Style

Going Natural

I thought relaxing my hair was the only option.

Me, age three.

Me, age three.

Like a lot of black girls, I have coarse, frizzy, easily tangled hair. It’s densely packed, which makes it appear thick and strong, but the individual, tightly curled strands are so brittle and delicate that they break when combed too frequently. There aren’t enough Pro-Vs in the world to make this mane of mine look like Zooey Deschanel’s does in those Pantene commercials.

When I was a little girl, my mom always cooed over my curls, telling me how lovely they were. But I grew up in a predominantly white city, and it was hard not to admire the silky Caucasian hair of my classmates as I watched it rise and fall in the playground breeze. I didn’t necessarily want similarly textured hair—I just envied how nonchalant they could be about grooming. No single ethnicity has a monopoly on follicle-based anxiety, but, in general, it seemed that my finer-haired friends had it easy. Not only could they comb their hair in public without having to worry about its turning into a giant unmanageable poofball, they could also achieve relatively neat ponytails or buns in less than 10 seconds by simply flipping their heads upside down and tying the strands with a rubber band. The first time I watched a girl do this, I was legitimately enthralled.

For me, any attempt at styling was always at least a 20-minute ordeal. My hair was defiant—it would regularly hulk out when my mom (or any other family member daring enough to rumble with it) pulled it into a ponytail, snapping apart elastic bands as they were being wrapped around the gathered strands. But even before the actual styling happened, my hair was a hassle. Per a method devised and strictly enforced by my mom, it had to be parted into several small sections after being washed (there were two pigtail puffs at the top of my head and one or two more puffs below them), detangled very gently with a wide-toothed comb, and then moisturized section by section with a combination of water and oily conditioning cream. The infrequency of this process—my hair would only be done once a week—was supposed to prevent damage, and because there were so many steps involved in the upkeep, my mom was in charge of it.

Her fingers moved nimbly and confidently as she twisted the short, frizzy hairs above my forehead and ears into two thin French braids on either side of my head, securing the ends of these braids by merging them into the two pigtails on top of my head. She’d braid the pigtails and then gather the loose tufts of hair below them into one or two more braids that dangled down my back. I wore some variation of this modified Rudy Huxtable almost every day between the ages of 2 and 13. When I was really young, I just blindly and unselfconsciously accepted it: the sky was blue, Cheetos were delicious, and my hair was braided—it was the natural order of things. By fifth grade, though, I’d had enough. It wasn’t just about being bored with the braids or annoyed with kids asking me “Why do you wear your hair like that all the time?” I hadn’t chosen the style, it was imposed on me, and that was fascist, I thought, because I’d just learned that word.

Fifth grade, age 11.

Fifth grade, age 11.

When I was 12 I decided that my hair was holding me back from becoming the mature woman that I knew I was. The hairstyle I had was for kids—in fact, every woman in my family had worn their hair the same way when they were little girls. I demanded that my mom give me one unbraided ponytail. “You have too much hair for one ponytail,” she said. Fine then, I’d do it myself. “Are you sure about this?” she asked. No, I wasn’t, but I did it anyway.

I’d played around with my hair before in my house, mainly just combing it into a massive, floppy, Afro-like shape, but this would officially be the first time that I styled it myself and then went out into the world. After a bit of a struggle, I managed to gather all of my hair into one ponytail and tuck the ends into the elastic band in an approximation of the relaxed “messy bun” so many of my friends rocked; but because I didn’t do all of that time-consuming prep work (the detangling, the moisturizing), and also because I didn’t know what I was doing, I ended up with an awkward, tufty bouffant on the top of my head. If I just slick my hair down, it’ll be fine, I thought. After running a wet brush over it, I slathered on whatever styling goo I found in the bathroom closet. It didn’t look half bad. I went to school and no one commented on my sophisticated new ’do until P.E. I was standing in the schoolyard when the wind started to pick up. At first, I was delighted to feel the breeze flow through my hair. So this is what it feels like to have hair that moves, I thought. Then the wind picked up and some of the hair on the top of my head flew straight up in the air. I caught a glimpse of my shadow on the ground, which confirmed what I already knew: I looked like a troll doll. “Hey, Amber,” a boy in my class yelled, “comb your hair!” The next day I was back to braids.

