What was a little mixed girl to do? My single mom didn’t exactly have a backup braid lady on lock, so I had no other choice but to wear my poofy hair to school.

I call this phase: The Trapezoid Head, because that’s what I called it at the time.

TrapezoidHead

When it came to my natural hair, I liked the way it looked when wet, but as it dried throughout the day it also shrunk up. How come no one else at my school was experiencing this severe shrinkage? Everyone else’s hair just laid flat and looked “normal,” while mine was puffy, and had a literal shape to it. Still, I continued to wet my hair every day, put on a headband, and hope for the best. At some point in the 4th grade I became completely fed up with my hair; I hated it and wished it was different…or did I wish it wasn’t so different? Either way, I’d had enough, and my mom had had enough of me crying about it, so we decided to try a relaxer.

Back in 1995, as some of you might remember, there was a black hair salon in NE Portland called Waves which is long gone now. This was the first salon I can vividly remember spending time in. When Terri pressed my hair straight with those scorching-hot wands, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: I looked like an entirely new person. A person with shiny, flat, “good hair”.

FirstRelaxer

But as I soon learned, this super-sleek look was not something my 9-year-old self could maintain. The press lasted for a few days, and then I was back to being frizzy, but with significantly less kink than before the relaxer. Every 8 weeks or so I would go back to the salon for a touch-up, meaning I would have my virgin roots slathered in the creamy crack, and she would press me straight again. From then on I was constantly switching from relaxers, to braids, back to relaxers, back to braids.

While I didn’t hate my relaxed hair, I never loved it and I never felt truly good about myself when I looked in the mirror. I couldn’t stop comparing my hair and body to that of my peers; it was like I was playing a game where the rules were catered to someone else. This low self-esteem undoubtedly contributed to my constant weight fluctuation that I believe (fingers crossed) I have finally gotten under control, kinda.

I think a lot of my confusion and distorted body image came from the fact that I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, where there’s not a lot of ethnic/body diversity. Growing up in Oregon, I didn’t often see people who had hair like mine, but I made it my business to befriend all the black (okay, mixed) kids at my high school, two of whom wore their natural texture out on a regular basis. You’d think I would have followed suit, but no: ‘my hair was on a whole other level of difficult’ I told myself.

BraidsYoungRelaxerHSYears

I do remember a specific week in high school when I took my braids down after 3 years of wearing them, and didn’t have someone to immediately re-install them. I combed out my afro with a friend and we decided to wear our huge afros to school, even though I knew it would attract a lot of attention and unwanted petting. It really was quite the distraction. Most of the attention I got was positive remarks, and bewildered adoration. My peers were shocked to see how big and textured my natural hair was. I remember a couple of senior guys reaching out and grabbing it–without asking–as they walked passed me in the hallway. Having that much focus on me was overwhelming. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stand out if it was going to cause such a scene just getting from A to B. I think this was one of the reasons why I quickly reverted back to the creamy crack the week later, and continued to pile on the pounds. I now realize I was subconsciously rejecting attention, pulling away from embracing my natural beauty. On top of that, I had no idea how to style my natural hair, what products to use, how often to wash, condition, moisturize, etc.

CombThru_ReneeMe now, sectioning and combing my hair with coconut oil. Start detangling from the ends and work your way up! Photo by Renee Lopez

While wearing my natural hair out for a week, I found my curls impossible to control and manipulate, which was really frustrating for me. And I was honestly so sick of explaining the ins and outs of my “AMAZING,” “CRAZY” hair to every kid at school who had apparently never seen a black person’s hair texture before. The problem was, I was all too aware that box braids were no longer ‘on trend.’ If I wasn’t able to hide my ethnic roots with braids, I would at least go back to using chemicals to control them. So for the majority of high school and all of college, I would touch up my roots, wet my hair daily, apply a white woman’s curl cream, and then blow dry my relaxed curls so that they laid relatively flat against my face. Sometimes I would straighten it, but mostly I wore stringy, relaxed curls. I didn’t love my hair, but I was okay with it. I had a routine down. It was manageable.

One day, a couple weeks after my breakup with my college boyfriend, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought “what if I cut off just these three inches of blonde ombre at the bottom?” My hair was experiencing color damage anyway, and I figured I might look cute with a more blunt of a cut. Snip, snip, and half my ends were gone. Snip, snip, snip— there went the other half. I was immediately a little self-conscious because my hair was quite a bit shorter. “I’ll just get box braids again,” I said to myself, since they were coming back in style again anyway. And to be perfectly honest, I rocked the SHIT out of those motherfuckers for about a year and a half:

BraidsPout

As it turns out, protective styles like braids and twists are a great way to transition from relaxed to natural. I wish had been brave enough to do my big chop earlier so that I didn’t have to start from scratch and have a re-awakening to my own beauty when I’m almost thirty! (For all you noobs, the “big chop” is when you cut loose all your chemically altered/unhealthy ends and start fresh with all your healthy natural hair.)

