Every Black hair journey is personal. Shared experiences lend to a special understanding between people who know just how much money, time and emotional resources go into maintaining and styling Black hair, but there’s no one type of Black hair and there’s no one way to style it. Processes and products are very personal decisions, sometimes made with generations of family traditions behind them (and sometimes not).
For Black women, journeys through locs, braids, relaxers, rollers, heat treatments and big chops don’t just tie back to a school photo or a wedding portrait. These journeys are tangled up in lessons of identity, confidence and self-expression.
Here are intimate looks at the journeys that Black women have taken with their hair. Some deal with issues of trust, pride, shame and self-empowerment — and everything in between — but no matter the story, one thing is for sure: The cultural roots of Black hair run deep.
I had no big inspiration behind my decision to go natural, it happened in a moment of frustration. I had relaxed it from the age of five, and I wasn’t taking care of it. So I sat in my college dorm room, looked in the mirror, put my hair in a ponytail and cut it. I thought, “I’ll figure out the rest later.”
During the resurgence of the Black hair movement, you’d see big brands pushing natural hair products — but all for one type of curl pattern. So I thought my hair was going to be the same beautiful, lush curly style. It wasn’t. It was kinky, hard to manage, and I didn’t know how to take care of it. I washed it all the time and conditioned it so it would look how I thought it should look, but my hair wasn’t cooperating. I had a lot of moments when I felt insecure or self-conscious, but I never let anyone else know that.
After I’d been natural for eight months, I felt I had grown into it. At least, I had learned that I shouldn’t wash my hair every day and should let it breathe. I was sitting in the cafeteria on campus and without asking, my friend put his hand through my hair and said, “I still can’t believe you cut your hair. This looks so nappy.”
Kids are bullies. I defended myself saying, “Firstly, how dare you put your hand in my hair? Secondly, you don’t know the work that it took for me to be able to walk outside without feeling subconscious or insecure about my hair. I love the skin I’m in. I love the hair that I have. My hair is beautiful the way it is.” When you keep thoughts internalized, they don’t always feel true. When you say them aloud, they are reaffirmed. At that moment, I knew I wouldn’t be defending myself if I didn’t believe my hair was beautiful.
There are still moments my hair doesn’t do what I want it to do, but I decided a long time ago to take charge of my hair and my self confidence.
My natural hair journey started when I was 14 years old. I didn’t think I could ever do go natural, but my aunt — who had cut out her relaxer several years earlier — assured me, “Yes, you can.” But when my then-boyfriend saw me he said, “What did you do?” I felt that he broke up with me that summer because of my hair.
With my head swimming in 9th-grade insecurities, I decided to get box braids while my hair grew out. When I took them out, I only knew about styling natural hair with blue grease, green grease, black gels and water. I remember sitting under the dryer, trying to manipulate my curls with flexi rods and thinking, “Maybe I can pull this off.” But when I got to school, most people asked, “Is that really your hair? What happened? Why did you do that?” with a few commending me, saying, “You’re so brave,” or “I wish I could do that.”
I come from a Caribbean background. My mom and my aunt are half-Puerto Rican, so for our family it was the norm to go to the salon and get your hair blown out regularly. After my big chop my mom would ask, “How are you going to get a job?” But I always had my aunt rooting me on, teaching me which products to use and styling alternatives to wash ‘n’ go, like how to part my hair, do twists and then lock in moisture by taking the twists out and retwisting them the next morning. I had days where I felt ugly. It took years and years, but I’m happy where I am and am glad to be able to inspire others — my mom especially, who went natural, too.
Before deciding to go natural, my hair was dried and fried with an extra side of high-lye relaxer. It was not my choice (as it usually isn’t for most of us, until we enter college). In college, I began to question whether a relaxer was the only choice for my 4C tresses. So with a sweet taste of freedom and self-ownership, I began to silently ease my way into the natural hair realm — actively breaking away from my monthly relaxer routines and disguising the foreign texture in my new box braids.
All was going well until my mother saw it and, without hesitation, suggested I relax and cut it. Though slightly baffled, I did not put up a fight. I caved and permed it immediately. It looked great but after a while, as predicted, my hair became brittle and began to break as I kept relaxing and curling it. I finally decided to stop when I had just about two inches of hair left on my head.
At that point, I took matters into my own hands and restarted my natural journey for the second time. My mother was not a fan, but I’ve been natural ever since. I’m still relationship-building with the hair I was born with, yet removed from without choice, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. And here’s a funny plot twist, my mother is natural now. She finally caved, too.
I decided to loc my hair 10 years after starting my natural hair journey. It was time for a change. I had been contemplating locs for a few years, once I became worn out from my hair routine. Even the thought of taking several hours each week to wash and style my hair gave me anxiety — especially watching how easy the loc lifestyle was for my husband. I love the fact that I can wake up and leave the house without worrying about styling. Locking my hair is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my adult life.
I chose to start my locs with two-strand twists so that I wouldn’t have to cut the hair I’d already grown out. My loctician retwists them from the root when I see her each month, and she also washes and conditions them for me. But I still had to learn to care for them in-between wash days. Through trial and error, I found that I have a dry scalp that needs special attention every three days in order to keep dandruff at bay. My styling routine has evolved to include a spritz of water daily, as well as use of spray conditioners and dry shampoos, and I always sleep with a satin scarf to protect my hair at night.
This style marks a new chapter in my life. I believe it’s important to embrace my hair at every step of my journey and teach my daughter to do the same. You see, it’s an unexplainable feeling to loc your hair. You’ll know when you’re ready.
My childhood memories are crowded with hair horror stories. I remember a flood of cold tears on hot cheeks as I ground my teeth while my hair was braided. I remember my toes curling up like wood shavings as I squirmed in a salon chair, relaxer smeared across my scalp. I still have bangs today because of the time I accidentally singed the front of my afro in college. But for all the money and pain that went into my hair growing up, it was my sense of identity that pushed me to find a style that was comfortable.
My father is Black and my mother is white; when I was born, neither of them knew how to do my hair. My mother put herself through a self-designed Black hair bootcamp, ever patient and determined to detangle my hair, no matter how many hours or bottles of product it took her to get it done. The valuable lesson I learned from my mother was how to grow with my hair. She taught herself by trial and error. When I cut all my hair off at 18, I had to do the same thing. I’ve bought at least a bathtub-full of shampoos, serums, pomades, creams, gels and oils over the years, and I’ve spent hours in the bathroom mirror. At 28, I’m still learning how to do my hair, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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