I knew that if I didn’t figure out something soon, I was going to look like a fourth grader when I was in high school. So, the summer before ninth grade, I persuaded my mom to take me to the salon to get my hair relaxed. For those who don’t know, a relaxer is a chemical mixture that’s usually used to loosen coarse curls, making it easier to straighten hair with heated styling tools. When I was growing up it was just expected that most black girls would eventually have their hair relaxed—it’s almost a rite of passage. My mom, however, was resistant to the idea. Even though her hair was relaxed, she didn’t want that for me—like I said, she adored my curls, and once those chemicals are introduced, the change is permanent: if you want to go back to your natural texture you have to grow a whole new crop of hair. But I didn’t care. To me, this change meant independence. My hair would be manageable, I could experiment with it, and I could wear it down in public, which I’d never done before.

When the stylist began covering my hair with relaxing cream, she calmly said, “If it starts to burn, tell me.” Burning, as I would discover in subsequent visits, usually happens if you’ve been scratching your scalp before the chemicals are applied. It’s an extreme tingling that begins as an itchy sensation and then, if permitted to continue, leads to scorching soreness—like, even though you can’t see what’s taking place on a micro level, you just know that intense things are happening on your head. On my first visit, I told the stylist that my head was burning as soon as I started to feel the initial itching, which was after about 10 minutes, so she washed my hair and then put me under the dryer. But after I’d become a hardened relaxer veteran, I’d wait until itching turned into almost unbearable pain, because I’d discovered that the longer I kept the chemicals on my head, the straighter my hair would be.

Winter Ball, age 17.

Winter Ball, age 17.

The first time the stylist washed out the relaxer and later flat-ironed my new, loose waves, I couldn’t stop touching it: my hair was bone straight and bouncy. I got home and parted my sleek coif down the center, and then parted it on the side. I ran my fingers through it. I pulled it into a single, unbraided ponytail using only my hands—I played with it in these sorts of unimaginative, practical ways that seem very silly now, but at the time were unfathomably gratifying. At school, my new hair brought unexpected joys. A sophomore boy who sat behind me in Spanish class started playing with my ponytail every day, which was the most intimate interaction I had with a guy for the entire four years of high school. Most important, my mom didn’t have to do my hair anymore—I was finally in charge of my own head.

Senior year, age 17.

Senior year, age 17.

But while this style was more controllable, it had its drawbacks: I developed split ends for the first time in my life, and, worse, pieces of my hair were breaking off, most noticeably after I flat-ironed it. he bulky ponytail that had been so alluring to that sophomore boy was thin and wispy by the time I started college. The worst thing is that I was aware of all of this damage, but didn’t care. I didn’t see any other option. In order to combat the kinky curls that sprouted from my roots, I had to have my hair relaxed every six weeks, and I flat-ironed it myself once a week. The split ends, the breakage, and the occasional sore that would develop on my scalp when the relaxer had been left on too long—those were just par for the course.

The internet was in its primitive stages when I was 13, so I didn’t have access to advice from people like Curly Nikki, HeyFranHey, and Chime Edwards on how to care for and style natural hair with creativity and patience. Kinky curls can be worn in countless beautiful, grown-up ways, and had I seen these blogs back then I imagine I would have at least attempted a twist-out before considering the chemical route. I’m definitely not anti-relaxer or anti-hair straightening, but I don’t think changing your hair’s texture with chemicals has to be the default answer for everyone—or anyone. If you’re thinking about chemically straightening your hair—and I’m not just talking about black women and girls, this goes for anyone (ahem, Justin Timberlake)—research your options. If what you’re looking for is more control over your hair, it’s true that relaxed hair is easier to wrangle, so it might be a good idea for you. But if you’re thinking of relaxing your hair just because it seems like straight hair is more versatile or that it looks better, I’d check out some of those natural-hair blogs and Google Willow Smith, Solange Knowles, Janelle Monae, Juno Temple, and Corinne Bailey Rae (for a start).

I started relaxing my hair because I wanted to be in control of it myself, but when I look at pictures of myself from elementary school, I see waves that I never realized I had, and that my hair was shinier and healthier than it is now. I see the beauty my mom had always known was there and worked so diligently to protect. Praising my curls was more than just a compliment—my mom was trying to instill in me a sense of pride in my natural hair before I got older and would be confronted by people, movies, and shampoo commercials that would tell me that it was undesirable.

