This post is a month and a day late, something I intended to write on June 20th, but couldn’t because I was caught up in travel moments and in coming and going. June 20th is an anniversary that passes without fanfare, but holds much meaning for me internally and externally.
I can’t remember why I chose that day in 2007. The idea had been 9 months in the making and on that day, it must have felt right. Either that, or inspiration had come and I’d wanted to do it while I had the courage.
For some women, hair is something that is simply to be dealt with. For others, it is something that can be played with—chopped, dyed, maneuvered into a symbol of self-expression. But for most women I know, hair is a symbol of beauty. And for many black women who grow up feeling substandard next to an unattainable standard of Western beauty, hair is a huge albatross.
Written in every relaxed strand, in the glue and stitches of every weave, in the coils of every afro, in the braids of every extension, in the matting of every dreadlock of any black woman in America and many elsewhere is a story of a lack of self-acceptance… sometimes sustained, sometimes overcome, sometimes wavering between the two.
In September 2006, right before I left to volunteer in Brazil, I relaxed my hair for the last time. It was the usual—the tingle, then the burn, then the running into the shower to rinse my hair of the white cream that made my scalp feel like it was on fire.
I’d already known for over a year that I didn’t want to do it anymore. But that day, my heart and mind told me that really had to be the last time.
Brazil aided me in finalizing that decision. I was in Salvador da Bahia, a place where African origin is embraced. Where mothers fashion their daughters’ hair into elaborate arrangements of afro puffs. Where women’s afros bob as they bang drums to rhythms brought over by slaves hundreds of years ago. Where women with a darker skin tone than me lay out on the beach to get sun and get darker.
After experiencing Bahia, I knew that regardless of where I was, I would always know that places where African beauty is embraced do exist. That there were places where African appearance is not seen as something that needs to be lightened or straightened out. Getting to know one of these places helped me.
So in the wee hours of the morning on June 20, I brought the scissors up to my hair to disconnect the straightened strands from the small afro that had begun to sprout from my scalp. Aside from my earliest years when I was too young to remember, it was the first time I’d ever seen my hair in its natural state. Imagine that.
My relaxed strands were in the trash, but still, my ideas of beauty did not go with them. My tightly coiled nappy as can be hair was not the stuff afro dreams are made of. And my hair was shorter than it had ever been. I wondered if I looked like a boy. I didn’t want to leave the house.
I know this all may sound terribly vain and superficial, but there’s no denying that even when you try to deny the magnitude of outer appearance, it will creep up on you in one way or another. It can take years for a woman of any race to walk proudly with herself as she is knowing that she encompasses and defines her own beauty. Many never get there.
Now three years after the Big Chop, the tightly curled mass on my head has become normal to me. I have accepted it, but I have yet to fully own it. There are times when I don’t see the beauty in it in, especially when I am surrounded by long flowy hair that looks the length it is and has more options.
Wearing my hair this way means that I will be asked assumptive questions about why I don’t want long hair which will be followed by my wondering whether or not I should take the time to explain my hair story to someone who doesn’t fucking get it. It means that when I see articles for “great summer hairdos” and such, I know that they will be written without even a hint of consideration for my hair type. It means that when I see people in afro wigs, I wonder if I should take it personally that people think the style of hair I was born with is a funny costume.
But this is not a story about me hating my hair. There are days when I love that my hair grows in a circle, in the same shape of the flowers I often clip to it. I love the complexity of it and how a close examination of the twist and turns of each strand of my hair shows a bit of my personality. I love that it compliments and lets me fully display the crazy assortment of earrings I’ve picked up on my travels. I love that when I travel, people who have never seen hair like mine often show the most admiration, their minds open to different possibilities.
While I don’t always stand up strongly with my afro, I stick steadfastly to the idea that I will let my hair grow out of my scalp as it meant to and not rush to flatten it into submission. Something tells me that it will be this way until I’ve reached a point of full acceptance. And so the hair journey continues. But while the scale still wavers between self-acceptance gained and lost, three years later, the gains side is far ahead.