On April 1, 2012, I “went natural” and cut all my hair off.
There was no catalyst to this event, it just happened. The decision was my own; I did not take an informal poll among my girlfriends. I conspired like a Black Ops agent with the only stylist I knew who wouldn’t talk me out of it.
For years, I flirted with the idea of a drastic haircut, but until then, had only snipped a few inches off the bottom. That day my hair was cut, I left the salon in freezing rain, which heightened my awareness of what I’d done. I called my mom, whose Spidey senses tingled.
“You cut your hair?” she said in suspense.
“Yes,” I said, trying to sound casual and adult about it.
“Show me,” she said, with fear in her voice. I sent her a picture of my new look in an e-mail and hurried off the phone to leave her to panic with my dad about it. Next, I shared the same photo with my boyfriend via text message. He thought I was playing an April Fool’s Day joke on him.
“Seriously,” I said.
His response time stalled while he made sense of it. I sat in my apartment on the sofa waiting for someone to say something reassuring. The air grew full with the awkward silence associated with suspended disbelief and fleeting pangs of regret.
Since my haircut, I have done my best not to consider cutting my hair a “journey” of any sort. I don’t want to exoticize something as simple as a haircut just because I have nappy hair –- and yes, it is nappy and happily so.
Still, I’ve tried in earnest not to sentimentalize all the trappings of hair and femininity and what it means for me, a girl with Crayola Brown skin and a button nose, to cut her hair. But despite everything I’m supposed to tell you as “a natural” about how confident I feel about my natural hair and how better I am for it, I am also keenly aware that I’m the only one in my family full of women who wears her hair this way.
“What are you going to do with it?” they asked quizzically about the fro that replaced the staple wash, blowdry and curl.
“You used to have long hair,” said my 8-year-old niece.
Growing up, I knew that every other Saturday morning at 8 a.m., I would be in a salon. And there Mom and I would sit for upwards of three long hours, until we would, as mom would say, “looked like civilized human beings.” In jest of course, but the message was consistent, Biblical, even: “a crown of glory.”
For the record, we don’t go to church.
The salon was sanctuary; hair care, a ritual of the faithful. Straightened hair was transformative, a special occasion practice reserved for sanctimonious occasions: Christmas, Easter and Picture Day. A drawn out process, my hair got straightened for posterity’s sake and times where I needed to be presentable. It happened infrequently, and for that reason, it was awesome and special.
When I was still a little girl and not yet a young lady, Mom would plait my hair in individual braids all over. She’d leave them in for two weeks so that I could “rip and roar and race up and down the block” (her words) in the summer.
This disturbed my great aunt Naomi who was the type of colorstruck rust-colored woman who told other black people that they shouldn’t be out in the sun for extended periods of time; she would make my mother and her siblings walk with umbrellas when they stayed with her during the sticky D.C. summers, and she would often insist that I sit with her, bored to tears, on the front porch “in the shade.”
“Janet,” she’d said to my mother once with a look of disapproval muddled with disappointment. “Why do you put Maya’s hair in those African braid things? She’s got beautiful hair.”
I’ve come to believe that The First Relaxer is an unspoken rite of passage in a black girl’s life. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what they were or what they did; I just knew I wanted one because Mom got them and so did all the other ladies who came to the salon when we were there.
They emerged from the sink bowl with sleek hair that made them feel renewed. Better, even. They came in demanding it with urgency, seemingly in agony if they were overdue. It all seemed very important.
I felt like an adult in seventh grade when I first started relaxing my hair, a practice that would continue for the next 13 years in six-week intervals. Aunt Na was pleased, and even though I knew she was a relic of the past, it pleased me that she looked upon me favorably.
It was what she and the other elder women in my family expected me to look like –- the black sophisticate image they exude in the framed black-and-white photos that only tell partial truths. My parents looked on with pride and this beautiful, bountiful head of dark hair that was thick and luxurious in spite the chemical processing. The compliments came regularly, and I built my adolescent confidence on them.
“You have beautiful hair,” they all gushed as though it grew out of my head that way.
But it didn’t and it never will. The “Big Chop” was my second attempt to wear my hair naturally; the first time, I convinced myself that I looked ugly, dialed S.O.S. to my stylist and slapped the relaxer back in after six months without it. There’s a reason they call it “creamy crack.”
My straight hair had become a crutch and a way that I’d come to orient myself in the world. I couldn’t even remember what my hair looked like in its natural state. Realizing how ridiculous this was, I cut my hair spontaneously and without warning on April 1, 2012.
“Are you sure it’s going to grow back?” Dad asked with genuine concern that his daughter would go through life with a dirty tennis ball for a head.
Nine months later, my parents have finally latched on to the new look, though not without their caveats. Though they both wore an Afro at some point in their lives they remain very particular, nitpicking about “doing something to that head” to maintain the proper curl-to-nap ratio in my hair and how badly I need to make sure I’m wearing earrings now that my hair is short.
Each time I turn my key in the lock for a visit at home, I prepare myself for the arsenal of imprudent questions and unsolicited suggestions about how I choose to present myself to the world –- on a Saturday running errands, no less. I know that my experience is not unique, that in households all over the world, women are defending themselves against familial expectations of how thick or thin or married or single or employable or whatever other silly thing people use to assign value to themselves, they should be.
I, the girl whose hair once “bounced and behaved” past my shoulders as I made my way out of the salon every two weeks, am the same girl, only now with a spongy tuft of hair that twists and turns rebelliously atop my head. A silent insurgency against the way I’d come to know myself. For posterity’s sake.