For many women, their relationship with their hair is a deeply personal one, and a subject that's inextricably intertwined with identity, self-image, self-care, politics, culture and social pressures. For Black women, it can be even more complicated. A long history of Eurocentric beauty standards — not to mention unparalleled structural and institutionalized policing — has impacted the way in which Black women relate to and care for their hair.
We're living during a time when natural textures and Afros are becoming more celebrated in mainstream culture, in entertainment, in advertising; Tracee Ellis Ross is regarded as a hair icon — as she should be — and she has her own brand catering specifically to curly and kinky textures to show for it. Many Black women have begun to rethink years of chemically straightening their hair or to second-guess their silk presses, with some chopping off and growing out their hair in an effort to "go natural" and rid every last strand of its history of having been relaxed.
But there's still a lot (a lot) of work that needs to be done to end discrimination against natural hair, whether in the workplace or in broader culture. And no two women's experiences are exactly the same. With that in mind, we asked three Black women to share their unique stories of their own hair journeys, specifically looking at their transitionary periods when they chose to go from chemically treating their hair to "going natural."
Why I Finally Broke Up With the Natural Hair Community
There's Still a Lot of Work to Be Done to End Natural Hair Discrimination
Natural Hair-Care Pioneer Mahisha Dellinger Is Getting Into the CBD Business
Anika Reed, Deputy Editor, USA Today
Editor Anika Reed had a fairly typical first relaxer experience. Reed explains that because she and her mother had different hair textures — Reed's being the more tightly-coiled — her mom found it overwhelming to maintain and style her hair, thus prompting Reed to relax her hair every three months throughout most of her life, until she turned 23. "December 2017 was the last time I got my hair relaxed, and so I've been going natural ever since then. I never did a big chop — I just tried my best to transition, which was definitely not always easy," she says. "I've been transitioning ever since, and in October [of 2018] is when I finally chopped off the last of the straight ends — so I've been fully natural ever since. I do still straighten my hair [with a flatiron] because I haven't found the time to figure out the resources I need. I haven't been back to the hairdresser, who is going to help me figure out the right products or the right techniques of how to style and do my hair in a way that makes me feel comfortable and beautiful."
Fashion blogger Taylor Campbell began getting her hair relaxed as young as four years old. "That was the thing – we went with our parents and we got our hair done and we kept a relaxer because having thick hair was not 'manageable' — so that's just what we did," she says. Campbell wasn't a part of the decision, and remained unaware of the possible implications that come with chemically altering one's hair for years.
"I think it was just one of those things that everyone did and I just kind of went with it. I didn't question whether or not it was the right thing to do because that's just what it was. Everyone was doing it and [my mom] got one and I would go [to the salon] and the other little girls were getting theirs, as well, and I would get little ponytails," she says. "I noticed that my hair was easier to manage and it was really long and healthy, regardless of the chemicals. There was never a time where I questioned, 'Is this normal or this right'? There were no little girls around me either who didn't have [their hair relaxed]. Everyone had it, I rarely saw someone with their kinky or natural hair out."
It was only until Campbell was forced to that she decided to go natural. Having moved to Wisconsin after graduating from college, she found it difficult to find a hairstylist in her new city that could do her hair properly. "The town was 98% white and there was no one there to do my hair," she says. "So I always would do it on my own, but the whole relaxer-thing felt like a lot. I transitioned and then I big-chopped ,and I felt that it was okay for me to do that because they didn't know what my hair was supposed to look like anyway. I transitioned and I got an inch cut off every month, and one day I looked in the mirror and was like, 'You know what? I'm just going to chop the rest of it off.'"
Campbell adds that the "surge of social media when everyone was hashtagging #ILoveMyNatural" was what initially sparked her interest in making the transition. "I don't feel like I was a trailblazer per se, but I definitely tried it sooner than my counterparts," she notes. "My best friend [went natural] a couple of months prior and all I did anyway was watch YouTube videos so I was very much fascinated. I watched stories regarding people transitioning to natural. That's why I decided to transition before I chopped."
Though Campbell is glad to have made the transition, she doesn't necessarily regret the years she spent relaxing her hair. "I think I more so regret not taking better care of it when I was given free rein over my hair [later]. I don't think it altered my curl pattern, but it has definitely affected my lens of what I think is acceptable for hair," she recalls. "For instance, every job interview I would go on, I felt the need to wear my hair straight. If I was going to go to a formal event, I felt like my hair needed to be sleek and straight to look 'nice' or to be 'pretty.' I've just gotten past that and have gone to interviews with my twist-out because they're going to get whatever I give them now."
Writer Jourdan Ash was in sixth grade when she first noticed her peers had relaxers, and in seventh grade, she started pressuring her mom to let her get one, too. Leading up to high school, Ash would flatiron her hair to achieve a more "grown" look, and once she entered ninth grade, she began getting relaxers regularly. "I got into college and I still had a relaxer and I wanted to keep getting a relaxer, but the thing about college is that you're broke, so a lot of times, we were doing our own hair. I was flatironing it more often. I was going out more often and because I was going out, I was sweating it out more often," she says. "I remember having my homegirl do a relaxer on me, but us not letting it [process] long enough so it was still thick and wavy, and I just knew I couldn't do it again without being bald."
Ash's transition to natural hair is almost identical to Campbell's in that she chose to cut off her relaxed ends herself. "I don't remember what happened, but I started to transition into going natural. Instead of cutting it off completely, I would cut it piece-by-piece," recalled Ash. "I went home the summer of my sophomore year and I saw my childhood hairstylist and she was like, 'Okay, we're not doing this,' so she started the grow-out process. When I [went back to] school, I did a lot of perm rod sets and Bantu knots that came out really, really cute because the majority of my hair was still straight. So I had this whole loose-curl look going on which was cool, until the majority of my hair started growing out and I was like, 'Oh shit, what do I do?'"