But the truth is that going natural hadn’t really occurred to me as an option until a couple years ago in June 2014. I had just made an expensive move to Seattle to pursue an internship at Seattle Met magazine, and could no longer afford the $250 every two months for the long jumbo box braids I’d been sporting for a couple years. (You have to pay for the service + tip + added hair!) I was left with no choice but to take down my extravagant braids and learn how to wear my unruly hair in a professional setting at my new job.

Maybe if I’d gone natural back in high school I wouldn’t have looked and felt so awkward. I would have looked more like myself. But oh well. Luckily, for those of us who never learned how to care for their natural hair as a child, now is a better time than ever to start. Because the Internet, there are hundreds–probably thousands–of YouTube tutorials, Pinterest boards, and natural hair bloggers who demonstrate their DIY routines for all of us to see. I looked up Curly Nikki, My Natural Sistas, and started engaging and meeting with the Facebook group Seattle Naturals for tips and support.

I want you all to know that in no way do I consider myself an expert on natural hair, or even a natural hair blogger for that matter. At least not yet. Hell, it’s only been 2 years since I went full-blown natural and I’m just now starting to feel like I know what I’m doing on my own hair! Everything I’ve learned over the last couple years has been from Internet research and practicing hair care routines on myself. I have come to realize that managing my hair is a lifelong journey, and there’s always more to learn. You have to be patient with your hair growth and realize that you’re not going to learn how to care for your uniquely thick, curly, or kinky hair without a decent amount of practice. It takes months and years to get your routine down.

After this photo was taken I learned that when your hair is shorter you need smaller twists and parts. Photo by Renee Lopez

Also, let me just say that this article is not meant to shame anyone who doesn’t choose to go natural.  If you choose to wear a weave, or relaxer or whatever, that’s your prerogative. But maybe you’re doing the same thing I was: trying every known method to relax, straighten, braid or hide the hair that I was born with, without even giving it a chance. I was assimilating and trying to achieve a standard of beauty that was never meant for me.  While I explained to others (and myself) that I used relaxer because my hair was “too thick” and “unmanageable,” I now realize that was all in my head. My hair was never going to look or act like that of someone with naturally straight hair, but that doesn’t mean mine is impossible to deal with –I just never learned!

After being financially forced to go natural back in 2014, I learned a lot about my hair and myself through practice and reflection, and I still am. One of the biggest lessons? I had to learn to let it be, and listen to what my hair was telling me. As Dreeny Paine, the creator of Seattle Naturals says: “work with your hair, not against it.”  A big part of being natural is being intuitive to what your hair needs. It might be water, moisture, oil, or a full-on wash and deep condition, but you will learn to tell what it needs by feeling and looking at it.

Photo by Renee Lopez

Since choosing protective styles and consequently going natural, I have a stronger sense of identity, personal style, and confidence in myself. (I think I’ve even reached a point where I feel confident enough to cut my hair super short into a tapered fro!)

I also do not mean to imply that all women who straighten their hair are self-hating. After all, versatility is one of the best things about being natural. Every woman should (of course) wear their hair however they like it—it’s a personal choice. But then again, some of you might be going through a similar kind of conditioning and assimilation that I was. I truly believe more women should claim how beautiful their natural hair texture is; there is no requirement for you to alter it chemically or stylistically. Now that I’m older I realize that I was choosing styles as a form of self-hatred and a desire for my hair to reflect “the norm”. But it never has, and it never will. In reality my hair is uniquely me: crazy and beautiful.

Photo by Renee Lopez

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  • Deidre

    As a white mother to a mixed child, I have felt the hardship of dealing with my daughters ethnic hair. Hair time was always a struggle. Chasing and pinning down a toddler to quickly get her hair into poofs is not conducive to sweet memories. My advice to moms and dads out there who struggle with this is to get out of their white bubble neighborhood and use the resources that are available to you. That might mean a trip to another part of town or even another town! Once you find an appropriate hair salon, pay attention and ask lots of questions. They will gladly advise you on product and technique. Query friends and family members with similar hair. Most of the time you will get great advice. Once I received advice from a clueless (she just happened to be Caucasian) hairdresser. She told me to wash my little girls hair EVERY DAY! So I tried that for a week or two before I was corrected by someone who knows better. My poor little girl! Oh well… Parenting is sometimes trial and error. We do the best we can.