Going “Natural” Didn’t Teach Me What I Thought It Would
12.07.18

I spent a cumulative $2,000 on my hair the last year I wore weave. My regimen was strict and perfectly orchestrated to minimize the number of days I spent with my hair laid bare. I booked appointments a month in advance and spent hours in the depths of YouTube reviews before ever making a purchase. Weilding a flat iron to blend my kinky hair with Brazilian waves became second nature.

I did all this under the guise of protecting my natural curls while they recovered from years of damaging chemical relaxers, and I bled money into this excuse. I also believed it was the sole thing keeping me aesthetically on point. With long hair, I always looked “put together.” When I wore weave, makeup felt optional and even a sweatsuit registered a little more elevated. I still often criticized my reflection — If I just had a flatter stomach, I’d be almost perfect — but I took great relief in the knowledge that, in spite of everything else, at least my hair was done.

Then I moved to New York. When I looked around my new city, I noticed tons of black women embracing their curls. A month later, Solange released her hit “Don’t Touch My Hair,” which narrated the hardships and sacredness of Black hair and quickly became an unofficial anthem that I sang word for word whenever it played. Maybe fatefully, the track’s rise coincided with a U.S court ruling that employers could legally ban dreadlocks in their hiring processes and an uprising over a natural hair ban in a South African school’s code of conduct, giving the song’s message deeper meaning. Throughout all this I started questioning why I knew more about caring for the hair I purchased than the hair that grew from my own head. Suddenly, I felt like I was missing out on a part of myself, and so one day, I decided to join in.

Signing up for the implicit promises of natural hair — like that I’d feel more like me — was easy, but I never considered what might happen after hastily casting away a mask I’d been wearing my whole life.

At first, it was exciting. Walking into the beauty supply to buy curly products for the first time felt like shopping for school supplies ahead of a new year. There were so many things to slather on my scalp! I looked forward to stepping out afro-clad and giving European beauty standards the middle finger. Joining the movement felt like an important rite of passage; I couldn’t believe it had taken me this long to embark on it.

I’d traded in the mask of weave for the mask of the movement, hiding behind its message of self-love rather than practicing it.

 

With a haul of goods on my shoulder, I returned to my apartment feeling hopeful, but soon the high wore off. Every time my twist-out fell flat, every time a $16 curl cream failed to deliver the moisturized look pictured on the packaging, I felt defeated. My enthusiasm quickly gave way to a sense of loss for the security and poise flowing extensions seemed to offer me. The person looking back at me in the mirror looked foreign. Her clothes didn’t fit quite the same. Her bare face looked…too bare. Did she just gain 30 pounds? My confidence was gutted, but I’d be damned before admitting my experience wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. So I pushed on, slicking my hair back into a severe yet tolerable bun and touting the movement to all who would listen.

It wasn’t until I set out to document and write a story about how going natural had changed my style that I was forced to confront the demon I’d been suppressing. As part of my research, I was supposed to take photos of my looks over the course of a month, an act that used to come as naturally as breathing. But by the end of the experiment, I had only a meager few. What was happening here?

As I scrolled back through my camera roll in search of filler content, I noticed a pattern. Where there were extensions, there were selfies. I posed in mirrors, flipped cameras and duck-faced my way through each day. When my natural curls made an appearance, the drop-off was abrupt. Awkward afro progress photos appeared sparingly between screenshotted text conversations and memes. The lopsided smiles populating the rare snap exposed me. I had set out to affirm the significance of the natural hair movement, and was instead drowning in a sea of self-flagellation.

Backed into a corner by these images, I had to face the incongruence. I’d traded in the mask of weave for the mask of the movement, hiding behind its message of self-love rather than practicing it. I saw myself treating it as a commodity I could buy. As if simply proclaiming a commitment to my hair could accomplish the soul-healing work years of internalized shame truly called for. This kind of insight is arguably the hardest to sit with. It’s one that revealed my frayed edges but didn’t hand me the needle to stitch them up.

I’m still searching for that needle, but acknowledging that feels like a step forward. And even though I still have self-deprecating thoughts, reminding myself that this is a process stops them in their tracks. I’m working on it, and will continue to explore my relationship with my hair (I might even wear weave again) until some figurative light flickers on and changes the way I see myself for good. Until then, I’ll keep dragging my demon into the light each time it rears its head. Maybe one day it won’t be a demon at all.

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