Today, literally.

Today, literally.

I stopped relaxing my hair at the end of 2012. I’ve also stopped using a comb to detangle knots—now I just use my fingers, to prevent breakage. But styling takes a lot more time in the morning now. It can be frustrating, and sometimes I just wear a hat or a scarf on days when my mane just won’t cooperate. But seeing my curly new growth makes it worth it. It’s kind of a reunion with an earlier version of me. And I can’t stop touching my hair. ♦

45 Comments

  • indigosunday April 9th, 2013 7:29 PM

    Great article Amber! Recently I’ve been going between growing my hair natural or if I should keep on relaxing it. And I just want to relax it because of how it’s a bit easier to comb my hair in the mornings when my hair is relaxed. My question is though: when you stopped relaxing your hair did you cut it all off to let it grow or did you just leave it?
    -Akosua

  • kikikaylen April 9th, 2013 7:31 PM

    Great post. I have relaxed hair, which my mom kind of forced upon me at the end of 4th grade after she tired of helping me (or basically doing FOR me) my hair on a regular basis. I’m not blaming her because my hair WAS difficult. I used to wear it in a million tiny braids that she had to redo weekly. On the other hand, now I have relaxed hair, and while it’s relatively long and healthy, it’s still nowhere near the same. I do love the ease of maintenance and the look of relaxed hair, so I can’t say that I’ll definitely go natural in the future, but I now know that it’s a viable option. Thank you for this!

  • Kimono Cat April 9th, 2013 7:36 PM

    Three year-old you is so cute I am literally dying.

    • Anaheed April 9th, 2013 9:48 PM

      I know me too I am mesmerized by Baby Amber.

  • whatever April 9th, 2013 7:40 PM

    I’ve always thought those thick curls were gawjuzzz. As someone with thin hair that falls out easily, I’ve always loved thick hair, but I’m sure that if I had thick hair I’d want it thin, sighz.
    Anyways, great post <3

    http://teenmoonwitch.blogspot.co.uk/

    • Ella W April 10th, 2013 6:13 AM

      For ages and ages I hated my thin hair, but now I just sort of accept it. However I still LOVE thick, curly hair and think it looks really awesome. I think everyone gets insecure about their hair at some point, whatever type of hair you have.

      http://gorillalegs.blogspot.co.uk/

      • whatever April 11th, 2013 3:29 PM

        your blog name makes this really funny.

        i have a weird sense of humor.

  • izi April 9th, 2013 7:46 PM

    my family is predominately italian, and all of us have really really thick curly hair. In our family, it’s become exactly like amber put it-a rite of passage-to get it chemically straightened.

  • doorknob April 9th, 2013 7:52 PM

    Woah, after watching the “twist out” tutorial and seeing all of the cool hair-dos on Curly Nikki, I’m seriously jealous of African-American-type hair! My hair would never be able to do all of that. But I think it’s really important to love your hair no matter your ethnicity. The grass is always greener on the other side :)

  • rhymeswithorange April 9th, 2013 7:57 PM

    In the second line of the second to last paragraph, wen should be when.

  • GildedLocks April 9th, 2013 8:03 PM

    I love this! I looove this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m white, but oh man, do I know the perils of growing up with curly hair. Especially for kids who grew up in the 90′s and 2000′s, when straight was the only acceptable hair type. I was always bullied for my hair as a child, and it took me a long time accept (much less take pride in) my my hair.

    I have childhood memories of screaming my lungs out while my mom cut elastic hairties that had gotten tangled in my locks after swimming lessons. My parents had no idea how to deal with curls, as neither of them really had them, so my dad would meticulously comb out my whole length of hair, turning it into an enourmous cloud of frizz. When I was in middle school, I got my first straightening iron, which would allow my hair to remain straight (although very wispy and limp) for about 5 hours. Classmates kept telling me how great I looked, but the one comment I remember the most vividly was “you look nice, but i like your natural hair more.” It really stuck with me as one of the most comforting things anyone’s ever said to me. My hair’s a lot better these days— I’ve been no-shampoo for four years and my hair’s never looked better. I even learned to style it into victorianesque ringlets or a curly fauxhawk. /rant

    Anyway, this article really hit home, Amber, and your curls look lovely. I’m definitely gonna try that twist-out tutorial.

