A Hair Journey

by Ekua on July 21, 2010 in Brazil,etcetera,female travel,race/culture/identity

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.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Lola July 22, 2010 at 11:05 am

Loved this post Ekua!

I too have a natural ‘fro, though I wear it under braids for manageability.

Stopped relaxing it years ago because the chemical process just didn’t feel natural.

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Mary R July 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Love this one, Ekua. Self-acceptance, giving up external pressure to groom a certain way, and moving on…

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Lauren Quinn July 23, 2010 at 10:05 am

This is a fucking great post. You should polish it up and send it to a women’s magazine. Really.

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Ekua July 23, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Thanks for the lovely feedback! Writing this post was definitely cathartic. Lauren, I would love to submit it to a women’s mag, just gotta figure out the best publication. Any suggestions? Thought about some black women’s magazines, but it would also be cool to present it to a broader audience.

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mecha July 24, 2010 at 4:47 am

beautifully written! thanks for posting.

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Conner July 26, 2010 at 7:52 am

I love this post Ekua! Like many pigment-challenged people (although I do have quite the epidemic of freckles), I had no idea about the size, tenor and chemical-based nature of the african american hair care industry until I saw Good Hair. Like other great docs, I learned a lot and it got me thinking

And it got me looking around my home, here in Havana, at all the beautiful women of color and what they are doing to their hair (cuba is, according to the census, something like 60% mulatto/black). Im a natural freak, so the chemicals really have me concerned. and on kids too. yikes. And then I look at some of the most powerful, beautiful women I know here: dancers, health administrators, professors and I see their beautiful, natural, unrelaxed hair and I think: “you go girl!”

And to you I say: you go girl! You’re beautiful, naturally.

PS: “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” – couldn’t agree more, especially as your/my 40th bday approaches. see my post on hair disaster in cuba: [http://hereishavana.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/the-virtues-of-a-5-haircut/]

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Ekua July 27, 2010 at 3:21 pm

I have yet to see Good Hair, thanks for reminding me of it! I know there are plenty of other “pigment-challenged” types out there who have no idea that when black women have straight hair, it’s almost always processed or a weave. Hence the annoying questions I sometimes get. As much as hair questions annoy me, I don’t fault people for not knowing, it (unfortunately) just shows how toxic and widespread the ideas and products of the relaxer industry are.

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Ms Beauty Soul July 29, 2010 at 2:23 am

I think it is a bold step to take in a world where very often a black woman’s crown is seen as a sign of rebellion or something out of the ordinary. It is a sorry state of affairs when something so natural and what should be “normal” is looked at with great wonder and awe.

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Ekua July 29, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Yes, great point- It is pretty absurd that what grows out of people’s heads naturally can be such a big deal.

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Marsha August 28, 2010 at 3:13 am

Love this post and ditto. My hair is like yours. And my hair is like me: kinky, original, and unique. No one is going to take that away from me. I have embraced my own standard for beauty and it’s me, comfortable with my hair the way nature intended for it to be. It’s me, comfortable with myself.

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kay* December 12, 2010 at 11:23 am

hi ekua!

thank you for your recent comments on my blog and for specifically linking to this post in response to my ‘hair story part 1’ blog post which i start to discuss ideas of what i plan on doing with my hair when i move to india in march.

first, i’m glad that you have come to accept and appreciate your hair in its natural state. for many women of colour, choosing to embrace their natural hair is not a decision made on a whim – instead it’s often a decision a long time in the making and a hard one to make at that. natural hair is beautiful hair and it makes me happy to see black women finally accepting this…

