One weekend during middle school, I gathered myself together to “get my hair did.” This entailed me sitting on a chair between my mom and the TV, while she applied a “Dark and Lovely” relaxer in my hair. To those unfamiliar with a relaxer, it’s a creamy chemical hair product that breaks down the protein bonds in hair to get curls irreversibly bone-straight.
When done properly, one could go from zero to Beyoncé in about two hours. I did this process every six to eight weeks to my hair for almost 12 years.
The day went on as usual. I mixed the relaxer while my mom parted my hair and based my scalp with Vaseline. She would always comment on how thick and long my hair was, while I sat brimming with pride over how my fortune compared to other girls.
After mixing the formula together, I handed the stuff to my mom and she placed the relaxer to my hair. Three seconds hadn’t passed, and my scalp burned with the intensity of a thousand splendid suns.
I was used to the slight burn of a relaxer, but this was insanity. It actually felt like Satan and his friends were doing the Harlem Shake in my follicles, and I could not figure out what the heck was going on. Then, to my utter dismay, I remembered something sinful that I did before the relaxer went in: I scratched my scalp that morning.
The ramifications of scratching or combing your hair even hours before a relaxer is something I wouldn’t even wish on my worst enemy. Basically, when you scratch or comb your scalp before laying a – brace yourself – sodium hydroxide solution in it, you’re creating an open wound and applying a chemical with the strength of bleach on top. Yeah, let that sink in.
We generally let a relaxer cook my hair to straightness for about 20 minutes, but due to the forest fire occurring on my head, it only stayed for maybe a minute and a half. I lost a lot of hair that day and most of what was left was not silky, straight or fabulous. I scoffed at the stubborn curls that clung to my head. Didn’t they know I had people to impress? How dare my relaxer not fulfill its purpose – I mean, what was I supposed to do, have natural hair?
What the heck was really supposed to go on here?
When the catastrophe was over, I became intrigued with my curls. I knew curly hair existed, but I never really thought that I had it – and I know that seems crazy, considering I’m of West African descent, but I have always had chemically straightened hair.
I also grew up in a town where most girls who looked like me were rocking the same straightened look. The girls who had loose, wavy curls – aka good hair – were usually of mixed race or Latina, so I just assumed it was indigenous to ethnicity. The majority of my classmates and close friends were white and didn’t talk about any hair issues that I understood.
Our products and regimens were different, yet my hair was straight like theirs. So what gives? How come I couldn’t wash my hair every morning and come into class with air-dried, straight ends? Why didn’t my mom buy me the fruity smelling Herbal Essences shampoo that came in pretty-colored bottles? Why couldn’t I smoothly run my fingers through my hair three months post-relaxer? I’ve always felt different; but with my hair, I didn’t really understand the reasons why.
What does my hair say about me? Who am I according my hair? What am I trying to accomplish with a chemical straightener?
I still wasn’t sure. After all, someone else was always in charge of my hair, so I just figured what I endured was normal. Even after the “Scalp Fire Incident of 2004,” I still continued to get my hair relaxed.
Listen, the creamy crack is a tough addiction to give up, especially if you don’t know what’s going to come out of your head when you stop straightening your hair for real.
Hint: It’s an Afro.
I did, however, try to understand why I, along with my mom, sister, aunts, friends and women throughout the world endured the stresses for “perfect” tresses. Relaxing is a risky business. It’s almost as if one is setting out to request painful burns and scarring on their head. Many cases of alopecia have been reported due to the effects of chemical straighteners, which defeats the purpose of them, right?
I made a promise to myself that I would leave for college and never relax again. I had my last relaxer in July 2007. It was going to be the start of something new. I wanted to feel empowered by my choice to keep my hair uniquely mine. A hair transformation would be the first step on the journey to self-discovery.
Of course, the shocking thing about hair is that it does not make the person. I felt a bit unusual and insecure at first, but then I wore my new and growing Afro out and proud toward the end of my freshman year in college. However, I still spoke to the same friends and still couldn’t speak to boys – oops, still don’t have that skill.
I did my assignments and became involved on campus, but none of that had to do with my Afro. Sure, I loved being called Lauryn Hill and didn’t really mind when everyone and their mother “just had to” touch my hair, but honestly, I was still a little lost. I was still searching. In fact, I still am.
I guess I’m not supposed to have myself figured out now. My hair isn’t a political statement, a fashion trend, a phase or a beacon to my black womanhood. It’s just my hair. I braid, twist, flat iron, wash, co-wash, deep condition and love it unconditionally. I’m learning that if I stay true to myself, my style will radiate and somehow things will fall into place.
I believe in that, you know. Things will fall into place one curly strand at a time.
Brianna Warne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.