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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ♦