Last Saturday I had the most whimsical experience. As I walked through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, it felt like another world. I had stepped into a mecca of afros, curls, kinks, waves, braids, and dreadlocks. Men, women, and children predominantly of color were enjoying music, dancing, playing games, picnicking, shopping and hanging out at vendor booths with their favorite natural hair care brands. Everyone was celebrating and embracing their natural hair.
This was my first time at Curlfest, and it was an incredibly enlightening experience. This event was never just about hair; it’s about addressing the stigma of what’s considered beautiful within the black community. A community, who for decades, felt the need to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty to be “accepted.” Straight hair was considered attractive while naturally curly hair wasn’t. Hair wasn’t just hair. It was your identity and ultimately your social status.
Many black women would choose to chemically straighten their hair—known as relaxing—to achieve bone straight hair. The relaxer did what it implies, relax the curl pattern allowing it to become straight by breaking down and significantly damaging the protein bonds that give our hair its natural curl and texture. With the main ingredient being a strong alkali such as sodium hydroxide, there were risks of chemical burns, alopecia and other scalp related issues. Nevertheless, black women still sought to have their hair chemically straightened, even girls as young as three or four years old were subjected to having their hair chemically straightened!
I will raise both hands and admit that I was one of these young women. I begged my mother for a relaxer for years. She finally gave in and approved for me to get a relaxer once I turned sixteen. All my friends already had their hair relaxed, but my hair was always braided or worn out in an afro. I specifically recall wearing my hair out my freshman year of high school when a classmate laughed and referred to my hair as “pubes”–yes, pubic hair! I was incredibly insecure. Since I couldn’t get a relaxer as yet, I sought refuge with the temporary fix of my scorching hot flat iron.
However, around 2010 there was a shift in the paradigm of black hair and beauty. Women began chopping off their relaxed hair, known as the “big chop,” to start fresh in growing out their natural hair. Many of them were never acquainted with their natural hair texture. By this time, I was near my sixteenth birthday and I decided NOT to relax my hair. It was electrifying to see women who look like me embrace their natural beauty and I was grateful toward my mother for not allowing me to destroy mine.
My hair is such a part of me and my journey as a young black woman. One of past insecurities, lessons learned, and pride. I proudly embrace every kink, curl & coil and wouldn’t have it any other way. I love ALL of me…the natural unaltered me.