I couldn’t remember my natural hair texture because I’ve worn it relaxed since I was five years old.
My mom brought me on my first salon trip before my kindergarten picture day and she got a few years of choosing kid-appropriate styles for me before I wised up and demanded a say in the matter. I settled on bone straight and just a little bend on the ends. Hairdressers mocked my choice, saying I wanted to be like all my “white friends,” when really I had just realized that straight hair meant I spent thirty minutes under the dryer as opposed to two hours with rollers pinned to my head.
Every six weeks, my hair was relaxed, blow dried, and straightened with an iron for luck. I was in the tenth grade before I noticed that my hair was thinning out, and growing shorter on one side. This revelation coincided with a fit of teenage rebellion, so the problem was resolved by cutting six inches off my long, shiny hair, and adding light brown highlights and bangs.
When it started to look sickly again, I was in college: a first year attending football games in dresses and pearls, wearing her hair pinned so it fell down one shoulder to hide the unintentional asymmetry. Then, I became a second year plagued by a constant, downpour of negative energy, so much so that even my hair began to understand something was wrong. It began to fall out in clumps and nothing could save it but beanies and buns.
That was when I did something I’d been threatening to do for years.
I cut it all off.
I returned to school after spring break with my now happy, though still relaxed, hair cropped short in the back with a little fringe covering my forehead. It made me look professional and chic and artsy in a way that I’d always wanted. My hair began to match me as I transformed from a jeans-and-hoodie loving homebody to a two-job-juggling, comic-loving upperclassman that was becoming increasingly experimental in my everyday style. I traded my Chucks for boots, my hoodies for fitted sweaters and found that I actually enjoyed wearing the pencil skirts I originally bought for work.
The novelty eventually wore off and I began to miss my length, but I was also now looking more closely at the girls around me for inspiration. All during the second semester, I saw the same girl with silver box braids roaming Grounds, and every time, I immediately started to daydream about what I would look like with beautiful, waist length braids that I could style in buns or ponytails, intricate updos or just let cascade down my back.
But I knew I would have to covet the braids in secret. My mother had two hair rules: relaxer and no extensions. Of all the questions I know I asked in my youth, why was not one of them. She simply liked things the way she liked them, and when I could avoid an argument, I did. Hair, as I understood it, was meant to be worn long, relaxed, and its natural color, so I complied, not having known anything else. Even if my mother would have let me, it was unlikely I myself would have been interested in anything but the status quo. I had grown up relatively disinterested in how I looked; I was more interested in what was happening inside my head rather than on top of it and being unmoved by the siren song of popularity, I had relatively no motivation to and no desire to change how I looked.
That first haircut changed everything. For the first time, I saw my hair not as a cumbersome thing, to be relaxed and wrapped and shined, but as a representation of myself that I could show the world. So used to feeling nothing when I looked at myself after a salon visit, I became addicted to the confidence that surged through me each time I played with my short locks. I was eager to have that feeling again, ready to try my new experiment, but I first brought up the prospect, theoretically, to my mom and the response was expected and curt: “Why would you put weave in your hair?”
Luckily, fate saw fit to let me expand my life long hair experiment. I was to go abroad that summer. My mother considered; a relaxer wouldn’t last me the summer trip, I couldn’t yet be trusted not to botch my own hair, and there was always a chance I wouldn’t be able to find products in France if I somehow forgot something. As she fumed, I took the opportunity to mention that typically box braids last for 6-8 weeks with little maintenance, except oil on my roots and a quick wash once while I was there.
With little other appropriate alternative, I got my box braids. I forgot the hours of uncomfortable tugging at my head, my first unsuccessful attempts to shove all the new hair into my bonnet, the throb of my scalp as I tried to get comfortable for bed when I released the braids from their confinement and I admired myself in the mirror the next morning. The braids shined in the light and bounced lightly on my back as I walked. They were my dream come true: easy to manage, beautiful always, and versatile. I arrived to classes in Lyon some days with my braids in a ponytail, others in a bun and still others with them laying on my shoulder, taking me to a level of self-confidence I hadn’t yet known. When I returned Stateside, I lasted three weeks before I had to have them again, and I spent my last year of college reveling in theatre, comics, and my new look.
The next year found me a couple hundred miles away in grad school, still wearing braids with the occasional experimental protective style thrown in, just to keep things interesting. But now I had a new obsession: I needed to see what my natural hair looked like. I could feel it when I took my braids out, feeling smooth coils and coarser kinks that had grown over the course of eight weeks, then sixteen….I kept relaxing it out of habit between getting braids until one day I didn’t. I didn’t text my stylist. I went to CVS. I bought an armful of Shea Moisture products. I washed my hair. I carefully detangled it, going slow to make sure to not miss a single piece. My open laptop showed a video of a girl demonstrating how to do a flat twist. I sectioned and twisted. The next day, I unwound all of my hard work and found curls. Delighted and confident, I knew I could keep practicing, getting ready for the day when I could finally twist my natural hair.
It was then that I made a commitment to no more relaxers in between braids. I planned to transition for a year, then cut my relaxed hair off, which would leave me with a comfortable amount of new hair.
But life doesn’t always go as expected.
Life threw me a curveball: a bipolar II diagnosis.
It was two days before it finally started to sink in, before I understood that there was a reason I always felt out of control and unmanageable. Then, it wasn’t just me that felt unmanageable, but life felt out of control, and I needed to do something to get a grip on the reins again.
So, I cut my hair.
In a moment when weakness gripped me, and told me that I had been the problem all along, that I wasn’t adequate or loved, I needed to feel confident again. I was filled with the desire to claim ownership on my own life, my own body, again.
So, I cut my hair.
Every time I pass a mirror, I smile because it’s more beautiful than I imagined. It has perfect coils that spring up all over my head and soft fuzzy curls in the back. It’s coarse and kinky but when I run my fingers through it, I can feel is the smooth curves of my ‘s’ curls against my skin. Each time I see my coils, I remember that my diagnosis wasn’t the end of anything. It was the beginning of a new normal. The timing is never what you want and sometimes the unexplored seems scary, but the worst thing that will happen is my hair will grow from this. And I will too.
It isn’t straight like my momma wanted, but it’s perfect. It isn’t long, but it’s healthy and shines like spring sunshine when I oil it just right. It isn’t what I knew, but I’m learning to love it just as I’m learning that it’s okay to be new.
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