For those of you who know anything about hair, and more specifically, hair in relation to black women, you know that the “Natural Hair Movement” is a hot-button topic.
For many black women, their hair and identity are tied very closely to one another, and I am no exception. My hair is quite possibly the feature I get most complimented on – no joke. At least 5 times a week someone compliments my hair verbally, and almost daily I get a double take or see people commenting on it to others. My hair is big, curly and blonde and I affectionately refer to it as “Cleyonce”. She’s a statement piece and a part of who I am. So much so that when I occasionally straighten it, I get bored after 3 days and feel like I have somehow lost my pizzaz. I love my hair.
But I didn’t always love my hair.
My Auntie Judith, bless her heart, would spend anywhere from 4-8 hours every other Sunday putting this beast of a mane into braids so I could make it through the week without dreadlocks.
And let me tell you, Auntie Judith wasn’t playin — my hair game was strong AF. I had a new style every single time and an assortment of accessories to add some dazzle. Some of those accessories included: beads, tin foil, ribbon braided into my hair, curly shoelace strings, tye-dye shoe laces, custom made headbands, coloured pipe cleaner and just about anything else you could think of.
While beads and stuff are super fun, sitting through a hair day at times was torture as a little kid. I have always had more hair than any human being could ever possibly need, and that includes when I was 5. I would sit in the tub while she combed through my tangles and would sometimes cry my little eyes out because it took so long and it hurt. Then we would sit down and she would do her best to distract me with TV, books, or games; sometimes she even did my hair when I was asleep– she was so creative and patient. But we would sit there and she would have to make the parts in my hair ruler straight. I can still feel the comb pressing against my scalp so hard I would flinch. But the more care you take with the initial style, the longer it lasts. Plus she wasn’t about to let me walk around with busted ass hair.
All I wanted in life was to have long cascading hair like my mom, who by the way is white. You know the scene where Cher flips her hair out of her face in Clueless? I wanted to be able to do that. My mom had barbie hair, and I mean that literally. She was platinum blonde and her hair was down to her bum. She was in the salon 3 days a week getting blow outs, and every 6 weeks she would get her roots touched up and it would cascade when she flipped it out of her face – just like Cher.
Around the age of 11, my aunt had children of her own and caring for mine and my sister’s hair, plus having two small kids wasn’t realistic. At this point I’d had one or two kiddie relaxers to make my hair more manageable, but she never left them on for long and only did it a couple of times. So, my mom took us to the black hair salon and I had my first real relaxer done on my hair and it was the best/worst thing ever.
If you don’t already know what a relaxer is, it’s a lye-based chemical straightener that straightens the curl out of your hair. This article is a really great explanation if you want more information. If you’ve never had a relaxer before, there is no real way to explain how sh*tty the process is – at least for me. I would go in and they would put this stinky chemical on my head and it would burn the hell out of me. I mean an actual chemical burn. If you’ve ever gone fully blonde, you know that awful burning sensation on your scalp that sometimes happens? Relaxer is like that but 10x worse. Kind of like battery acid being poured on your scalp. I would leave the salon with chemical burns so bad on my scalp that I would be picking them out for two weeks afterwards.
BUT I HAD CASCADING HAIR LIKE MY MOM.
My hair was luxurious and so frickin long that I didn’t care how bad that ish burnt me, I wanted poker straight hair and my dreams were coming true. My nanny would help me iron my hair with a clothing iron — this was in the 90s before straighteners were a thing, so don’t judge.
The thing with all of these experiences is that to some degree or another, I was subconsciously being taught that my hair was unmanageable and difficult and inherently, not good enough. I want to be super clear about something here — my family spent their lives telling me how beautiful my hair was and how lucky I was to have such a gorgeous mane. But that didn’t change the fact that I wanted, like most young girls, to emulate my mama and the other beautiful women I saw on TV and in magazines (read: white women with beautiful long hair). I thought my hair wasn’t nice unless it was straight and long, because long straight hair equalled beauty. I carried on getting my hair relaxed from 11 until about 24 yrs old and everyone loved my hair, including me. I never had to wear weave, it was long and beautiful and I was happy.
Then one day, the change happened and it was the result of a few things, not least of which were the chemical burns I incurred on a regular basis from the salon. I had them on my ears, forehead, scalp, back of my neck. EVERYWHERE. The stylist would put on the relaxer and by the time she got to the back of my head, I would be the colour of magenta around my chest and ears from the burning and my knee would be shaking because I was trying to keep it on as long as possible. I hated every single moment of the experience.
