Sunday, December 12, 2010

Some Hair-Raising Words

Yesterday, I had a great conversation with a girlfriend. We discussed self-esteem on a multitude of levels, and one of the topics that came up was sisters rocking short hair-dos, and how much self-esteem that actually takes. Later, I remembered some material that I had written on the subject years ago that had been collecting dust in my notebooks, and thought they would be perfect to use here today. One is an article that I wrote about my own experience with first cutting my hair short, and then finally going natural. The second piece is an excerpt from what was supposed to be a short guide I was gonna write about the process of going natural. But, me being me, I started it, then got hung up on writing projects that were clearly more of a priority for me; but I knew one day I'd get back to it. I always do. So, what I've done is a part one, part two, with both pieces of writing, since they're each pretty short. I hope women and men are able to garner something positive from this. I'd love to hear your comments/thoughts and ideas. This first selection, which I have tweaked slightly today, was written in 2003; the second was written maybe a couple of years later.

PART ONE—HAIRitage: Killing My Dependency ... Naturally

I remember when my chemical dependency first began. It was 1985. A mandatory high school aquatics class changed my life; and in a flash I went from a wash, press, and curl to a [chemical] relaxer. [Had I not done so, dealing with my wet hair in its natural state, in the short span of time between classes, would have made it impossible for me to get to my next class on time.] In the end, what started out being a temporary solution to a short-term problem became a full-fledged addiction. It was such a treat being able to comb through my hair without yelping out in pain when it was wet. No more hot combs, sitting in a sauna-like kitchen getting my ears, neck, forehead, and temples scorched just to combat my "naps." Gone were the days of a little mist in the air killing off my precious hairstyle. And boy, was it great being able to run my fingers through my hair! Needless to say, I continued getting my hair relaxed long after aquatics ended. The perks were great, and I felt free and liberated.

Fast-forward roughly fourteen years. After experimenting with a plethora of hairstyles, and making more trips to the salon than I will ever be able to count, I began to grow weary of the whole "relaxing" scene. While having straight hair did have its pros, there were some definite cons to take into consideration: spending a large chunk of money every two months on new-growth touch-ups; not being allowed to scratch my head for at least twenty-four hours prior to an appointment [scratching opens the pores and sometimes causes small lesions, which gives way to excessive burning when the chemicals are applied]; the hours of manual labor I had to put in to keep my hair looking good between appointments; painful chemical burns on my scalp, whether I scratched or not, which turned into hideous scabs plastered to my head, with small chunks of my hair matted together underneath them. But most of all, I was fed up with relying on a skilled beautician to keep my hair intact, and on her schedule, no less. I longed for something better and much healthier for myself, but I knew that whatever I chose to do would require an immense amount of confidence on my part.

November 4, 1999, the day I finally broke free from the shackles of the salon. After six months of heavy deliberation and an abundance of research, I made the great leap from long and straight to short, curly, and texturized. Although there were still chemicals involved (this process merely opens up your natural curl pattern and gives the hair a softer feel), they were lighter and considered safer than a relaxer; the solution is left in for less than ten minutes. A whole new world opened up for me. This was a simple, low-maintenance hairstyle that I could finally manage myself. I even learned how to cut it with a pair of electric clippers and a guard, which magnified my feeling of accomplishment. I felt I had struck gold in the world of hairdos.

About three years into my new-found freedom, a growing curiosity overtook me. I started wondering what my hair would look like without the texturizer. Even though I loved my hair, I had once again reached a point where I felt enslaved by chemicals. I began to question just how free and liberated I really was. I was seeing sisters wearing their hair natural, from Afro puffs, to locks, waves, and twists (short and long). These women were confident in their beauty and proud of their heritage; they were not caught up in the "straight-is-great" hype, or the need to alter their hair with harmful chemicals. I envied their true freedom, and I questioned: could I ever be bold enough to embrace my own natural beauty?

It took me nearly a year of preparation and soul searching, but I'm happy to say that June 22, 2003 was the day I escaped from the world of chemicals (and also cut my hair even shorter than before, down to less than half an inch). Each day, I have grown more and more fond of my natural curls, and now I am truly free!

For my sisters who are still keeping those appointments at the shop, getting "fried, dyed, and laid to the side," or even weaved, I hope to see you all one day sporting the natural look of your choice, and basking in the wonder of your hair's unique beauty, and above all, your own!

