A Bit of Real Life, General Writing

Shaking Out the Kinks: Journeying Back to the Natural

So I took out my trademark braids this past May. It was a long, troublesome chore, but one I was used to experiencing every eight or nine weeks for years. Decades, to be precise. I cut out most of the synthetic braids, unbraided the rest, tossed them, then went through the exhausting ritual of washing, conditioning, and readying my hair for another 6-7 hours of rebraiding. When the ritual was over, my head felt bobblehead-light from the lifted weight. After conditioning my hair, I was halfway to the phone to make an appointment to get my usual double-strand twists put back in by my braider of five years, Fatima of Livingston Street. Come to think of it, I don’t know her last name or the proper name of her salon, yet we’ve had a perfectly fine relationship over the years. No credit cards, bring your own hair, and try not to take too many bathroom breaks.

This time though, I paused. I ran my hand through my hair. It had really grown over the winter. It was always thick but now I noticed some length as well. I gripped the tight, kinky curls in both hands. I made faux Mohawks in the mirror. I could also feel my full scalp for a change. Those with braids know how creative you need to be to scratch an itchy spot: combs, pens, paper clips…Whatever it takes. I felt so…light. And I felt as if people around me could notice the change as well. I noted that I didn’t have an office to rush back to on Monday, no corporate bigwigs to appease with an approved hairstyle. I cancelled with Fatima and instead did a quick twist-out with the crappiest grease I had on hand and water. “I’m just waiting a few days,” I told anyone who asked. “I don’t want my scalp to be so sore this time. The braiders will always be there.”

I rescheduled with poor Fatima three times before I realized how much I was enjoying wearing my hair out. I felt tremendous guilt telling her I wasn’t getting my hair braided for a while. I knew I was one of her regulars and tipped well. Although she handled it professionally, I still avoid passing her salon if I can.

My natural (haired) friends supported the change. “It’s summertime. Who wants braids on their neck in August?” “Give it a try. You might really get into it!” “Men love natural hair, ” one friend added slyly. Although I’d never grouped braids in the same class as lace fronts or weaves, I figured I’d give it a try. I hadn’t had a perm for ages; now I’d go extension-free as well.

So there I was. I hadn’t had a real cut or color in more than five years. I didn’t think my hair looked too bad, but was mortified at the broad headband of white up front. This was well hidden under braids but out in the open, how much was this aging me? And more frankly, how much was it going to cost to update my style?

While I contemplated trimming my own hair to save money, I had flashbacks to my grandmother pressing my hair. I had to be around eight or so. I sat in a low, hard iron chair, hand painted white. She used a heavy old hot comb (one that I taped up and used until it became an absolute hazard in my 30s), blaming every slip and ear and neck burn on me: “You shouldn’ta moved, then!” She knew nothing about styling and simply curled my hair under every time. Curl under. Curl under. Aaand done. I’m sure in some homes somewhere this was a bonding experience: time to talk about women’s stuff, and things that bothered me, and jokes only girls found funny. In our small apartment, the hot combing was a horror. I sat stiff as an ironing board, inches away from an open flame, my grandmother blowing on a comb that was so hot it smoked. And this went on my head. Sweat ran down my arms and back. I heard the awful sizzle and smelled the unique scent of burnt hair in the air. The towel protecting my neck made me even warmer. I might nod off in the heat, or I might need Vaseline and a Band-Aid for the burn I’d get if I startled. The kitchen was the place where I might find food, or I might find torture. In the name of my hair.

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26 thoughts on “Shaking Out the Kinks: Journeying Back to the Natural”

  1. I find it’s always scary to make a long-term change to a hairstyle you’ve had for a while. Recently, I went from something like a “Bieber-cut” like in my picture to a sort of 80’s short-sides-long-top look. Most of my friends met me when I had that haircut, so it was really shocking to them to see that it was so different.

    Loved your post by the way! Especially the part about your grandmother pressing your hair!

