As I start this post, my hair is permanently losing its curls and I am emotionally exhausted from the work of trying to think about all the ways I can justify this decision. How incredibly unfair that I can’t just enjoy this moment. How annoying that I feel like I’m letting down my other natural-hair-rocking people of color. How rude that I feel unable to make a decision about my hair, about MY body, without feeling like I’m disappointing somebody or giving in to societal norms. How very very exhausting.
Almost three months ago I found myself frustrated to the point of tears because of my hair. Despite a keratin treatment, oils, and deep conditioning, it was breaking off like crazy and would not hold moisture. My working theory is that the chemicals in shampoo/conditioner here in SE Asia is much different than what my hair is used to, and not having access to my usual products was wreaking havoc on my head…plus the incessant heat, humidity, and questionable water.
In a fit of rage, frustration, and feelings of isolation, I sent some good friends of mine a long message about my hair struggles, knowing they would listen and give me space to rant. It was that conversation, followed by several others, where I began to unravel my psychological relationship with my hair…and just how unhealthy it probably is.
Hair and identity are inextricably linked. Your identity and the formation and transformation of who you are throughout your life can be expressed physically through your hair choices. Much of how people judge you is based on appearance, whether we like it or not; and from a young age, the world taught me and I believed, that straight hair was more beautiful than any other kind of hair. I remember secretly despairing when picture day came around in middle school, knowing that my wild and unruly curls would look nowhere close to the stick straight, glossy hair that sat atop my best friend’s head.
When high school rolled around, I somehow convinced my mom to let me start chemically relaxing my hair…and it was amazing. I loved it, my friends loved it, boys loved it, everybody complimented it. I felt more confident.
High school was a positive experience for me and when senior year rolled around, I was four years into regular chemical straightening. The spring before graduation, I sat beside some friends and watched the alumni parade as we did every year. Each group of alumni walked by the bleachers and in the 5 year reunion group there was a gorgeous interracial girl with natural hair that looked how mine would have looked without the relaxers. She was wearing this bright yellow top with jeans and as she walked by laughing with her friends – I wanted it. All of it. The hair, the outfit, the laughing. A couple months later I chopped off all of my relaxed hair and began the process of growing out my natural hair.
I hated it. I hated my short fro. I hated that I couldn’t put it in a pony-tail. I hated that I felt like I couldn’t change the style or do anything other than throw on a headband of a different color. So I started college hating my hair. I hated my major. I hated calculus. I hated a lot of things at this time…but I did have really great friends. And these friends began to show me what it was like to be okay with being me. They lived life unapologetically black. They accepted natural and permed, kinky, wavy, weaves, locs, etc, etc. They, along with with some close friends of color from high school, taught this interracial farm girl from lily-white Michigan what it was like to love being something other than lily-white. To aspire to being something not constrained to the norms society chose for me. It was liberating.
Eventually my hair grew, and as it did, so did my confidence and contentment with my hair and all that it represented. I began to love those tight curls that I’d play with endlessly. I can’t pinpoint when, or why, or how, but eventually I learned to embrace my crazy hair. I still enjoyed the occasional straightening, but I didn’t crave stick straight as I once had. Years went by, inches grew, and I was happy with my hair and all that it represented about me.
And then I moved to Thailand.
My daily life is full of comments on appearance. Thai culture focuses on these things almost obsessively…and for a big, brown, curly headed, interracial female, there have been days when my confidence has reached rock bottom from the never-ending commenting. It is not cruel, I do not feel attacked, but it can be hard when you’re not used to being scrutinized in every moment. There is a larger conversation that I will eventually tackle here about the vast cultural difference surrounding diversity in body types, ethnicities and skin color, but for now I’ll stick to hair.
The kids at my site LOVE my hair and they tell me that all the time. So part of me is sad to lose the curls because I know they will miss them.
The teachers at my school saw my hair straightened one day after I had gotten a hair cut and they all told me how beautiful it was and then they told me that they missed my curls and loved those more. So part of me feels guilty for doing away with the curls permanently.
My host family saw my hair straight and immediately asked how much it cost to straighten it and why it wasn’t like that all the time. So I feel a responsibility to teach them about the diversity of hair cuts and styles and the various ways people can choose to style their hair – without it being any less beautiful.
I’m feeling so many emotions about this decision; including sad, guilty, and responsible.
But then yesterday a PC volunteer friend asked me: “What do YOU want?”
I took a deep breath and said “I want a change. I want to feel like my hair is healthy. I want it to stop being so dry and unmanageable. I want my bike helmet to actually fit on top of my head. I want it to be straight for awhile!”
And there it was. Underneath a giant pile of “should’s” and sadness and guilt and responsibility and bias, there was a desire that came from me. A desire to change my hair up for a bit for the first time in almost 10 years.
I know some of my friends may think I’ve been over-thinking this whole transition. It’s just hair! It grows out! But it isn’t just hair for me. It’s my history, it’s my self-worth, it’s my growth, it’s my flaws, it’s my identity.
Today, I got my hair permanently straightened*. Today, I decided I wanted to make a change…so I did. Today, as painful as the process has been, I decided to care more about what I want than what the world thinks.
Maybe the lesson here isn’t that straight hair is better than curly hair, but that doing what is right for you, regardless of what others may think, is growth of it’s own.
*side-note: straightening options have evolved in the last 10 years, and while they do still contain harsh chemicals, I went with Japanese Thermal re-bonding which was much kinder on my head than any relaxer I had ever gotten in the past