October 31, 2012

On the Couch with Fayola

Fayola today

Fayola writes:

For a long time seeing women with natural hairstyles offended me. Overnight it seemed like blogs about hair care, “transition stories” and styling tips invaded the internet. Models with dreads, afros and curls were suddenly all over black women’s magazines. “Kinky” was no longer a bad word. I wasn’t sure I liked it.

I’m a thirty year-old black woman and I don’t have a transition story. You see, I’ve never had a
relaxer.

You would think that I would be happy that the style that I’ve lived with, and often defended, my whole life was now popular. For years I had encouraged my friends to forsake the “creamy crack”. Why then did it threaten me when they did? The thing was, as more women jumped on the natural bandwagon, I didn’t feel so special anymore.

My hair always got me a lot of attention. As a child, that meant hearing how beautiful it was. The older I got, though, the more the message changed.

I was never told that my hair was ugly, but a lot of people went out of their way to convince me that it could be better if only I would just use a relaxer. “It will be so long!” “You would be able to do so much with it!” “You would look so pretty!” My hair represented untapped potential, an opportunity to be truly beautiful.

Later, in my majority-white university, my natural hair intensified my awareness of my blackness. Because my hair was such an anomaly, I was often asked if it were real. I was like a professor of hair. “No it does not grow out of my head in twists.” “Yes, it can take hours to style.” I also, for the first time, experienced people touching my hair without my permission. Somewhere between feeling stunned, annoyed and flattered, I concluded that I was an exotic alien.

The reviews from black women were mixed. They ranged from admiration to embarrassment. There were black women who told me that they wished they could wear their hair like mine. This was of course mostly followed by: “… but it would be too hard to manage” or “… but it wouldn’t suit me” or “… but I don’t have ‘good’ hair.” Others worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a job. It upset one girl that I had never had a relaxer. “It’s about that time,” she said.

Not many could understand how I had made it to my age without a relaxer. Maybe getting a relaxer was like getting your period, a rite of passage or sign of maturity that I had missed.

Growing up, my father made it clear that neither of his daughters could get their hair relaxed before the age of eighteen. My sister, whose hair was longer and thicker than mine, got a relaxer as soon as the statute of limitations expired.

One day she returned home with long, glorious, silky hair that reached almost to her waist. It was as beautiful as everyone said it would be. But, as time went by, it got thinner and broke off. To me, she just looked like every other black girl. That’s not what I wanted for myself. I was special.
Over the years, I had become something of a hair evangelist, decrying the evils of relaxers. Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery! I would cry. I responded to nappy hair wisecracks, with a shake of my head and an admonition that “Massa still riding your back.” I was more evolved. My hair made me superior.

Then suddenly cultural tides shifted and it was cool to rock a natural. Though still in the minority, women were taking the “big chop” in droves. And they looked good too! The creativity once reserved for relaxed hair and hair weaves started coming out in natural hairstyles. My hair didn’t make me stand out anymore.

This realization sent me into a crisis of confidence. Desperate to convince myself that I didn’t need my hair to be special, I had my own big chop. From the first snip of the scissors, I began crying. What had I done? When I saw myself in the mirror, I thought, I need more makeup.


I wish I could say that I had a big Aha! moment that healed me of my insecurities. I didn’t. After a while, without really noticing it, life just went on. I was the same woman. India Irie was right. I was not my hair. I had to decide whether that woman was beautiful or not. I decided she was. It was that simple.

Today, my hair is long again and it is still natural. I keep it that way because I believe that it looks pretty and is healthy. I no longer look at women with natural hair as encroaching on my beauty territory. I read the transition stories with empathy, knowing that as women we all have our own paths to seeing ourselves as more than a sum of our physical parts: legs, breasts, faces, even hair. We are whole beings. And yes, we are beautiful.

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