  • Jamia April 9th, 2013 8:22 PM

    Beautiful!!!!!

  • Little Unicorn April 9th, 2013 8:48 PM

    Aww this is so great!!

  • larvaa_ April 9th, 2013 9:13 PM

    Ahhhh this is my fav. I remember I used to get relaxers back in elementary through middle school, besides having straight hair I had no idea on what else to do with my hair nor did my mom since my sis used to do it, that stopped once she went of to college. My sis went natural and I loveddd her luscious fro blowing in the wind she guided me to the natural route the summer of my freshman year, I’m super glad I stopped relaxing my hair. Honestly it did no justice for my hair it wasn’t long +it didn’t flow I have no idea what drew me back to it every time. I luv my hair sooo much now!! :) ps. natural hair tutorials are my best internet friends lol
    http://www.rill-il.tumblr.com

  • Lisa Harrison April 9th, 2013 9:14 PM

    Nice, I liked this artilce because I sometimes struggle with loving my curls. :)

  • Teez April 9th, 2013 9:46 PM

    thanks for sharing amber! i think it’s cool that you have learnt to love your curls (not trying to shame anyone who relaxes/wears weave…i feel you!). just wondering whether you are transitioning or did you do a big chop?

    • Phoebe April 9th, 2013 10:50 PM

      Amber says she is mostly wearing her hair in high buns, and trims the relaxed ends off.

  • Grace Mecha April 9th, 2013 10:14 PM

    this is literally me. i’m also insecure about my tight mass of curls, so i wear braids. this gave me a bit of confidence.

  • giov April 9th, 2013 10:18 PM

    I’m Italian too, grew up with short, almost straight hair which turned curly during puberty. I would force my mom to style it every time i washed it, poor woman, and got it done chemically when I was 17 (it lasted like 2 months, not even).

    Now I embrace the curls, do not ever comb it, and use coconut oil on it on the regular. It’s pretty great to not worry about it so much! A friend ironed it for me a few months ago and I almost cried, remembering all the years I spent hating it. Now I hate the way it looks when it’s straight!

    • FlaG April 12th, 2013 1:14 AM

      GOD, I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE THAT HAPPENED TO! My hair went from wavy light brown to curly and dry over puberty. And I couldn’t figure out if it was just me, or if it happens to others as well. Almost on the verge of tears hearing this :’)

      Everyone on both sides of my family (one side is Italian) has straight hair, so when this happened to me I was so frustrated and lost. I spent the years between 12 and 19 with hair only an inch long. By the time I got to uni, my mum and I decided to throw caution to the wind and grew out my hair. We relaxed it, and it was not for me so we just let my hair grow out completely. It took about two years to go from the angry inch to shoulder length.

  • SWIZZLEFAIRY22 April 9th, 2013 10:39 PM

    I’m African (but born here) and I hated my thick curly hair growing up. My non-african american friends never understood how frustrating it would be to not be able to do pretty French braids or leave my hair out like theirs. I started relaxing my hair at age six and I totally regret it. Two years ago, I cut all my hair in to a short afro and it has barely grown since. I still have a bald spot and sores all over head from relaxing. Its been incredibly frustrating but, I have noticed my hair has a softer texture and my curls kind of sprung up. This article made me realize I made a good decision in cutting my hair. Thanks Amber.

  • lydiamerida April 9th, 2013 10:52 PM

    I’m white and I have curly-wavy tangly hair that I’ve had since I was little. I’ve definitely been on the reciving end of a lot of shit (intentional and unintentional) for not straightening it. For example, last week I was with some girls I had been assigned to do a video project with, and as we were getting ready to film they kept saying stuff like “oh just brush your hair, you have to be super pretty in theis scene” or “Do you want us to straighten it for you?” Even If I wanted to brush my hair, I couldn’t (just sayin’). It’s really annoying and I think that us girls get a lot of pressure to have perpetually styled hair. I even know some girls who straighten their curls out and then use a curling iron to give themselves “good” curls….

