She was gorgeous. Her jet black hair shone almost blue in the sunlight. On rainy days, her hair would remain absolutely straight while mine would frizz completely out of control. I both loved and dreaded my cousin Lisa’s visits from Boston each summer. On one hand, I had someone to play with. On the other, I had someone to compete with - -at least when it came to hair.
Her dark, smooth, sinewy hair contrasted with my thick, rebellious, yellow frizz. This difference was the topic of many comments from family. Their obsession with whether a child had “good” hair or “bad” hair dominated many conversations. Lisa had “good” hair because it was straight and refused any attempts at curling it. I had “bad” hair because it was thick and curly. My mother—who deflected the criticism and told me my hair was beautiful — would “tame” my curls by putting my hair into two braids that hung like ropes on either side of my head. Truth be told, it was pretty wild and it was hard to brush. Sometimes, though, she would let me untie the two braids, put my headband on, and let my hair fly behind me as I danced in the living room. I felt so free. So…pretty.
My hair would remain tied up in braids and ponytails for years until my mother discovered chemical hair relaxers. I was 12 the year she took me to a salon downtown for my first hair relaxer experience. I remember the stylist put a white cream in my hair and let it sit for about 5 minutes. After all the tugging and brushing and blow drying I emerged from her chair looking like every little White girl in my classroom. My defiant curls had been coaxed into a straight, blond pageboy. I was overjoyed! No more pig tails!
Fast forward 20 years. You will still find me tugging at my hair each morning to make it smooth. Yet, I have brokered a “peace deal” with my kinks. I wear it curly now and then to give it a rest. I know which products will yield the best results and I have come to love the fact that I can change hairstyle anytime I want. I won’t lie: I “feel” different when my hair is curly. I feel more authentic. Call me crazy if you want, but anyone with curly hair knows what I’m talking about!
I vow to give up the “creamy crack”, as relaxers are called, one day. Others have done it already. My colleague, Liz Medhin, went “natural” recently. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, wears hers natural. Both women look fantastic and are successful and well respected. Their image transcends their hairstyle. Yet, we still live in a society that makes African Americans and, indeed anyone with curly hair, feel they must conform to one standard of beauty.
The good thing is, in spite of all the negative vibes associated with having “ethnic” hair, I really just don’t care anymore. It’s my hair and I’ll keep it whichever way I want. In the lovely words of singer India Arie, “I am not my hair…I am not this skin..I am not your expectation…I am the soul that lives within.”