I never got into weaves, but I was very excited to get my first hair relaxer at age 10. My mom has said she will never forget the image of me standing in front of the mirror after that first appointment, shaking my straightened hair back and forth. I started going to the hair salon every two weeks for washing, conditioning, and styling. As a private-school girl until college—with just a few, if any, black peers—relaxing my hair was the first time I could connect with my classmates on the basic level of physical appearance. We may not have had the same skin color, but now we could wear the same hairstyles.
Little did I know that I was trading in my mom’s painful combing sessions for thin hair and the occasional open sore on my scalp. My relaxers did not have the lye concentration of past products, but even “no-lye” treatments can cause long-lasting effects. Chemicals in relaxers have been linked to problems with hair loss, cancer, and reproductive health (such as miscarriages and infant underdevelopment). Every eight weeks my relaxer needed to be refreshed. My stylist would divide my hair into sections, apply the cream to the base of each area, and let me sit so the product could work its magic. For the most part, the discomfort of the chemicals was manageable. But some days I committed the cardinal sin of relaxers—scratching my head before my appointment—and the burning would be excruciating. I would squirm in my seat and tears would fall, but at the end I emerged with the sleek look I loved.
Eventually, however, I grew tired of my sore scalp and my noticeably thinning hair. I needed something different. My mom transitioned to “locs” around the same time I started relaxing my hair. She was tired of using extensions that caused hair breakage, and decided to cut off her chemically processed hair and start fresh. Over the years, she encouraged me not to use relaxers, but I didn’t think the natural look worked for me. My real awakening came at age 19 during my sophomore year of college, when I started to see more women my age wearing afros, braids, and other natural styles. In the late 2000s, many black women became more vocal about forgoing harsh chemical straighteners and expensive weaves, and sporting their natural curls. Women started blogs and YouTube channels dedicated to showing others how to care for and style natural hair. Products for maintaining healthy curls also became more available. I was overwhelmed by the possibility of a different look and the amount of upkeep involved in maintaining natural hair, but my mother and these women inspired me to stop the chemicals.
Today my hair alternates between an afro and a two-strand twist (which is similar to a braid, but uses two pieces of hair instead of three). My hair now is fuller, healthier, and much longer than it ever was relaxed. I don’t think about going back to my old look, but my transition to natural hair was not easy. My afro, for example, tangles easily and requires a nightly ritual of combing and braiding that takes about an hour longer than my nightly routine with relaxed hair. I have also felt a social shift with my natural hairstyle. I have gone on dates with men who told me they weren’t “into” the natural look. White people have questioned the cleanliness of my hair. And not a week goes by that I don’t wonder how my hair will be perceived in the office or during a job interview. In spite of this, I feel connected to my black roots in a different way than I did growing up. The world around me still overwhelmingly values white features but I have changed how I see myself.