I got my first perm in fifth grade. Up until then, I wore my hair in giant ponytails all over my head. My hair was really thick and curly. When it was wet it would slide down my back in waves and spirals, but when it dried, I became a dandelion with hair surrounding my head like a bushy halo. To top it off, I was tender headed, so sitting between my mother’s legs as she negotiated kinks and curls into bound twisted, polite ponytails was torturous to me. Trying to press it with a hot comb wasn’t any easier. The smell of burnt hair and the tinge of eartips wasn’t a step up in my book. When I came of age relaxing my hair was a relief to my single mother who was happy to turn hair care over to me instead of wrestling with hot combs and blow dryers and brushes weekly.
I was always complimented on my relaxed hair. It was long, and wavy, and I spent many hours each week wrapping it, flat ironing it, and bumping it to perfection. Though I still spent many days in ponytails because I played basketball, danced with the drill team, and led a pretty active outdoor life. Sweat and humidity were my enemy. Like many other women with relaxers, the weather would make or break a hair day. Living in Atlanta, a city known for its humidity, having straight hair was a lot of work, but growing up, I saw no alternatives that were “suitable” for my family. My grandmother prided herself on her hair that she could practically sit on as a young girl. Braids and natural styles were not at all appealing to her. Long straight hair was the order of the day.
Once I moved to New York City, I longed to go natural, but I was afraid of the unknown. There were so many beautiful afros, twist outs, braids, coils, and locks everywhere I looked. From my point of view, women of color who lived in NYC were more concerned with being healthy emotionally, spiritually, and physically more than they were being obsessed with straightening their hair.
Even with that inspiration all around me, I didn’t decide to let go of chemically processed hair until a male friend asked me why I permed my hair. We were walking around Brooklyn and when he asked me, the only answer I could come up with was “I’ve just always had one; it’s the southern way”. “You should let your hair grow out naturally, it would be really beautiful” he encouraged. I stopped using a relaxer and never looked back. That was 2007. I still rock a strong ponytail on extra humid days, but I don’t obsess over my hair any more. My grandmother still frowns when she sees me in what she calls “the pick a ninny look”, and I don’t always get the most appreciative looks from strangers when I rock my natural hair in Atlanta, but it doesn’t matter to me. I love my natural hair in all of it’s curly kinky glory.
Relieving myself from hair pressure has made me a better artist and professional. I am much more in tune with myself and spend less time, money, and energy on my hair. I am free to focus more on my work and other things that matter in my life.