  • Dylan April 9th, 2013 11:07 PM

    YOU AT 3 OMG

  • Tyknos93 April 9th, 2013 11:23 PM

    Trying to go a full 6 months without heat straightening my hair. I’ve never had a relaxer, but I didn’t realize how difficult it is working with natural hair. So I totally get why some people would choose it. I love this new relationship I have with my hair though. It’s like I’m learning more about myself in the process. The complements keep pouring in (which doesn’t hurt) and I’m able to do tons of activities and styles that I wouldn’t have been able to do when I was afraid of my hair getting “kinky”. Best of luck on your hair journey Amber!
    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • BetaCaroteen April 9th, 2013 11:25 PM

    Hey Amber, post on your blog more often because it is the best thing on the internet.

  • AlbinoRabbit April 9th, 2013 11:41 PM

    This takes me back to my early elementary and preschool years! I was the Caucasian type girl that you mention with silky blond hair(now reddish-purple). The irony is that I was always deeply jealous of the African American girls’ hair. I wanted those braids and beads and adorable cornrows! But alas! My mom couldn’t even manage a French braid. I tried to copy the styles by parting my hair into a dozen or so little ponytails(the best my 5 year old self could do)and i’d go off to school like that. I’m about to enter high school next year and I still adore those hairstyles.

  • Janie April 10th, 2013 12:04 AM

    you were such a cutie!! And not to mention totally beautiful in your 5th grade/teen/now pictures! <3 <3

  • llamalina April 10th, 2013 12:58 AM

    i’ve always been jealous of people with wild, uncontrollable curls. my hair is really thick but it’s totally straight, without even a wave to it, and it won’t hold a curl for more than a few hours, which frustrates me to no end. your hair (especially three year old you! awww) looks awesome, i hope that you get it to how you want it.

  • Koko-chan April 10th, 2013 1:59 AM

    If you ever have a little girl, show her some pictures of Alex Kingston’s hair. The sheer curliness and bounciness and awesomeness of it is ENTIRELY NATURAL and Alex looks great.

    In fact, go Google some pics of her hair right now. *nods*

  • Lea April 10th, 2013 2:25 AM

    Just to say that you look really badass in your Senior Year picture

  • Peanutpug April 10th, 2013 7:01 AM

    Great article Amber :) And can I just say that Wilow Smith is so beautiful, she’s like a gorgeous wee cat in that picture !

  • Nomali April 10th, 2013 7:08 AM

    Amber at 3 >>> LIFE 1000

    I made a mess of my hair last year, which culminated to me cutting it into a fine brush (dunno what it’s called that side, maybe shorter than what Willow had at the beginning of 2012?) I don’t have a plan really. Maybe I’ll cut it again while I think about it.

    PS: if you’re looking for resourcing an awesome South African blogger called Aisha did 30 updos over 30 days over at MyFroAndI:

    http://www.myfroandi.com/p/30-updos.html

  • Kristin April 10th, 2013 10:20 AM

    Your hair is gorgeous! I’ve heard the struggles black people have with their hair (and how white people force/strongly suggest they relax their hair to fit in), but I have to say that my experience is a bit different. I’m white and I grew up in a predominantly black city and I was so, so jealous of all the black girls’ hair. It was so pretty and it always looked great and mostly importantly it stayed in place regardless of what the wind did. I even got in quite a few yelling arguments with other black girls who tried telling me that my hair was ideal.

    Now as an adult the whole exchange is a bit silly, but I wish I had been more aware as a child (and even as a teen) of the racism my friends and peers encountered from everyone. I still wish I had an afro and every time I pass a black woman with natural hair I just want to tell her how gorgeous she is since (apparently) society tells her the opposite. But that would be weird and maybe even racist itself I think.

    Hopefully society changes and soon!

  • Alienor April 10th, 2013 11:17 AM

    You’re my twin ! I have huge curly frizzy wild red hair and I was always picked on about it! Today I’m a senior in high school, and I’m just starting to accept my hair for what it is …

  • ♡ reba ♡ April 10th, 2013 1:44 PM

    such a lush article! i have afro hair and find every no and again i need ways to convince myself to relax it! these blogs rock and i’m bookmarking this article! :-) :-)

  • darksideoftherainbow April 10th, 2013 3:33 PM

    like a lot of girls here, i think you at age 3 are soooo cute!!! seriously, i smiled immediately when i saw that picture. anyways, i really enjoyed reading this. my hair texture has changed dramatically from when i was a kid. it was super curly and now it’s wavy/straight. i really don’t even know what happened. i can tell you, though, that when i was a kid, all i wanted was straight hair. even after it went wavy, i would flat iron it almost every day. i haven’t flat ironed it in almost two years now and i love how much healthier it feels. thank you for sharing and for not being at all judgmental about what works for ppl. you’re awesome!

