Growing up, I learned to covet silky, straight hair; “bouncing and behaving” hair; Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley hair. But as a young black girl, my appearance was far from the American ideal. Making my hair behave meant hours wriggling between my grandmother’s knees as she manipulated a hot comb through my thick, kinky mane. The process stretched my tight curls into hair I could toss and run my fingers through, something closer to the “white girl hair” that so many black girls admired and longed to possess.
My beautiful, straightened hair came at a price. It meant ears burned by slipped hot combs and scars from harsh chemicals. It meant avoiding active play and swimming pools, lest dreaded moisture make my hair “go back.” It meant having a relaxer eat away at the back of my long hair until barely an inch was left. It meant subtly learning that my natural physical attributes were unacceptable.
I was not alone in my pathology. Pressing combs, relaxers, weaves and the quest to hide the naps are part of the fabric of black beauty culture. It is estimated that more than 75 percent of black women straighten their hair. In the book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” Ayanna Byrd and Lori Tharps write: “Before a black child is even born, relatives speculate over the texture of hair that will cover the baby’s head, and the loaded adjectives “good” and “bad” are already in the air.” In the same book, a New York City dancer named Joicelyn explains: “Good hair is that silky black shit that them Indian girls be havin’…Good hair is anything that’s not crazy-ass woolly, lookin’ like some pickaninny out the bush.” Too often, black women find their hair hatred supported by media, men and the rest of the mainstream.
Cultural and professional pressures kept me relaxing my curls for 20 years. In the late 90s, the neo-soul movement caught fire in R&B. Young, bohemian singers like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and India Arie were rocking stylish natural looks, and I began seeing more natural heads strutting down Michigan Ave. in Chicago, where I lived. Two of my close friends took the plunge, shearing their permed hair to start anew. Suddenly natural black hair was fashionable—at least for a small group of people.
Seeing more women, however few, freed from the tyranny of constant straightening, inspired me.I began poring over books about the care and politics of black hair. I became a member of a popular Web site devoted to championing natural hair. I learned about the toxic ingredients in chemical relaxers and the lasting damage they do. I discovered the origins of negative myths about black hair. I learned how to properly care for natural locks and discovered the myriad styles that can be achieved. I met women of all ages who embraced “nappy” as a positive description. And I slowly came to realize the inherent foolishness of believing black women’s hair, apart from that of all other races, needs to be fixed—pressed, weaved and manipulated into something it isn’t.
In August 2006, after years spent admiring the growing number of nappy heads around me; fretting whether my husband would still find me attractive; worrying whether my unruly ‘fro would frighten my co-workers; I chopped my near shoulder-length hair off, leaving barely an inch of kinky curls. I was free!
My hair is nappy. It is soft and cottony, a mass of varying textures. My hair is fun to play with. I like to pull at the spiral curls and feel them snap back into place. My hair defies the laws of gravity. It reaches energetically toward the sky. My hair is unique. In a fashion culture that genuflects to relaxed, flat-ironed tresses and stick-straight weaves, my fluffy, puffy, kinky mane stands out. It is revolutionary. My hair is natural. It is the way God made it. My hair is nappy. And it is beautiful.