    Spencer
    Spencer In Pieces

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    1. Thanks so much for reading, Spencer! I tried to make the pressing as realistic–and terrifying–as possible, because it truly was a terror. I’ll be checking out Spencer in Pieces soon. Cheers!

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  2. Hi Ms. BSC,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your journey. It brought back lots of memories experienced back in my day: nappy and unhappy, yanks, tugs and tears, hot combs – lawdy, lye-based perms -owww, conditioners – what were those? petroleum jelly as hair grease, brown paper bag handmade curlers. Anything to change that brillo consistency. And finally, mercy, mercy, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!” hit the scene. Amazing how so many textures of our natural beauty were considered bad, ugly, bad, unfortunate and bad! Wow has the tide turned in the best way and it continues to do so. Black girls sure do rock!!!

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    1. I’m really glad you enjoyed it! But a world without conditioners? :-O I just can’t imagine it. That AND lye relaxers? Your generation looked incredibly fly, but paid a high cost for beauty!

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  3. Loved this post! (Also your aside about having different textures on one head and finding just one hair twin. That’s the most confusing part of becoming natural but at the same time it’s like your hair is a fingerprint.)

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    1. Thanks Monica! A fingerprint is a perfect way to describe it. Finding different textures in my hair has been one of the greatest surprises–both funny and weird. It almost makes the idea of buying a single styling product completely moot. So far I’m still up for the challenge. I’m so glad you found time to read it. :-)

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  4. Thanks for sharing this! As a full blown natural hair/no hair girl, I remember the horrors of hot comb burns and the chemical burns from perms all too well. I am so thankful that God helped me make peace with my hair a long time ago. Therefore, I am readily able to pass on to my daughters a healthy view of their glorious curls, as well as nurture their commitment to treat their hair with love and respect.

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    1. Thanks for reading! Ugh, I remember panicking–feeling my heart race and head sweat–when that relaxer started burning my scalp. I knew that was not for me but I kept doing it anyway.

      I love hearing the lessons moms like you will pass on to your daughters. It buoys the spirit, especially as hair is such a huge part of who we are. I’ve always loved your super short cuts. I’m also slowly restocking a new supply of dangling earrings (like long native American feathers and huge colorful leather hoops I found at the BAM African festival), which I think are awesome & critical when rocking shorter hairdos. They tend to get lost among long synthetic braids.

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  5. This is a very insightful write-up Ms. BSC. While I had a somewhat shorter period (than many in my age cohort) of altering my natural hair with products and pressing (ages 16- 29), I cannot declare loudly enough how freeing it is to wear my locks. I started transitioning from perms to press within months of getting married in 2000 (which may have contributed to why my marriage didn’t last:-) and returned fully to natural hairstyles after giving birth to my first and only child in 2002. I simply could not ‘gift’ my hair stylist hours and hours of my time when I had a nursing schedule to maintain and a new baby at home to nurture. I opted for the 60-90 minutes natural hair care experience which continues to this day. It turns out that I had a baby (and now a 9-year old) who loves to touch my hair. It thrills me that he touches and plays with my natural hair (texture) and finds it soothing.
    Enjoy your hair journey!

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  6. Thanks so much for visiting, Joy. As I noted above, I was on the verge of having panic attacks from the time spent–wasted–in salons. I would text my friends wildly, chronicling how long it was taking just to get a shampoo or color and they would send soothing texts back to keep me calm, lol. Now I call the shots–if I want to take two hours to twist, that’s cool, but I’m the one deciding beforehand. Usually I’m doing something in a much shorter timespan, and am equally comfortable with the results.

    I love hearing about our children appreciating our real hair texture (and by extension, more of our culture)–awesome! Thank you for sharing and please keep reading. :-)

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  7. Loved the details of your hair story. Who doesn’t remember that first and last burnt ear! Child abuse! I’ve been natural for years (dreads) but I’m feeling that need to chop it all off. I love your description of being free. This may have been the motivation I need! Give me free!