  • GlitterKitty April 10th, 2013 4:49 PM

    Itty bitty 3 year old Amber is the cutest thing ever!!

    • kathryn-s April 10th, 2013 6:18 PM

      she’s so cute i can’t even deal

  • Isil April 10th, 2013 5:07 PM

    My sister has hair like this and she never EVER straightened it. If you let it go its way, somehow it’s getting beautiful and free.

    Also, she was always looking for blogs about kinky, curly hair. So this article was very helpful, but we didn’t really understand what twist out does?

    http://isilnoir.wordpress.com

  • Faith P. April 10th, 2013 5:58 PM

    Amazing article, Amber! My hair routine is very similar to the one that you had before you went in for your relaxer. Unfortunately, despite how much I tell people that I want to learn to love my natural hair texture, I’m still bombarded with comments from my friends and family, saying that I should relax it (“You’ll look pretty this way!” Was I not before? Thanks). If they’re not positive, I don’t even care about their opinions anymore. I’m going to love the hair I was born with!

    (P.S. You when you were three? *Squeals and flies into the sun*)

  • ColoredSoft April 10th, 2013 9:45 PM

    Amber…I love you. Because of how popular natural hair is getting, I’ve been growing out an afro and looking into natural hair products. Other girls hair still fascinated me. Everytime someone with silky hair puts it up into a ponytail or a bun I stop to watch, sometime ask to touch…I was surprised to see that people are fascinated with my fro as well. Ha :) Great article.

  • forevernymph April 12th, 2013 2:19 AM

    So, does anyone else have hair like me? I related to a lot of things in this article…but I’m mainly Caucasian. I have a bit of African American and Japanese blood, but I’m predominately white (if this has anything to do with my hair).

    My hair is…well let’s just say it’s pretty much straight/kind of wavy, but I have so much of it! LIKE SO MUCH IT’S NOT EVEN COOL. It’s down to my shoulders and looks like a lion mane most of the time.

    I usually like that look, but it makes it impossible to braid, put up, or do ANYTHING with. It doesn’t even hold a curl. It’s just there. And it’s boring being unable to try out new styles and such. Why? Does anyone else have this?

  • ArmyOfRabbits April 19th, 2013 2:48 PM

    I have natural wavy hair, and I’m quite glad to discover less-harsh hair products from Whole Foods to keep my natural texture alive. During my puberty years, I almost killed my hair: strong chemicals, hair straightening, etc. So now, I avoid all of those stuff!

    Anyways, I will refer to this article for any gals who are feeling down about what to do with their hairs.

  • April Marie July 22nd, 2013 6:20 PM

    May I start by saying a have coarse 4c hair. This really has changed my mind about relaxing my hair. I’m fourteen, and I remember being frustrated with my natural hair since I was about eleven when I would see all the things my friends could do with their hair and I was stuck to corn rows and puff puffs (as my mother called them). A few years ago my mother tried to give me a relaxer, but I left me with even drier coarser hair.
    I started doing my own hair around sixth grade. It was mostly two strand twist in pig tails, then some braid outs in seventh grade. Recently I attempted to color my hair, which made it super dry and it broke a bit. Now I mostly wear extension twist since they are pretty easy to maintain. But my hair is constantly dry and it being to break a lot- and it isn’t growing.
    When my mother did my hair it was healthy, and moistened, and mostly there was little to no breakage or split ends.
    I’m not sure where my hair is going now, but it’s definitely going to be heading for the salon this month for a big chop, just simply a fresh start- that’s what it really deserves.

    Natural hair isn’t easy, but it is kinda cool. Mostly it’s versatile, and no natural hair is alike. All three of my sisters and I have completely different 4c hair textures. And we all rock totally different styles, which shows how much there is to do with natural hair. Hair color, twist and braid outs, afros, frohawks, under shaves, bantu knots, etc. The possibilities for natural healthy hair are virtually endless.