My earliest and most painful memory is getting my first relaxer at the age of three. The strong smell and the sting from the chemicals quickly became synonymous with caring for my hair, a routine that nonetheless became as ritualistic as brushing my teeth as I grew up.
Since then, I've experimented with almost every hairstyle imaginable, including braids, cornrows, weaves, a pixie cut, a bob and bangs. But in the summer of 2014, after a bad relaxer gave me third-degree burns across the back of my neck, I knew it was time to start over. I'd spent years not knowing what, exactly, my natural hair texture really was. None of my relatives had un-relaxed hair, either, so I couldn't draw clues from them. When I finally decided to 'go natural' I was entering uncharted territory.
Growing up in an area where there weren't many other people of color around, I was used to not fitting in to the norm. As a child, I'd become used to being constantly asked about my braids, and occasionally, a curious student would tug on them and ask if it was my real hair. I learned from an early age that black hair can be a shield, but also a target to some. But I also realized the extent to which hair can be incredibly familial and personal. My parents were divorced and lived on opposite sides of the country, but my mother made caring for hair a priority. During school breaks, she would spend hours braiding my hair so that during the school year (when I was with my dad) it would be strong and healthy.
But when I got to college and it fell to me to master my own hair-care routine, I was ready to try any and every style, and I simply viewed going natural as just another opportunity to try a new look.
Not long after my chemical burns healed and an ointment from my doctor thankfully left me with minimal scarring, I told my parents and friends that I was thinking about going natural. Many of them were supportive, while some questioned if cutting off all my hair was really the way to go. But I was headstrong and stubborn, and I was struck with the feeling that it was a now-or-never proposition.
I went to a natural hair salon outside of Atlanta, (aka the unofficial black hair capitol of the U.S.) and told the hairstylist I was ready to do a 'Big Chop', which is cutting off the relaxed hair, leaving only the natural new growth behind. I had less than half an inch of natural hair at the time, and the stylist kept emphasizing that it would be really short if she cut it. Most women wait until there's a decent amount of natural hair before cutting, but I insisted that I wanted to do it now.
I could feel the stares of the other natural customers next to me. There was no music playing; the only sound was the shears quietly snipping away the chemically straightened strands that I had always known. When the stylist finished cutting and handed me a mirror, I didn't feel... much of anything. I wasn't in shock, but I wasn't thrilled, either. Most of the hair I'd known all of my life was gone, but I was surprisingly indifferent and detached from it.
Then, suddenly, everywhere I went, I became an unwitting champion for short natural hair or TWA (Teeny Weeny Afro). I would get the nod of acknowledgement from other TWA wearers and was even stopped on the street by a few women who would point to their head and say "Hey, my hair is short too!" I felt honored to be welcomed as a part of this new community, but I honestly wasn't prepared for all of the sudden attention that I felt other so-called "naturals" were better equipped for. And despite this new camaraderie, being natural never felt truly natural to me.
I slowly realized that I didn't know, nor did I have the patience to suddenly relearn, how to style and care for my new hair, especially as a busy college student. Spending hours staying up late into the night, watching tutorials on how to twist my hair into Bantu knots — only to have them unravel into limp zigzags rather than full coils — was not only frustrating, but also made me feel like a failure. I felt alone and frustrated, like I'd never acheive the "ideal" natural look.
As someone with the thickest, tightest 4C coils, (if 4D existed, I would definitely classify) it never felt to me like natural women with tighter curl patterns were as celebrated as those with looser textures. From Instagram memes calling certain naturals 'bad' for having tighter curls, to constantly being encouraged to stretch my coils so that they'd appear longer, it seemed that all around me, my kind of natural hair wasn't as desired or embraced.
What I didn't understand about being natural was the sudden pressure to manipulate my natural texture to fit others' ideas of what natural hair should look like. My curls didn't want to be loose, wavy or defined to appear longer. They enjoyed being tightly coiled and close to my head. I'd expected to feel empowered and liberated by finally embracing my natural texture, but instead, being natural presented me with a new struggle to fit a different ideal that still seemed unachievable for me.
I do realize that I'm lucky to live in a time where natural hair has become more accepted (though it's still bewilderingly controversial at times). Today, there are far more products, resources and tutorials available for Black women who choose to embrace their natural hair texture than my mother's generation ever had. There are countless natural hair influencers and websites targeted toward understanding natural hair. That's progress. But so is the notion that all of us should be able to do whatever we want with our hair, without having to adhere to any specific or narrow ideal.
Two and a half years after I began my natural hair journey, I sat in a natural hair salon in Harlem to get my hair relaxed. Just as before, the hairstylist tried to stop me — but I was determined. I ignored the stylist when she murmured that she wouldn't be able to save my hair if it fell out. As she worked the chemicals through my hair, the salon suddenly became very quiet and the clients' stares followed my every move. As I left the salon, I also realized I had left a dynamic community, but I knew that it was one I could always return to.