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Self-Help

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For Me, Relaxers Were Futile Attempts to Present My “Best” Self

Yesterday I asked many questions of myself:WHY did I so desire straight hair?Why, when my hair was falling out and I was spending a lot of money to attain a texture that just wasn’t what I was naturally blessed with?Was it because I wanted to be beautiful?Did I feel ugly in my natural state?What was driving my desire to have straight hair?Why did I look at a relaxer as a magic wand that would grant me beauty?

I can only speak for myself.I believe that I desired straight hair as a way to assert my femininity, to fit it, to feel good about myself.I relaxed my hair because it was a rite of passage for me, and, from looking around, the many other young black girls I knew who also got their hair relaxed around 12 or 13 years of age.I relaxed my hair because it was easier and more convenient.

Is there a deeper root to this?Was I striving for some beauty ideal that was impossible to attain with my natural hair?As hard as it is for me to admit, I believe that the decision to relax my hair was an attempt to escape who I was so that I could become a “better” me.The only problem is, that better me was not the real me.I was trying to conform to an image that I could never authentically attain.

I came across this fantastic audio from a 9/16/09 broadcast on WUNC 91.5 North Carolina Public Radio.The show was called “Haireotypes” and here is the show description from the website (http://wunc.org/tsot/archive/sot0916abc09.mp3/view):

“Whether yours is straight, kinky, thinning, or long gone, the long and short of it is, just about all of us have hang-ups about our hair. That’s because hair and personal identity go together like shampoo and conditioner. There are also plenty of cultural stereotypes about hair rooted in everything from color to texture. On today’s show, host Frank Stasio presents a layered conversation about society’s complex relationship with hair and the biases we harbor about others’ strands. Joining the program are Joan Jacobs Brumberg, professor emeritus at Cornell University and author of “The Body Project”; Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business; Neal Lester, professor of English at Arizona State University;photographer Victor Jeffreys II; and Michelle Breyer, co-founder ofNaturallyCurly.com. Plus, members of the cast ofBurning Coal Theater Company‘s current production of “Hair” provide live musical interludes.

State of Things Producer Lindsay Foster Thomas kicked off the conversation this morning with a commentary on her effort to embrace her natural look”

Curious to hear your thoughts!

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Relaxer Magically Made Me More Beautiful

I had a relaxer from elementary school until graduate school, roughly 20 plus years.As a little girl, new growth threatened my sense that I had pretty hair but, as I got older, my relationship with my hair and the effect on my identity grew in complexity.I struggled with revealing my authentic self as it relates to my hair, meaning, I did whatever I could to conceal my new growth.

As a young woman, I remember many occasions when I would not go to an event because my edges were jacked up in my opinion.Or, I’d only go if I my gel, toothbrush and scarf would do the trick.This is when my hair was pulled back.Some of you may already know the routine:I’d wet my edges, take a toothbrush (one reserved especially for this purpose!), dip it into some clear gel and saturate my edges.Then, I’d tie a tight scarf around it and let it dry.When I removed the scarf, my edges would be shellacked in place and I’d be okay to go out.Or, if my hair was curled, I’d take a curling iron and, basically, press the edges.I remember the knot in my stomach, the anxiety rising when I just didn’t like the way that my hair was looking, yet I knew that my relaxer appointment was a week away.

Research has found that long hair is an indication of femininity (Callaghan, 1994; Cunningham, 1995) so it’s no wonder that I strove to have long, straight tresses.But, what does it mean when your natural hair does not “meet” the standards of femininity?I think we see women chasing beauty and doing whatever they can to attain it.This may explain why women do things to their hair that are harmful (e.g., result in hair loss, permanent scalp damage, etc.).

I myself suffered from alopecia and clumps of my hair would fall out in the back left part of my head.I’d stop getting a relaxer for a while, moisturize my hair and go to stylists who could straighten my hair in healthier ways.Basically, I put myself in hair rehab so that my hair would strengthen and I’d be able to go back to relaxers.This may work for other women, but when I look back, I have to ask, WHY did I so desire straight hair?Why, when my hair was falling out and I was spending a lot of money to attain a texture that just wasn’t what I was naturally blessed with?Was it because I wanted to be beautiful?Did I feel ugly in my natural state?What was driving my desire to have straight hair?Why did I look at a relaxer as a magic wand that would grant me beauty?

