Just over a year ago, I was the bright-eyed poster child for creamy crack— that cold, thick and hair-straightening miracle mayonnaise!
You may call it a perm, or sometimes a relaxer. Either way, my southern-born mother always taught me to call it a necessity.
A scripture from the black girl bible: she who steps out with unlaid edges, steps out on her mother and herself.
There was no way in heaven or hell, I was going to step out! Neither mom, nor my three younger sisters, would ever allow it.
It would make me cringe: to look in the mirror and see those tough, unrelaxed strands uprooting themselves from my tender scalp.
I’d grab that rat-tail comb like it was the Good Book, churn that perm mix with a little wooden spatula like I was in the trap house of Jesus— and make things ‘right,’ again!
In college, a younger woman tried to enlighten me.
She said hair relaxers were hidden chains of white oppression— the unrepentant enforcer of European beauty standards.
She said I was trapped in the ‘bad hair’ mindset.
To which I responded,”Well, tell’em to chain me in there real good— cause I ain’t walking around her with no nappy hair!”
Oh, God bless her sweet little heart! But like most of the natural-haired prophets at the time, itty-bitty was being a little too political for my taste.
In 2013, it seemed more and more women were talking about Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair.’
The film, which debuted in late 2009, made natural hair increasingly political for millennials— but also more trendy. And man, some of these ladies were committed to that #naturalhair life!
I remember scrolling through my Facebook feed, thinking who are all these bald-headed bitches in my timeline? All preaching about the Big Chop.
Still, while I wasn’t a lone naysayer— oh, far from it! I was raised to give credit where credit is due. In my mind, I started looking at natural-haired women in two categories: the woke…and the broke.
If you were WOKE, that meant you were giving us life straight from Mother Earth! The ‘fro was perfectly hedged, the curls were glossy and the edges were tamed.
Oh! And if you weren’t at least an eight in the face and a 10 in the waist…Honey, you better take this TCB and sit your ass down somewhere. In my old opinion, only beautiful, fine-bodied women could get away with natural hair.
All the rest were BROKE with their dry puffs and funky locks. Terrible! I know, but that’s just where I was at in my thinking at the time.
Eventually, I decided to give natural hair a shot because it was ‘the cool thing to do.’
I failed about five times. (OK, technically four times. There was a period when my wallet was super-tight and I couldn’t afford to get a relaxer even if I wanted to.)
I couldn’t wrap my mind around it: natural hair ‘isn’t sexually desirable,’ natural hair ‘isn’t appropriate for the work space.’ Oh, and the jokes!
Light-, medium- or dark-skinned, all black women have a peculiar set of social boundaries that we’re forced to live within. I’m about three shades too high on the chart to be rocking an afro without it being perceived as a ‘statement piece.’
I was overwhelmed with the concerns rationalized in the eyes of the generations that came before me.
It was just easier to just keep relaxing— to keep dusting the immense dandruff of my shoulders, to keep watching the hair strands falling into the sink and to keep scratching off those chemical burn scabs.
And then, I had an epiphany.
The youngest of my sisters— just 7 years old at the time— was being mocked by a classmate because her ‘hair looked crunchy’ and her features ‘weren’t cute.’
I was disturbed by her low self-esteem. She just kept asking me, desperately, “RaRa, am I pretty?”
Our mom eventually told me what was going on, and she showed me a picture of the classmate. I’ve never been more outraged in my life than staring at that little girl.
Looking back at me was a scuffed, dirty little pale-faced kid with beady blue eyes and lackluster, damaged blonde hair. She had on a tattered white dress and bruised knees.
It had nothing to do with the child.
It was the realization that there are women in the world of all backgrounds and ethnicities who— even on their worst day, even if they’re in shambles— would look at a black woman’s features and belittle her.
I tried to rebuke the feeling by giving my little sister an ill-guided pep-talk praising the gorgeousness of her natural hair.
“But your hair isn’t like mine,” she said. “And May May’s isn’t, and Anna’s and mom’s.”
She found me out; I was speechless.
In that moment, I thought about all the little black girls staring at their reflection, struggling to find beautifulness and womanliness within themselves.
Girls going through life exhausting themselves over their God-given hair and bodies, begging for approval from a social structure that taught them through the lessons of their own mothers that femininity was not inalienable.
I remembered siting between my mothers legs with tears rushing down my face as she yanked and pulled my hair; and laughing beside my sisters with stained towels draped across our shoulders and chemicals burning into our scalps.
It’s self-evident that all women are taught that beauty is pain. Still, I thought, this shit is out of control.
I didn’t know it, but the relaxer I’d applied a couple weeks before that conversation would be my last.