Words are funny things. Far too often, we speak to each other,
discuss topics, and describe situations and people without a second
thought about what comes out of our mouths. When I was young, we used to
get mad at the older kids who “gypped” us and stole our marbles. Later,
I was taught that the verb “to gyp” was related to “Gypsy”, which spun a
negative connotation on a group of people and labeled them as cheats
and swindlers. The subtle difference between “disinterest” and
“uninterest”, understanding the Latin roots of many English words we
spoke…the magic of linguistics is all around us. So, what does this have
to do with hair?
Think about the word “relaxer”. Many of us are personally familiar
with the process – I distinctly remember my hairdresser mixing my Revlon
or Motions relaxer, slathering it on my head, and testing my ability to
put mind over matter and pretend like I didn’t feel the tingling turn
into a quiet burn. If I cried while it was happening, I smiled when it
was done. Leaving the salon with swingy, bouncy, straight hair made it
all seem worthwhile.
I shared a laugh with my Mom one day about the word “relaxer”. Mom
had just come back from her own day at the salon, and her hair was laid
like Rapunzel (word to Funky Dineva). She was the first one who said it – “I don’t know why it’s called a ‘relaxer’ – my hair ain’t stressed out!” We laughed about it then, but I remembered that conversation years later when I started wearing my hair naturally.
I had coworkers tell me my hair looked crazy. Literally – these Black women would walk up to me and say “Your hair looks RIDICULOUS.” They
actually stood there and waited, as if they expected an explanation of
why I would “let myself” look like that. I had family members who asked
me “When are you going to do something with your hair?” Never mind that I called myself doing something the
night before when I stayed up long past my bedtime to carefully
2-strand twist my hair. Every dissenting commenter had the same remedy
for my problem: “You need to get a relaxer.” After one such statement, I remembered my mom’s voice from years back, and calmly replied “Why? My hair isn’t stressed out.”
For the majority of the 10+ years that I relaxed my hair, I did it
simply because I liked the look. Self-hatred or “wanting to be White”
never crossed my mind. It was just what I did, and what I wanted to do.
However, when I thought back to the adolescent me, who begged and begged
and begged to “have straight hair”, I realized just how stressed I was.
To me, little girls wore their hair naturally, but it was a rite of
passage into womanhood to leave the kinks and curls behind and embrace
the relaxer. I wanted to feel grown. I wanted to fit in more with my
classmates. And when I finally got that first relaxer, it did exactly
what its name suggests – it relaxed my mind. As painful as that first
application was (I learned the hard way about why you never scratch your
scalp in the days leading up to your appointment), at the same time it
was a soothing salve. It was a masochistic relationship that I willingly
chose to be a part of.
The names of the products I was so familiar with then are interesting
when I take another look now. Relaxers will calm your hair down.
Texturizers will give the right texture to your incorrectly textured
hair. Softeners are necessary for hard hair. Even if the choice to
chemically alter your hair is one solely based on style and not any
dwelling self-esteem issues, you have to admit – looking at these
product names and what they imply for our naturally blessed hair should
give you pause.
Is there a concluding point to this post? Eh, not so much. It was
more of an open run of thoughts about the power words have, how we use
them, and what they mean in relation to how we see ourselves. Nowadays,
whether I wear my hair straight or curly, it reflects my personality –
lively, wild, always in motion – no need anymore for it to be relaxed,
calmed down, or tamed. My mind, like my hair, is no longer ‘stressed’.