PART TWO—Going Natural ... Comfortably (Excerpt)

I cannot tell you how many sisters I've encountered who have expressed their frustration with their hair. They want to break free of the shackles of chemicals and weaves, but they either don't know what else to do with their hair, or they're afraid to do what they really want: go natural. They see my hair, compliment me on it, and then tell me they wish they could "do that." I confidently assure them that they definitely can; I even give them my famous girl-go-'head-and-cut-your-hair pep talk. And then, they give me a laundry list of reasons why they really can't.

Let's face it: we're vastly different. I'm speaking only of my African sisters right now, to make my point. With our myriad genetic backgrounds, it goes without saying that our hair also comes in a multitude of textures, thickness, and lengths. I will admit that prior to cutting my hair, and then getting comfortable with it in its natural state, I spent a considerable amount of time eyeing other sisters' hair, wishing I had some of what they had. Be it their soft, silky texture, their endless length, or their bouncin'-and-behavin' curls, it seemed as if every sister out there had something better than I did. For years, I compared my hair to that of countless women, and what I finally discovered is that it's not worth it, nor is it healthy. Period.

For those of you out there who indulge in the world of chemicals, weaves, or even still undergo the dreaded hot comb, but long to make the drastic switch to the natural look, you must understand that it is a decision that should not be made without a considerable amount of thought, first. The reason I say that is, it's no secret that a woman's hair is her staple. When we aren't comfortable with the way our hair looks, it can greatly affect our mood, and many times the way we feel about ourselves that day. That said, I urge you to make sure you're really ready for the change when you do it. It can be a huge shock emotionally; and if, for some reason, you (or even your friends and loved ones, especially your man) don't like the outcome, you're liable to plummet deep into the throes of depression. Trust me, I've seen it happen. If you're one who feels that you only look good with, say, bone-straight hair, I would suggest a course in what I call Self-Esteem 101, taught by, none other than, yourself. Losing the straight look (or whatever look you rock that's not natural), means you're comfortable with who you are and your overall appearance. It means that you're proud of your heritage and can embrace it without feeling like less of a woman just because your hair doesn't cascade down the middle of your back, light as a feather, and blow in the wind. If you're having trouble getting in touch with the part of yourself that knows you're beautiful just the way you are, you're not alone. For many, it takes time and self-nurturing. Sometimes, it's an ongoing process.

You see, it's not your fault that you may think your natural hair is unattractive, so don't beat yourself up for not having the guts to just go for it when considering that short crop, or even those sisterlocks or dreads. [European] society at large has led us to believe that our hair needs help or fixing. Just look at all the hair-product commercials on TV. 99 percent of them feature a long-haired Caucasian woman who ensures us that "she's worth it." In the few that do showcase a sister, they have her swinging long, straight hair across the screen. Pay close attention to the ads in top African-American-based magazines. Nearly half of the ads are for some type of chemical product used to transform our hair from unruly to manageable. I've heard a lot of stories from men and women about how they haven't gotten certain jobs because they were asked to change their Afrocentric hair, and they refused. Then, there are the dreaded music videos. In the majority of them where sisters are involved, they have long, flowing hair. If, by chance, a sister with short hair is given a part, hers is usually bone straight with not a hair out of place. I've only witnessed a few artists who are clearly pro-heritage, so to speak, who have sisters with natural dos in their videos. This saddens me. And finally, we have our men. Many, many brothers I've talked to have made it clear that they prefer women with long hair, straight or not; some don't even care if they're wearing a weave, so long as it's, well, long. I've heard everything from "It just looks better" to "It feels good to the touch" to "Women with long hair are just prettier and sexier" to "I like my woman to have long hair so I can run my fingers through it and pull it during sex" (yep, that one too!) to "Women shouldn't have short hair like men" to "Natural hair on a woman isn't feminine enough." All of that just makes my stomach turn. Seriously.

What are your memories as a child of someone telling you that your natural hair was beautiful? Maybe some of you have those fond memories, but sadly, many of us don't. What I do remember is many tearful mornings where my mother struggled to comb through my hair in order to get it into ponytails. I remember dreading getting my hair washed because I knew the aftermath would be unbearable. Back then, products like leave-in conditioner didn't exist. There was no great way to soften the hair before attempting to comb through the shriveled and tangled locks. The frustration both my mother and I would feel while she tried to manage my wet hair was indescribable. With moments such as these, and with no one to reassure us that our hair really was beautiful the way it was, it's no wonder that, over time, we came to resent our hair, and developed the overwhelming desire to turn our backs on what is actually a gorgeous and unrivaled treasure.

*To be continued...

A little footnote: I am in no way suggesting that every sister should go natural. Natural may not be for everyone. My views on the subject are just that: mine. I respect everyone else's as well.