One of my earliest hair memories is sticking my head out of a moving car window and getting upset when my hair didn’t move. At the time, Kelly Garrett was my favorite Charlie’s Angel and her tresses flowed freely. But here I was, at seven or eight years old, the wind making my eyes tear up, but unable to make a strand of my hair budge. I was disappointed and angry.
That was the beginning of a lifelong battle with hair that has been described as tight, rough, bad, difficult, unmanageable and hard. It’s a battle that has involved sizzling hot combs, blow dryers and oils. It’s been relaxed in a “permanent” and natural in a teeny weeny fro. Since 2002, I have worn dreadlocks (locs).
When I was pregnant with my first child, I needed a reliable, no-fuss hair regimen. Locs seemed the perfect remedy. They were thick and beautiful and I loved them. My decision coincided with an explosion in the natural hair movement. Natural hair was in beauty magazines, on television and was a common sight as I drove around the streets of Atlanta, New York and DC. Runway fashion models donned natural hairstyles. Women seemed to cherish their natural hair.
And the products followed, Kinky Curly, Jane Carter Solutions, Beautiful Curls, Oyin Handmade etc. adorn shelves in such outlets as Whole Foods, Target, and chain drugstores. But after almost a decade, I was restless. I didn’t have much flexibility. And they weren’t as low maintenance as I initially thought, requiring frequent trips to the salon. I wanted to cut them but was afraid. They had become part of me. People often cooed about how beautiful I was with my locs. Plus, I was older and heavier now. Would I still look attractive without them?
But first let’s back up a little. I remember the excitement as I walked into the salon to get my first relaxer. I was eleven years old. Whirring hairdryers, well-coifed women, pictures of beautiful models on the walls. I felt like I was entering a new phase of my life. I was entering womanhood; hmm, almost like a Black mini-version of a Bat Mitzvah. It was a rite of passage for me as it had been for so many other black girls and women before me. My stylist said hello and put paper towels around my collar, draped me in a salon cape, took out my pony tail holders and ran her fingers through my hair. She parted my hair into four sections and then used a wooden spatula to apply a protective cream to my scalp and hair. She then mixed the relaxer which sounded like my Mom mixing cake batter. Only it didn’t smell as good.
Actually, it stunk. But, I didn’t care a bit. I wanted that creamy, albeit funky-smelling, concoction on my hair because it was my ticket to Kelly Garrett hair. My stylist applied the relaxer to my hair and then worked it in, smoothing and patting, then smoothing again. At first, the relaxer felt cool to my scalp. But, as the timer ticked, my scalp became lukewarm, then warm, then medium hot, then hot.
“It’s burning!” I screamed.
Literally, the chemical relaxer was straightening my hair and cooking my scalp. My stylist then rinsed, washed and conditioned my hair. When I sat up, I had butterflies. I wanted to see my hair. It was wet and I could feel hair on the back of my neck. This was it! Water was no longer my enemy! When I first gazed in the mirror, I couldn’t stop smiling because instead of a shriveled mass of hair on top of my head, I now saw long, straight hair. My love affair with my “new” hair began. When I walked out of the salon, I stood a little taller because, in my young mind, my new, straight hair had transformed me into a more beautiful person.
So began an almost two decade relaxer exercise: apply the relaxer, avoid water (I’d been tricked, water was STILL the enemy), keep edges straight, reapply relaxer. This tiring cycle happened every 4 – 8 weeks for many, many years. More importantly, over the years I experienced alopecia which left bald patches in the back of my hair. After the hair loss, I relaxed my hair less frequently because I wanted to give my hair a break from the chemicals. I wondered why I was relaxing my hair if it was potentially damaging to my hair and scalp. I came to the realization that as an adult, I’d never experienced a full head of natural hair. In fact, I’d been aghast at my new growth, the unwelcome natural hair that sprouted at the roots of my hair and ruined my relaxed facade. I began to question why I was so averse to my natural hair and recognized that I had never embraced my new growth. That was about to change.
Teeny weeny afro
By my late 20s, I was tired of the relaxer routine and emboldened to explore my natural hair. Yet, I was afraid to cut off my relaxer and wear a teeny weeny afro (TWA) because I did not want to look masculine. I am just under six feet tall and I can range anywhere from a size 12 to a size 16. I am bigger than some dudes so the last thing I wanted was to walk out of the barber shop and be mistaken for a guy. In the end, I did cut my hair but always wore flawless makeup and chunky jewelry to emphasize my femininity.
I immediately began to grow it out because I thought long hair was more feminine. I envisioned myself donning a Tracee Ellis Ross curly afro. But my hair reality did not match my hair fantasy. What grew instead was a mass of “unruly” hair. I lacked the moxie to wear it out, it was always twisted or braided, never unfettered. I sought professional maintenance. My stylist wore beautiful dreadlocks (locs) and I became curious about her hairstyle. I was ambivalent about locs because, while I thought them beautiful, I’d heard that if you wanted to change your hairstyle you had to cut out the locs. Oh no, NOT going back to a TWA. As you know already, I did grow those locs and wore the style for a decade.
A new sense of freedom
On August 22, while visiting Prince George’s County, I cut off my back-length locs to sport a TWA. Now that my locs are gone, I feel liberated. But get this, the liberation is not about my hair. It is liberation from mental and emotional bondage. It’s not necessarily freedom from chemical hair processes or freedom from locs. It’s freedom from societal notions about what is and what isn’t beautiful. I understand that some family members, colleagues, students, or strangers may look at me and frown at my TWA. However, I LOVE IT! Further, I can now better explore the natural texture of my hair not as an end unto itself but as a means for tapping into what I think is beautiful.
My hair journey has shown me that hair has been far too big of a factor in my identity as a woman. I feel that I am in the process of being released from the pressure of worrying if others think that I have beautiful hair. Yes, I will still groom myself, but I’m not in pursuit of long, straight, or even perfectly defined curly hair. I am in pursuit of healthy hair. This natural hair journey has taught me that I am far more than my hair and that my hair is beautiful in all of its kinky, coily glory.
For more of her musings on identity, hair, culture and societal norms, please follow her on Twitter @DrTina Opie and visit her blog at tropie7189.blogspot.com.
Dr. Tina Opie is an Assistant Professor at Babson College in the Management Division. She researches and writes about creating workplaces that leverage individual difference and convey respect for individual contributions and the conditions that motivate peripheral members of workgroups to engage. She earned her Ph.D. in Management from the Stern School of Business and her M.B.A. from the Darden School at the University of Virginia. Prior to her academic career, Dr. Opie was a management consultant at A.T. Kearney.
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