Google Header -->
Skip to main content
Curly Nikki

Word Power: A Look at Linguistics & Black Hair

By January 27th, 202123 Comments
Word Power: A Look at Linguistics & Black Hair
…by Bee of via ThreeNaturals 

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’.

Do you have any similar experiences?


  • DecemberPumpkin says:

    not really but now i will be on the look out for word origins

  • NikNak says:

    to relax:

    1350–1400; Middle English relaxen < Latin relaxāre to stretch out again, loosen, equivalent to re- re- + laxāre to loosen, derivative of laxus slack, lax

    The additional meanings like "to de-stress" were added over time. But a relaxer is the most efficient and appropriate word for what a relaxer is. It loosens curls.

    I find it amusing to see how much power people give to words. And even more so when the words original meaning and intent had nothing to with the present meaning/intent.

    It's like the word "nigger" at one time. All it was was a word that meant Black people. It had no negative connotation. It was derived from the latin word 'niger' which means black – hence we have countries named Nigeria and Niger

    Because one day someone used it in a mean way, all of a sudden it's a 'bad' word. I'm actually bothered by that fact. Somehow we've come to believe that if it is associated with Black people, then it must somehow be a bad word or meant that something else is bad about us.

    I think we need to worry less about the 'power' of words – which often is unmerited, b/c the words were originally meant to be harmless, and more about why they affect us so much.

  • KJ says:

    I think it's interesting that as a black woman it is expected to go through the discomfort of "relaxing" our hair to make others feel more comfortable.

  • Anonymous says:

    I thought it was called a relaxer because it put others at ease, since natural black hair tends to make some folks very uncomfortable. SMDH!


  • Elaine D. says:

    Good education tid-bit on the being "gypped" thing.
    Also, I used to hate relaxers because they never worked…and since I would want them to so bad, I ended up getting burned in the back of my head.
    I really don't envy hair that is laid down anymore and slow but sure, I'm getting more and more comfortable with my bushy edges 😉

  • Anonymous says:

    There's something crazy to my mind about this assumption that relaxed hair calms down others in society. If you think that the sight of a different hair type stresses out non blacks what effect do you think a different skin colour, facial features and body shape has on them? Why stop at relaxing your hair, why not relax your skin by bleaching, relax your face using cosmetic surgury etc.

    Once you become so other-centred that you're determined to transform yourself physically to blend in and 'relax the minds' of others, you can never really be satisfied until you completely turn yourself inside out and erase yourself.

    And even then you'll know no real peace – look at what happened to Michael Jackson – he started with his hair as well, and kept going until the rest of him matched up with the relaxed hair.

    He simply took things to their natural conclusion, same as an increasing number of black female celebrities with their skin lightening, blond weaves and facial cosmetic surgeries.

    Does life get better for you when you become a cheap facsimile of your oppressor? No it actually gets far worse, because the mental agony intensifies with your loss of loss of soul as your racial identity no matter how denigrated, is erased.

    To my mind it's a kind of death wish.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think because we have become so conditioned to think relaxed hair is what would help us blend in, others have become conditioned to feel the same way.

    You really do stand out, even amongst our own people, with natural hair. It really does make some uncomfortable.

    Funny enough, that's partly why I love being natural, lol! Let them feel a way. We good over here. Take it or leave it mofos.

  • Katrina A says:

    " 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."

    I feel like truer words were never spoken. When I read these lines, it made me realize that this is exactly how I felt and why I wanted a relaxer when I was younger. Not because I hated who I was but that I wanted to be "grown" and to me "grown" women had straight relaxed hair that they did not wear in braids anymore.

  • Anonymous says:

    Great post!
    I remember getting my hair 'pressed'. Yeah, it was pressed to be set free and wild.

