I didn’t know what my natural hair felt or looked like for 20 years. In my mind, I always pictured a 4C, dark chocolate-covered kinky curl with a little bit of a kitchen in the back, where my hair gets the curliest. I imagined my hair texture to be a mix between Janelle Monáe and Viola Davis and maybe, just maybe, when I stretched it down, it would beSolange Knowles-shoulder length. Nevertheless, when I did my big chop this past January, it wasn’t what I expected at all.
I hadn’t seen my natural hair since I was three years old and, honestly, I didn’t want to see it until recently. After all, my chemically relaxed hair brought me so far in my career, dating and social life—why would I want to switch that out for something I was unfamiliar with and unsure of? My straight hair was my comfort zone. I could relax it, add clip ins for length and body, or wear weaves with leave out.
It was a taboo in my community to not have relaxed hair, especially if you were of a upper middle class black family. In fact, I was not only expected to have relaxed hair because of my socio-economic background, but also because I was a daughter of a Ghanaian immigrant mother who worked too hard to come home after work everyday to deal with my stubborn kinks and us fighting over braiding my natural hair.
I was never upset with my mother for not knowing all the damages of a relaxer. As far as I know, no one really knew the true side effects of it until the early 2000s, and the real naturalistas from the ’60s and ’70s, during the Civil Rights movement, had begun to transition to Jheri curls and permed hairstyles in the mid ’70s. My mother was an example of that—she got a relaxer in her late 20s and therefore passed it down onto me.When I asked her why she permed my hair when I was three, it was as simple as, “Nana, you never let me do your hair, you always fussed about it and cried.” It’s ironic that the same reason why my mother relaxed it in the first place is the same reason I did for 20 years straight—it’s too much to deal with.
Growing up in Ghana in a household of women with relaxed hair, but a country where a majority of the women weren’t allowed to grow out their hair, was baffling. In Ghana, girls are encouraged to have very short natural haircuts, because the schools believed it would keep them focused during class. They were certain that girls with short natural hair would perform better in school than girls with long or relaxed hair.
Hair was such a political statement. In Ghana when you wore relaxed hair as an adult, it meant you were professional and from the upper class. You could afford to sit in the hair salon on Sundays for three to four hours for the cream to transform your kinks to loose strands and leave feeling “beautiful.”
The stigma about natural hair followed me from Ghana back to the U.S. when I arrived as a young child. I grew up too afraid to be seen as unruly or get turned away from access to opportunities such as a top-tier college, a stable job, or even fashion event invites I attended as an aspiring fashion journalist because my hair could be seen as disruptive. I was nervous that if I exposed my afro, doors in my career would close in front of me before I could step into them. I saw women in the media who were black, and they didn’t have natural hair. They all had a thick, short, and sleek bob full of volume and bounce—exactly what I planned to have at their age.
I THOUGHT I WOULD GET EXCLUDED FROM SPACES OR DENIED OPPORTUNITIES BECAUSE OF MY NATURAL HAIR.
Because of that, I went throughout middle and high school embodying the Eurocentric hair look: Straight, sleek, and long. It didn’t help that I went to school in a predominantly white suburb in Ohio where I was always the “dark-skinned girl” in every class and in all my friend groups. A relaxer was my only way “in.” I thought I had to look like my mixed race Blasianbest friends with naturally bone-straight and loose 3A curls down to their waist to be considered pretty (whatever that means). I subconsciously obsessed over their racially ambiguous looks throughout college. I frequently took trips on Sundays to the salon to get my “creamy crack” and went back every three months despite the fact that the chemicals were causing my hair to be brittle, fragile, and break off. Despite the damage I was putting myself through internally and externally, I thought being exotic-looking meant I was pretty, and I wasn’t ready to let that go.
That is, until January 19, 2018: The day I no longer let false beauty standards control my life. I prepared for this day. I read all my natural hair guides, I loaded up on Cantu hair products, and invested in a good silk pillowcase. I finally made the decision to see my natural self, after 20 years. I was scared. I thought I was going to get confused with my brother–who looks exactly like me but with a low cut. I also thought I would get excluded from spaces or denied opportunities because of my natural hair and at one point thought men would start to find me unattractive—none of that happened. The moment I asked my aunt to come over and cut all my relaxed hair off, she was thrilled and said, “About time you’re joining the movement.”
My aunt went natural just a few years ago, my mom followed behind her about two years ago, and it seemed like all the women I looked up to were returning to their natural roots. My mom, who had wavering feelings about me doing this only because she feared my career would be at harm, stood and watched as I did my chop. She smiled over me and spoke words of encouragement as my aunt went into my brittle and damaged strands and cut them one by one. I heard my mom and aunt say, “You’re so beautiful Nana, you could pull anything off.” In that moment I felt a rebirth, like I had been given an opportunity to become a new woman and take control over my life again from a more authentic side of myself.
Six months ago, if you asked me to go natural, I would look at you in shock because I was frightened by how others would perceive my natural hair and how hard my self-esteem would be hit because I wouldn’t feel as pretty anymore. Now if you asked me why I went natural, I would say because my ancestors wore their afro as a radical form of self-love. I’m still in the search of full self-love but I know am the closest to it now than I have ever been.
When I did my big chop, my hair texture wasn’t Janelle Monáe or Viola Davis-like with Solange-length when it stretched. But, it was all me. It was my first ever, adult, natural 4C kinky, curly, tweeny weeny afro, and I’ve never felt more liberated.