Author: Kim Chungong
For about fifteen years I’ve used relaxer on my hair. For those who don’t know, relaxed hair is when someone of African descent puts chemicals onto their natural hair to make it straight. I just turned 20, so I’ve had straight hair for three-fourths of my life. Like a lot of black girls, I went through a phase in which I wasn’t comfortable in my blackness and wanted my hair to be straight like my white friends. Luckily, I learned that being black is beautiful, and began loving my blackness. However, as my third eye opened to all of the things amazing about being black and I began spreading them like wildfire on social media, I came across a conundrum; I had decided to embody everything pro-black, but was still relaxing my hair. I thought things like “I don’t want to cut all my hair, I’ve spent too much time growing it out,” “I wouldn’t look good with short hair,” and “I just find it easier to maintain straight hair.” What made me change my mind was the idea that I may one day have a daughter who might not love her hair because she would see mommy relaxing hers. I didn’t want my hypothetical daughter possibly thinking that her natural hair wasn’t beautiful as I had growing up. I felt like I’d be sending the wrong message if I told her, “Natural hair is beautiful, but it’s not for me. I prefer to keep mine straight.” I told my cousin, who had been natural for a few years, that I had been contemplating the idea of giving up the relaxer life, but was hesitant, and kept pestering her with questions. It got to the point where she said, “It’s just hair.” And that brief statement made me reevaluate my idea that hair defines one’s beauty or femininity. It doesn’t matter if I have short hair or long hair, my hair is just the frame that surrounds the true masterpiece: my face (I’ve listened to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” a hundred times but it has yet to diminish my vanity).
To understand my strong attachment to my hair, I should explain that hair and the presentation of it has always been a big part of the African and African-American culture. In early African civilizations, hairstyles were often indicative of an individual’s family background, their tribe, or their social status. When Africans were forcibly taken to the Americas through the slave trade, they were exposed to and expected to conform to European beauty standards that valued straight hair, so straight or wavy hair began to be conceptualized as “good hair,” while kinky hair was seen as undesirable. With the Emancipation and abolition of slavery, black people felt pressured to conform to mainstream white society if they expected to succeed in America, so they adjusted their hair accordingly. In the early 1900s, Madame C.J. Walker’s hair products and the first chemical relaxers made it possible for black Americans to permanently achieve straight hair. Relaxers remained popular for many decades and used them, along with wigs, to copy the hairstyles of famous Motown stars. The black power movement in the late sixties and seventies brought a resurgence of racial pride in the black community that hadn’t been seen since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Black women like political activist Angela Davis showed off their natural hair in voluminous afros that could be seen as a symbol of black pride empowerment and rebellion against white social norms. They used their hair as a means to assert their black identity. Chemical relaxers are still around today, but an increasing amount of black women are exposing their curls, coils, and kinks to the world in droves. Actresses like Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, and Solange are wearing their natural hair in magazine spreads and on red carpet events. Black women no longer feel the need to conform to eurocentric beauty standards and cultural norms in order to succeed, and are embracing every curly and kinky inch of their blackness.
I fully believe that if I had grown up with women like Lupita who proudly rock their short natural hair and look stunning while doing so in the media I wouldn’t have developed the stigma of thinking my natural hair was something to be ashamed of, but there’s no reason to cry over spilled milk. By writing this article I’m by no means saying that black people who relax their hair aren’t comfortable in their blackness. For some people, myself included for the fifteen years I used relaxers, relaxed hair is just easier to maintain. Having natural hair is not only a time investment, but also a financial one (natural products aren’t cheap), and as a broke college student, I can completely understand that viewpoint. The purpose of this article is to tell my story on why I decided to transition to my natural hair after so many years. Maybe there was another young black queen who was hesitant to make the transition, and this article could help them make a decision. Whether a black woman, or any woman in general, has long hair, straight hair, wavy hair, short hair, or an afro so glorious it has its own orbit doesn’t matter. A woman’s hair does not define her beauty, it does not define her femininity. Hair is just as much of an accessory as earrings or shoes, it just adds to the pièce de résistance that is yourself.