I got my first relaxer so long ago, I don’t even remember it. I’m sure it followed the familiar ritual: Sitting on the floor between my mother’s knees, an old towel draped around my neck, Vaseline smeared on my face and ears and strict instructions not to squirm, lest I face the stinging wrath of a rattail comb to the fleshy back of my arm.
But I can’t remember what my 8-ish-year-old self was thinking. Was I excited at the prospect of wearing my newly silky hair unfettered by braids and yarn-secured ponytails? Thrilled that I was becoming a big girl like my older cousins, who all rocked straight strands? Or was I nervous, worried about burning after a million admonishments not to scratch my scalp?
Whatever my feelings, the touch-ups soon became a regular occurrence, an annoyingly constant presence over the next 20-odd years (with a two-year break for an ill-fated curl — um, I’m from Cleveland). Every six weeks (and then three when I cropped my hair extra short after college), I dutifully visited a salon or kitchen table and tried to wait out the familiar burning long enough to get my hair bone straight. I’d gulped the red Kool-Aid unquestioningly the first time it was offered, and fell into a cycle of rushing to find a new stylist every time I moved to a new city, unconsciously afraid to spend any time with my hair in its natural state for fear that the world — or I — would find me lacking.
Then, just after my 28th birthday, I realized I’d had enough of the mental warfare that was straightening my hair. There wasn’t any particular moment of clarity, no thunderclap of self awareness that shocked me into giving up relaxers. Honestly, I was just tired. Tired of spending half a day in the salon waiting for my turn in the chair. Tired of coming up off of $109 to get my fix of a chemical that transformed my hair into something that approximated “beauty.” Tired of relegating my natural coils to the stuff of half-joking conversations about how, “Ouch!” my kitchen was getting thick. Tired of being afraid of hair I’d never really gotten a chance to love and tired of worrying that I wouldn’t know how to take care of it. Tired of wondering if men would still find me sexy with an Afro, and if chicks would still stop me on the street to marvel at my tresses. Just tired.
I’d always had some vague notion that I’d leave relaxers behind, maybe start with a super-close crop, rock a massive Afro, then settle into salt-and-pepper locs in my old age. But it wasn’t until a random, unremarkable day in July 2009 that I got tired enough to embrace my own authentic crowning glory. And I haven’t looked back since.
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