Don’t Touch My Hair

woman sitting on colorful staircase

This is a story about love. It’s about how it starts and the endless paths it can create. Let’s begin by how it found me.

Like most black girls growing up, I had my hair chemically straightened. It was dark, thick, and coarse with curls coiling around my ears and down my forehead — and it was too much for my mother to handle every day. After school one afternoon, when I was in the fifth grade going on sixth, my mother took me to the salon to straighten my hair.

I sat in the hair dresser’s chair in my school uniform, shoes dangling above the tile floor. I had my hands clasped together as I waited for my bouncy curls to be transformed into straight strands. I looked over my shoulder and saw the creamy product being stirred in a black bowl. It was white and smelled toxic. The process started with the hair dresser parting my hair into sections. She combed through it, using an applicator brush tool to apply the cream onto my roots. She pulled my hair and told me to sit still, but I couldn’t. I squirmed. Next we waited for the chemicals to take effect. The minutes ticked by; it was always eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve minutes, while an uncomfortable itch took over my scalp. After awhile, it became unbearable. I said, “It feels like it’s starting to burn, could you wash it off now?”

Little girls weren’t meant to go through that type of unnecessary torment. I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to be outside running around and playing tag. But there I was sitting in that chair, enduring the itch, and listening to the people around me say that “beauty is pain”.

As the cream was rinsed away, it felt like a blaze was finally being put out. I sat back in my chair staring at the person in the mirror. Her hair was no longer a jungle of black curls surrounded by frizz. What once was an afro high above her neck was now straight, silky, shiny hair falling down to her shoulders. The girl in the mirror was me, but a different version. She was someone I had never met before. After that, my hair was relaxed regularly for the next five years.

I went through a series of highs and lows with my hair during these years. I’ll admit that it was easy for me to fall in love with having straight hair, but living in that fantasy didn’t last long. As time passed I noticed my hair wasn’t as long as when I first started relaxing it. Sure having my hair relaxed made it straight and easy to deal with, but there’s a down side. The process made my hair fragile and susceptible to breakage. Not to mention the temporary burns that appeared periodically on my scalp and on the nape of my neck. Also, the process isn’t healthy.

Yet, women and young girls continue to relax their hair. Their reasons vary. It’s possible they can’t deal with styling their natural hair, they prefer straight hair, or they want to present themselves in a certain way for work or school.

Hair stylists called the relaxer “creamy crack” because it seemed like it was a drug that the hair would always need. I grew tired of going back to the hair salon every time there was even a little bit of growth that revealed my curly roots. My decision to stop relaxing my hair received mixed reactions. Some said, “I think you can rock it!” Others warned, “Your natural hair just won’t look good on you. You look great with straight hair.” Nevertheless, I stayed strong, researched how to go back to natural, and worked on learning to love myself

In May 2016, I was finishing off my senior year of high school. After much internal struggle, I felt ready to stop straightening my hair, and learned to accept it instead, loving it for its own natural self. Sometimes it felt like going natural was a lost cause. That’s when I found solace in the voices of numerous YouTube vloggers who had already been through what I was going through. I was inspired by artists like Willow, Solange, and Viola Davis who chose to style their hair naturally.

I waited nine months for my natural hair to grow out. The next time I walked into the hair salon I wasn’t asking for the usual. This time I sat in the chair and said “cut it off.” Gloria, my hair lady, looked at me and replied, “How much?” I wanted every straight stand trimmed away.

Once again, I could see that 12-year-old girl in the mirror. I felt like I was no longer looking at a stranger. I instantly knew that this girl was the real me.