on the other hand, i guess what i didn’t make too clear in my post is that i actually just did the reverse…meaning i had been wearing my hair natural for over 11 years. far before it became…..for lack of better words…the ‘movement’ that it is now. long before there were forums and blogs and so many resources on going natural – when i was 18 i made the decision to go natural. the only people i can think of who had natural hair at the time were Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. That’s it. I taught myself to care for my hair and wore it natural for 11 years. Then this summer I wanted a change. I wanted to do something different. So I relaxed it and cut it short (like Rihanna in the ‘take a bow’ video). I loved it. I do love it. However, what I don’t like is the feeling that I now get from “naturals” who somehow try and make it seem that because I wear my hair relaxed I’m not a ‘proud black women’ or am not happy with what comes out of my scalp nautrally…or worse, that i’m uncomfortable with who i am and am therefore trying to “conform to the western (read white) standard of beatuy.” nothing could be further from the truth. for me, the simple fact is that i wanted a change. i have no problems wearing my hair either way. relaxed and straight or kinky curly and big (i ADORE big hair). i love my hair both ways…..clearly, this is a topic that i could go on and on about having been on both sides during adulthood but i wont because this is probably so long already!

i’m still trying to decide what i’ll do to my hair when i go abroad for the year. i do think that being natural might make it easier…but then again sometimes i think being relaxed will make it easier lol. perhaps i’ll just wear extensions/braids/twists or something lolol.

(oh and i just want to say i don’t mean to imply that you are (or your post is) making me feel “bad” for relaxing my hair…it’s just a general kinda vibe that the natural online community is giving off right now…NOT you!)

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Ekua December 12, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I think it’s great that you took the initiative to go natural in your younger years and it sucks that people might judge you without knowing your history.

In my experience, I never received any criticism on my hair from the black community when it was relaxed, but since I’ve gone natural, I have received a lot of negative questions and comments from black people… and sometimes non-black people who don’t always express their thoughts as openly.

For me, going natural had nothing to do with joining a movement and I never felt pressure to do it. As I hint at in the post, it was more the opposite. I did it as a result of a growing dissatisfaction with relaxing my hair. The burning sensation, the discovery of a small burn spot, the amount of time it took to style, the chemicals (In addition to not relaxing my hair, I’ve been going more natural with my toiletries, beauty products and food as well) were all factors. Another factor was looking at my own views about hair and black hair history and thinking about relaxing hair in a larger context.

I think receiving negative feedback for wearing my hair naturally is absurd, even more so than if I were to receive negative feedback for wearing my hair in an altered state. Of course, either way, the judgment is not okay, but one side does have more of a point.

Because if we all look beyond our personal experiences, when it comes to a larger mentality about black hair, there is a long, long way to go.

That being said, it is totally understandable to want to play around with your hair. I can see why after 11 years you’d want to mix things up. I’m definitely at the point where I want to explore other options for my hair (aside from relaxing it, that is). Women of all races alter their hair by straightening it, curling it, dyeing it or whatever. And of course there are non-black women, who like many black women, want their hair to live up to what society or the media considers beautiful and go to great lengths to alter their hair. I once saw a travel forum where a woman was freaking about foreign plugs and hair straighteners when traveling in SE Asia because she couldn’t bear the thought of wearing her hair curly. To me, it was absurd on so many levels: the attachment to the idea of how her hair needed to look, the extra time she was putting into the matter, and the futility of it all once her hair reacted to the SE Asia humidity.

When I posted the comment on your post, I didn’t know that you’ve worn your hair naturally before, but my reasoning behind it was that out of braids, relaxed hair or natural hair, natural has been the easiest for travel, especially when I’m gone for a long period of time. Braids can work, but finding a stylist abroad when needed is not always easy.

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Silvia Beatriz March 8, 2011 at 2:28 am

Hi Ekua!

I am so pleased to read your article not only because I have curls, but also because I have just written an article telling for the first time that I thought about cutting my cousin’s straight long hair when I was about 7 years old.

By the way, I am Brazilian and it was nice to hear about your experience there.

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Ekua March 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Hi Silvia – Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. People often brush topics like this aside, but I think it’s a pretty important issue when it comes to the health of female’s self esteem.

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