“So, why did you get your hair relaxed?” the New York midtown hair stylist asked. The hair stylist had beautiful caramel natural-looking ringlets. “What a question,” I thought to myself. I had just asked to get all the limp, relaxed parts of my hair cut off.
At the age of 19, I can finally say that most days I love my hair. It grows fairly long, spirals into natural coils and sometimes people even ask me complimentary questions about it like “What products do you use?” I’ve always wanted to wake up each morning loving my hair, but admittedly most of my life I haven’t. What I responded to the hair stylist last week was that I used to think of my hair as difficult and not worth the effort. I thought if it was a little straighter, it might be easier to manage, a little faster to do in the morning. It might make life a little easier.
I remember straightening my hair for the first time in a salon at around the age of 7 and bursting into tears because I didn’t look like myself. I made them change it back. Later it became the opposite, I was disappointed to let go of my straightened hair, the only hair I felt comfortable wearing down.
The hair I was born with wasn’t the hair my middle school and high school self wanted. “Why?” I ask myself in the voice of the midtown hair stylist. I think kids may have made fun of my hair once or twice. It’s not one of my clearest memories — in fact I’m not a hundred percent sure it happened. Most of the time I imagined the bad things people would think about my hair, while lots of my closest friends asked why I always wore it up. I remember one friend from middle school telling me how I would have my pick of middle school guys if only I wore my hair down.
I didn’t take these comments as encouragement. I took them as criticism. The people who said them didn’t know how big and curly my hair grew, how long it took to comb, how different it was from their hair. I got annoyed when people complimented my straight hair and equally annoyed when people questioned why I had straightened my hair to begin with.
I wanted to believe that I didn’t care about my hair. I wanted to believe that hair was just strings upon strings of dead cells hanging from your head. When I thought of it like that, it all seemed absurd. I wanted to believe I wasn’t vain or self-conscious in the slightest, that I lived on a separate plane on which I was immune to the judgement of others.
In my senior year, I decided that I wanted to wear my natural hair down. Maybe it was the “natural hair movement” and the Yara Shahidis of the world. I just remember looking at very early pictures of myself, when it would range from perfectly sculpted curly-q’s to huge afros, and thinking that even when my hair was the most unruly, it looked better in those pictures than in any picture I had taken in over a decade with it hidden away.
But I didn’t wear my hair down senior year. I didn’t want to deal with people’s comments, I wanted to wait for college where I could just be the person who wore her hair down all the time. I had wanted to start anew so many times. This time I finally did.
I started wearing my hair down my first day at Yale, but not the big untamed hair of my childhood. I weighed it down with a cocktail of more products than it could absorb. I filled my shower caddy with extra-large bottles of conditioner. I carefully scheduled my hair routine and let my hair freeze on the way to class rather than towel-dry it and have it frizz. I even became a person who recommended curly hair products to other people. Lots of people compliment my hair now. Otherwise people don’t say anything at all, and I’m grateful for that.
The full circle moment came when I stayed with another mixed race family. The mother told me one of her daughters said she wished she had my long curly hair. That little girl reminded me of a younger version of myself — I never admitted to myself I wanted straight hair, as I always tried to picture long curly hair. And it made me kind of sad, that little girl’s wish. Because it felt like me and my hair, with the hair gels loaded onto already mixed, chemically relaxed hair were contributing to a problem. Contributing to the problem.
I tried to stop flattening my hair down with so many products and chemicals during quarantine, but it doesn’t achieve the gravity-defying shape it did when I was a child, even when I use my overpriced diffuser to painstakingly dry each section. Sitting in that hair salon, asking for all the relaxed bits to be cut off, there was a sad irony to the whole affair. Black hair was in style, it was on the cover of Vanity Fair, it was on TV, but my curls weren’t coming back.
SOPHIE KANE is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.