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New Growth Meant Not Pretty

New growth is a good thing.It represents rebirth, life, strength.But why did new growth have such a negative connotation when I was younger?Was it that I was resentful, afraid of the fact that the real me was rearing its ugly head and peaking through the cracks of my relaxed façade? “

This is an excerpt from yesterday’s post and I want to revisit this discussion because it is beginning to elicit some interesting feedback and pulling up lots of my forgotten reactions.As I little girl, I seriously doubt that I was thinking about issues of authenticity.Instead, I think that I was so upset because new growth, in my mind, meant that my hair was no longer going to be pretty.The popular girls tended to have long, straight hair (including the Black girls).I remember one little Black girl named Makeeba J.She had beautiful, long wavy hair that she’d wear in two plaits.I wanted her hair so bad!It was glossy black and I thought she must have been mixed with Native American because I’d never seen a Black person with hair like that.I’m 99% sure that her hair was natural (I never asked) but all I knew was that for my hair to look like that, I’d have to get a relaxer.Makeeba seemed to be the little girl that all of the boys liked and I attributed it to her silky hair.Even though I was at the age when I beat boys up, I still wanted that kind of male attention.I wanted to be coveted, fawned over, dreamed about.I thought that my hair was a barrier to that kind of adoration.Thank goodness for my Mother and Father.As I mentioned in an earlier post, my parents made sure that we knew that we were beautiful girls, both inside and out.However, messages that I was somehow inferior, not good enough “as is” still crept into my psyche.Now, I still had a marvelous child hood.Please don’t get the impression that my hair sidelined me in life.That is not my point.My point is that hair attitudes affected how I perceived myself and others, how I identified with MYSELF and as a Black person.

As I got older, I do think I struggled with revealing my authentic self as it relates to my hair, meaning, I did whatever I could to conceal my new growth.In my next post, I’ll talk about why this was such a struggle for me. Also, I’ll share some other reactions that illustrate that Black women may not be the only women struggling with these issues.

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New growth ruined my relaxed facade

New growth.Wow!That phrase brings back a rush of memories of my relaxed hair being overrun with my natural hair.When I saw this image, it brought back a rush of emotions

New growth.Wow!That phrase brings back a rush of memories of my relaxed hair being overrun with my natural hair.When I saw this image, it brought back a rush of emotions (Image found at:http://www.naturallycurly.com/curltalk/3c/77329-opininion-3b-3c-4a-i-am-confused.html).The funny thing is that when I searched “new growth” on the Internet and looked at images, I came up with verdant images of strong spruce trees, plant stems all glistening with dew, budding shoots and many other beautiful images from nature.This made me pause.New growth is a good thing.It represents rebirth, life, strength.But why did new growth have such a negative connotation when I was younger?Was it that I was resentful, afraid of the fact that the real me was rearing its ugly head and peaking through the cracks of my relaxed façade?

How do (did) you feel about new growth?This question pertains to most women, not just Black women so please chime in!JHow did you feel when your color grew out and you had undyed roots?What about when your curly permanent grew out and your natural hair grew in?Did this affect how you felt about yourself?Did you go about your normal daily routine or did this prevent you from going out?I’d love to hear your stories.

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My relaxed hair Nirvana

Yesterday’s post was important to me because I wanted to share a link to a wonderful documentary by Brittney Henton:http://www.vimeo.com/18636227.I also wanted to touch on the importance of how we teach our children about their ethnic hair.

Now, I want to return to my hair journey and talk about my personal experiences when I got my hair relaxed.As a young girl, my hair was described in many ways:nappy, puffy, bad, kinky, rough, tight, disobedient, tough and on and on.So, there was a dual sigh of relief when I got my first relaxer, one from my Mom and one from me.I think my Mom was relieved because she no longer had to deal with me fussing (well, trying to fuss…my Mom just didn’t play that) and crying during the weekly hair care process.Plus, she may have felt that it would be easier to maintain my hair in less time (e.g., put it in a cute ponytail and be done in two minutes).

I was just happy to have hair that was bouncing and behaving.It was nice to look in the mirror and see a pretty head of thick hair shining back at me.I loved to shake my head from side to side and watch the hair fly back and forth. I loved the way that my hair bounced up and down when I jumped rope. I loved the way that it felt when I rubbed my hand from the crown of my head to the ends of my hair, smooth like silk.I loved the way that one ponytail holder could contain all of my hair, so that it looked neat and glossy.An attempt at that when my hair was in its natural state would inevitably lead to a snapped ponytail holder and/or a puffy, messy looking little ball.Even worse was when I struggled and finally got one decent puff.Then, as the day went on and I sweated, I’d realize that the band was slowly losing its grip and my puff was getting smaller and smaller so that more of my hair was outside of the holder than in it.In other words, I looked like I had an afro with a little rubber band bean on the top.I loved that my Mother could wash, condition, blow dry and style my hair in less time than it used to take just to wash it and comb it out.Yes, I thought I had reached Nirvana.Little did I know about a new archenemy:new growth.

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