The second thing that happened was my friend Stacey, who handled my cut and colour was always asking me why I kept relaxing my hair and why I wouldn’t ever wear it curly. She was obsessed with curly hair and every single time I sat in her chair for years, she would tell me I should start wearing it curly and that straight hair was boring.
One day, when I was about to schedule my relaxer and dreading the thought of burning the sh*t out of my head on purpose, it all clicked. I had an inner dialogue that went something like this:
Q: “Why do you keep doing this if you hate it so much Cleo?”
A: “Because your natural hair isn’t nice, and you can’t manage it without relaxer”
Q: “But how do you know that? You’ve never seen your natural hair without relaxer as an adult and you’ve definitely never taken care of it without relaxer. So you know that isn’t a true statement”
A: “Hmm, well that makes sense. I think I’ll stop torturing myself and see if I can manage without it”
And that was the moment I “went natural”. I delved into the YouTube world of Natural Hair and became obsessed. For those that don’t know, you can’t wash out a relaxer once it’s done — the only way to get rid of it is to cut the relaxed hair off. But when you cut it off is up to you. There are a number of ways to go natural that include: wigs or protective styles like braids. I started growing out my relaxer, which is commonly referred to as “transitioning”. Some people do “the big chop”, which is exactly like what it sounds like. Whichever process you choose is totally to you — I transitioned because I wasn’t willing to have short hair. In hindsight, I wish I had the courage to shave it all off.
For about two years, I spent my time trying every natural hair product on the market and watching hundreds of hours of YouTube videos. I stopped using heat on my hair, tried to braid it, twist it, roller set and bantu knot it into something cute. I’m not going to lie to you. It was hard. There is nothing cute about frizzy roots and limp lifeless straight pieces of hair all over your head. But I was determined to make it.
We slowly cut out the relaxer and I was left with a longer fro that I could live with, and that was the turning point where I realized that I kind of liked my natural hair.
The funny thing about natural hair is that you never actually know what it’s going to look like when it’s long. My hair now looks very different than it did in this photo. The longer it gets, the bigger it gets and the looser the curls get. I often describe it as “poodle ears” — bulky at the bottom and a bit flatter at the top.
In the 6+ years since I’ve stopped relaxing my hair, I’ve learned a thing or two that might help you if you are considering making the leap from relaxed to natural.
- If you don’t want to do this, then don’t. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to your hair. If you really don’t want to stop relaxing your hair, then don’t — if it works for you then keep on keeping on baby.
- You cannot make any judgment about what your hair will look like with 4 inches of regrowth. So stop it. My hair when I had 4 inches of regrowth and my hair now are two completely different things. There is no possible way I could have ever guessed at that point what my hair would look like when it was bra-length. So if your curls are super frizzy or tight at 4 inches, they may not be like that at 8 inches long.
- Don’t get sucked into the Natural Hair malarkey that is the interwebs. There are one million things the internet tells you about the “do’s and don’ts” of natural hair: don’t use sulfates, use ACV to cleanse, seal your ends, use only coconut oil… the list is endless. Do what works for you. It will take some time to figure that out, but you’ll get there.
- Some of the things I do are: I use shampoo with sulfates because I like a squeaky clean head. I do NOT oil my scalp. I only straighten my hair 3-4 times a year and I do not use high heats to do it. I have a super low maintenance hair routine because ain’t nobody got time. Do what works for you.
- ***Hair envy will ruin your experience*** Early on in the game, I was watching so many YouTubers wishing my curls looked like theirs and trying desperately to make mine do what theirs could do. Stop doing this right now. Your hair is your hair and the sooner you stop trying to fight it, the happier you’ll be (at least that was my experience). Once I started letting my hair do what it wanted to do — be a big fluffy lions mane, I started to really love it. As a matter of fact, NOW I hate it when my hair is super defined. I prefer it to be fluffy and massive — the bigger the hair the closer to god.
Anywho, my point is, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to your hair — so do what makes you feel sexy AF.
Until next time my loves,
Cleo is a spicy, curly haired entrepreneur and proud Harry Potter book junkie. She is co-founder of LUXELIFE SOUND, a boutique booking agency that places female DJ talent at corporate events and she works as a personal publicist and brand manager for a couple of celeb clients.
Instagram and Twitter: @EllisComms