Like many women, I have had a long journey when it comes to my hair, even though I’m only 22. My mom has loose, curly hair. She would look at my dry coils and often wonder aloud, “Why couldn’t you just take after me?”
Some time around middle school, I got my first relaxer. My hair’s health went up and down, but mostly down since it was put under so much stress from the chemicals. Having hair that kept breaking off was heart-breaking, but I didn’t really know anything different.
One thing I did want for a long time was to color my hair.
“You can’t do that. You’re black,” my mom would say.
The summer before freshman year of college, I decided to defy her. I was about to move out and become my own woman. I made my own spending money and if I wanted to spend it on hair dye then that’s what I was going to do!
I went to a drugstore and picked up some red dye and asked my best friend to apply it for me. After leaving in the solution and rinsing out my hair, it looked…exactly the same. It wasn’t until I stepped out into the sunlight that I saw a small reddish tint to my dark hair. Not exactly what I was going for.
I decided to go and get it professionally done to get real results. The color wasn’t even, due to the uneven application of the box dye before, but I was happy and couldn’t stop taking selfies. I was so proud that I was able take control of my body in a way that I was previously not allowed to do.
Me with my dyed, red hair.
Fast forward to a month later, when it was time to get another relaxer to straighten out my kinky roots. Some of you might be a bit nervous now, which you should be. I asked the hairdresser, Sadie* if it would be fine to get a relaxer so soon after getting my hair colored. She said yes, so I went to my appointment.
At first, the appointment was like any other hair appointment. I was in the chair watching some daytime television as Sadie slathered the white smelly chemical on the roots and scalp of my hair. She tried to go quickly throughout my head before the chemicals started to burn. After she was done, she had me move to a chair in front of the sink, but I had to leave the chemicals in to do their dirty work. She then wandered off to do something else.
The waiting game for a relaxer is a tough one. Even though the chemicals burn and are eating away at you, you must wait it out to get real results. It’s possible that I wasn’t waiting any longer than at any other appointment, but I remember this time feeling like the longest I’ve ever gone before rinsing. The pain was so strong that I was crying.
Speak up! You must be thinking. Well once you’ve been trained over the years that pain comes with eventually having acceptably straight hair, you can’t speak up. When I complained at one of my very first relaxer appointments, my mother told me to “just wait a little bit longer.”
Finally, Sadie came back over and told me it was time to rinse. The torture was over! I was relieved, until she abruptly stopped rinsing me and left. She came back with Angela*, another hairdresser who had done my hair before. It was Angela who told me that putting relaxer on top of the hair dye had actually made my hair fall out. Sadie was standing next to her with tears in her eyes. Angela grabbed a hand mirror to show me the damage.
Once again, I started crying. My hairline seemed to have crawled back a few inches. The hair that used to be there had completely burned away. The hair that was still on the back of my head was thin and looked like it was hanging on for dear life. I resembled a sick elderly person, not a teenager about to head off to college.
Since my own hair was destroyed, Sadie and Angela decided to make me a wig. They put some type of Saran Wrap down first, then attached tracks to it. After a few hours, I had medium length, straight dark brown hair. Of course they didn’t charge me for the wig or the follow-up appointments we scheduled.
I spent the rest of the summer and a few weeks of college in my new wig. When my hair started growing back in, Angela cut off the thin remnants of my relaxed hair, getting out the clippers that I’d only previously seen used on men for fades and buzz cuts. My old hair was officially gone.
The second wig
I didn’t have much time to really take in my natural hair before I put on a new wig. This one was short, a shade of lighter brown, and had an asymmetrical cut.
After a week or so back at school, I started to get tired of wearing the wig. Part of it was due to an embarrassing moment with a guy where I had to rearrange my wig in the dark and put it on completely sideways. Then it was the fact that my scalp felt completely smothered by the plastic wrap.
“Just take it off,” said my friend Morgan* after I complained about my suffocating scalp.
I did, and when she looked at me and encouraged me to keep going without it, my whole life changed.
My first picture with natural hair
I started looking up YouTube videos on how to take care of my natural hair. Some guys stopped approaching me, but I didn’t let it sway me. The women on my computer who had long beautiful afros were my focus. I began to reprogram myself from the years of brainwashing that nappy hair was bad, that black girls can’t have naturally long hair, and that I had to live in fear of water and sweat. It was amazing.
About five years later, I’m still happily natural. I have been told by many other black women that I inspired them to go natural with my photo journal of my first two years of going natural on Facebook. My hair is much healthier, and I’m happier. I have no desire to go back to relaxers.
This whole journey began with me dyeing my hair in order to take charge of my body. Even though dyeing it didn’t turn out so well, I was able to accomplish this mission through going natural. And it never would have happened without the world’s worst salon visit.
*Names have been changed.