  • Spokenheart says:

    I have had PLENTY experiences like this! my sister and mother's favorite lines are "when you gone do somethign with your hair?". before i wore my hair in a fade and it was when u gone stop cutting your hair. Now im growing it and they are still not satisfied. lol

  • Nashira says:

    this post reminded me of the beginning of 007newnew's big chop video:

  • bb says:

    This weekend my Aunt decided to "treat" me to a day at her salon. Her hairdresser was in a shed in the backyard of a house in the North Bx. I told the woman that I needed my ends clipped and I wanted my hair flat twisted back. While I was there my aunt told me she thought my two strand flat twists looked like a piece of doo doo on my head and that all the hair I have overwhelms my face. After this woman BACK BRUSHED my wet hair and didn't detangle it with conditioner in it, instead she rubbed it with a towel then raked through it after a light mist with a comb (not a wide toothed one), she finally got around to clipping my ends. When she was done my aunt declared that if finally "Looked like some hair" and I decided I'm never going back. She then proceeded to relax my aunt's hair, despite the fact that she has psoriasis of the scalp.

  • Anonymous says:

    TyaD said it best. We as black women have bought into this idea that our hair should be toned down, that it is too much because others may not understand it. My perspective is they never will if they never see it. The presence of natural hair should become a part of the norm. Anon 12:06 also makes a good point. I don't think about going to the beach. I don't think about working out and breaking a sweat, and I don't think about the walking outside on a windy or rainy day anymore. I just do, and I am quite relaxed about that!

  • T_Mac says:

    Love that comment from mom, "…my hair's not stressed". LOL. Isn't that the truth. There are days that I wish for the relaxed look again, but I feel so free with my natural hair that I can never see myself back in the stylist chair going through the "slow burn".

  • Anonymous says:

    I think most women who learn to wear their hair natural actually realise how confined they felt with having to maintain a straight look ALL the time. It's not easy always keeping an eye out for flyways on windy days, getting a touch-up when the roots start showing. It's the very opposite of being "relaxed".

    This was a good post, simple words can bear a weighty message.

  • Bee says:

    Thanks for the love y'all!

    TyaD, you make a damn good point. My thoughts were so internal that I forgot about the "relaxing" effect our hair choices have on others. Thanks for bringing that point up.

    Tiffany B., I like that "lean wit it, rock wit it" mantra! I've learned as well that my hair is going to do what it's going to do. I make it as cute as possible, but when I want to pin it back and it wants to be left free, I've learned to just stop the power struggle and roll with it…lol.

  • Tiffany B. says:

    Words are powerful, and they penetrate deeper than we realize. Words are a spiritual force as well, depending on how they're said and to whom they're said words can be damaging. But again it's all about perspective, because perception (to most people) is reality.

    I don't know about you all, but I feel like most natural (and permed women) have looked "a mess" at some point in their hair journeys. It's at those awkward stages where creativity went left, my hair went right, and I was like whatever "I'm still going to work like this". My hair has been a mess, and is actually on the "a mess" side today, but no one has ever been bold enough to tell me that in a mean way. Sometimes family will jokingly say "what's going on with your hair today" or "let me fix it" but I've had waay more complements from them than weird comments. Just because I choose to have natural hair doesn't give ME – emphasis on ME – a license to walk-around looking like Don King and get offended if people give me a side-eye. Usually on those days, I don't care anyway. Most of the time my hair doesn't look the exact way that I'd like it to, but I learned a powerful mantra a long time ago that I abide by everyday and it goes "lean wit it, rock wit it". #whatever

  • Anonymous says:

    Preach to the church TyaD!

  • TyaD says:

    I look at the term 'relaxed' as something that helps other people. When a black woman's hair is straightened, the majority of society (in many countries) view her as more acceptable, professional, and beautiful. So it 'relaxes' others when you don't walk into an interview with an afro or 'big' hair. Yes, it's absurd that hair should have that much impact. But what's more absurd is how many black women have also bought into the same ideology.

  • cinnamoncurls says:

    Loved this post!

  • Anonymous says:

    Wonderful post 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Great post!

  • Sonya says:

    Wonderful post! Yes, words have the power to define, and of course we give them meaning. I have been natural for the better part of my life. I drifted into the "relaxed" world for a few years when I was in high school for the very reasons that you mention here. I thought I was a woman and that getting my hair "relaxed" was not only a rite of passage, but I "needed" the implied freedom that permanently straightened hair would provide. Well, of course after most of my hair began to thin and then fall out, I transitioned back to natural and never looked back. But, yes, the irony of the vocabulary used to describe these products does not escape me.

Leave a Reply