Every black girl I knew—whether she was ebony-skinned or the color of butternut squash—wanted the same thing I did: hair that hung silk-straight. Our collective desire was rooted in the self-deprecating mentality that kinks were gross and had to be concealed, if not corrected. Straight hair promised romance, laughter, abounding beauty. If I wanted to be happy, I had no choice but to unravel every nap on my head. There was only one method that would do it: I'd have to get a perm, also called a "relaxer."
That first perm is like a black girl's bat mitzvah. It's a coming out—a rite of passage into womanhood. What's different is that the initial relaxing doesn't happen at any set age. And waiting too long could retard a girl's social progress. Here's why: Before your hair is relaxed, you're viewed as a child. (Or even a dope. Or you aren't viewed at all.) Because being invisible doesn't jibe with an only child whose astrological sun is in Leo—I could barely wait ten minutes to be in the spotlight—I got my first relaxer before I was even old enough to wear deodorant, thinking it would accelerate my path to stardom.
I was a follower—mimicked whatever was deemed of-the-moment. But then I started reading books like The Bluest Eye and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I saw footage of the Watts riots and Al Jolson's blackface act in The Jazz Singer. I began asking myself questions, "Is straightening my hair just another kind of minstrel show? Can I really love myself if I don't embrace my kinks, my authenticity?" I felt as if I'd been bamboozled. I'd spent the last decade idolizing an image that undermined me. Just as I came to this realization, my hair started falling out.
Stress on the hair begets breakage, according to my beautician, Yvette. She explained how overprocessed relaxed hair is "damaged beyond repair." The chemical opens the cuticle on the hair strand, gets underneath, and causes the hair to lose its strength. We shine it up with jojoba products, and though our hair might look all sleek and glossy and buoyant, the whole thing is really a sham.
My original plan was to cut back my perm gradually, while I eased into my new mind-set. Patience isn't my virtue, though. One Saturday in the summer of 2002, I woke up with an itch to do something colossally big. I called Yvette and spoke two words, "I'm ready." Three hours later, hair was all over the floor—14 inches, in fact. It took 21 years to grow it that long.
Touching my short little Afro for the first time was like sticking my fingers into thick carpet. I couldn't even believe the stuff was mine. I wouldn't look at myself in the mirror for longer than four seconds. "Who's that stranger in the black woolly cap?" I'd think.
Gradually, I got used to the natural look; I even "Chee'd" it up by donning supa-flair jeans and "Rock the Vote" buttons on my jacket. At school, people would hold up their closed fists when I passed by. I'd nod to them, aggressively. Friends started calling me Angie, short for Angela Davis. Men got all melodramatic, pulling out lines like "I truly do beg your pardon, my sistah" or "Have a gorgeous day, empress." One time the president of the Black Student Union walked up to me and asked why I hadn't been to any of their meetings or joined the movement, because "it's obvious that you care," he said. Then it hit me: Wearing my hair without a chemical had become as much of a statement as wearing it straight. I was just promoting another stereotype that came with its own potentially disenfranchising expectations. I had thought "natural" was a hairstyle, but it's really a state of mind. Doesn't matter if I rock my hair straight or kinky, as long I'm doing it for me.
Now I can get playful with my do: Afro in the back, perm in the front, and honey blonde streaks everywhere. I may switch it up in a few months. There are too many choices to stick with any for too long. And I'm open to every single one.
Chee Gates, a former O staffer, is a writer at Fitness.