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  8. Ouch, our poor ears! So delicate. :-p Now wait minute, did you say cut it ALL OFF? Actually, I should know better than to ask you such questions… Once you’ve made up your mind, it’s made. You should change your avatar to surprise me with your new look!:-)

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  9. I just LOVE this entry! And I think your hair looks adorable. Sadly, I just don’t have the nerve to WEAR my natural hair though it’s BEEN natural for about 10 years, I guess…I’m not ashamed of the texture but it’s just not my personality. I really feel like a slave to wearing it straight. Since I work out 5 days a week, this is incredibly hard to do and MOST impractical. Sigh…maybe (my husband) and I will get there. I realllllly want to be liberated. Thanks so much for sharing your journey—because, indeed, it is.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Jackie (and welcome!) I wore braids for close to 22 years for a reason… They were easy and reliable. Even if I had a nervous breakdown sitting in a chair for seven hours to get them redone every 2 months :-p I think ultimately that’s what I needed to be free from: the braider, the shampoo girl, the weaver, the stylist… This troupe of people who’d convinced me my hair couldn’t be done without them all. Wasting a whole day at a salon always left me so exhausted, pissed and frustrated. And broke!

      The gym is one of those tricky things, though, where I can see it being much easier to keep your hair done up. We can certainly be realistic about what suits our daily lifestyles. Buuuut if you get the chance to experiment, go for it!

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  10. Welcome to the land of the free! I am sorry I didn’t get it together to get to you ahead of the post but I am very happy to see that you’ve made that move. I have had short natural hair (with a few texturizer, attempted dreadlock, braiding and dyeing breaks–blonde,yes, blonde for a while. But still natural!) for 30 years (cut it in college after a Jheri Curl disaster and never looked back) I did grow it out a couple of years ago and went to the salon of the wonderful young women who invented Miss Jessie’s hair products (can’t remember the name of the salon but they were dolls).

    Even then, my hair was more natural than bone straight–I could still swim, etc, if I put it up. But I keep coming back to the teeny weeny ‘fro. This is partly temperamental–I hate doing ANYTHING to my hair. More than 10 minutes is an affront–but I don’t wear makeup much and have to argue with myself about shaving under my arms–I care about wearing earrings and dressing decent but can’t get motivated for much more.

    It’s also partly financial–I loved those women at Miss Jessie’s. But I don’t even want to say how much cash they got from me for those couple of long haired years. And I found scratching my head under those braids, plus the money just too tiring.

    I like the lightness of my head with little to no hair and am fortunate that my head looks good near bald. Though I sometimes get tired of the inflexibility, of the look, I ain’t going back. I’m glad you are enjoying the freedom–financial, timewise and spiritual–of letting your hair be itself. And go swimming! Your hair won’t go back. It can’t. It’s already there!

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    1. Martha, thanks so much for reading. And I appreciate your ability to rock a bald head. You have to know yourself–and your head size–to step out on that ledge. I remember visiting Titi and Miko in their Bed-Stuy Curve brownstone years ago; luckily my hair accessories and street vendor jewelry are a lot cheaper.

      This whole ride has been wild; I didn’t expect to be discovering brand-new parts of myself at nearly 40. And yet here I am. My hair surprises me every day and I’m rolling with it. I’m really very pleased readers understood the spirit of the essay; no themes of politics of us vs. them, just one woman’s kinky trip through hair.

      Thanks again for stopping by and of course, for the compliment. It means more than you know.

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  11. Love love love this post, Nira. I remember what a delightful, astonishing shock it was in the 60s when the ladies started going natural. I sent your to my girl Jadah to encourage her and relieve her of all the ironing and expense, but we don’t live in Brooklyn and her eyes haven’t yet seen the beauty or her imagination the choice. You are beautiful. xoj

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  12. Great writing.
    I am an AfrAm male. One of the reasons I stopped participating on the high school swim team (circa 1962) was I got tired of reapplying Bergamont to my hair after every practice session. My mother woud have had a stroke had I cut it close, which was the style back then.. After all, a lot of Caribbean background folks live and die for their “good hair.”
    Presently it’s wash and wear with two short braids in the back.

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