I was always a “tender headed” child. That is, I cried when I got my hair combed.
I don’t remember when my mother1 started relaxing my hair. I remember that it was probably, in part at least, my fault. At least once a week, getting my hair combed was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. It was exhausting for our whole family.
My father would pace from one room to another like he really needed to visit the kitchen seven times in the 90 hours it took my mother to braid my hair so I looked like a little brown unicorn (three braids were the worst, but the woman only had so much patience).
“Maybe you could just let her rest for a bit?” my father suggested on the way back from pretending to need stuff in the kitchen again.
My hysterical sobbing ebbed a bit as I baited my breath hoping my mother (or some compassionate ghost that had recently taken her over) would shrug and let me run off to lick my wounds. And then maybe she’d forget and it would be over!? Muhahaha!
Sike! If looks could kill… My dad was finished with his rubbernecking and attempted intervention and my sobbing picked up again2.
One day this ritual ended and we moved on to boxes of relaxer.
I wasn’t happier but at least in-between treatments I could comb my own hair. Small victories, FTW!
The kit, like similar hair dye kits, came with chemicals that are to be kept separated until there is science to do. It also came with gloves and all the instructions in the world in tiny fine print. I don’t think my mother ever really read the instructions. Instead she, like many people, read the pictures.
Mix the stuff, base the scalp with Vaseline, part the hair, work quickly, rinse thoroughly.
Inevitably, some of these steps were skipped intentionally or accidentally. My mother kept her nails long so the whole basing the scalp thing was always a fight.
“It’s going to burn me.”
“Not if we do it fast. Sit.”
“You get gloves; I should get some protection too.”
After years of chemical burns and back and forth, I started basing my own damned scalp. And I was so thorough. I did my ears and baby hairs and the back of my neck. In all, each time I used about half a container of Vaseline. I wasn’t fucking with these burns anymore.
Eventually, I started going to the hairdresser to get my hair relaxed and DID.
People who aren’t Black Women might not know this but Black hair salons are the worst version of a business ever. There’s that joke about CPT (Colored People Time)… It’s not funny when going to get your hair done is a six hour affair. I’m not even kind of exaggerating.
Six hours. And it’s not because of elaborate styling or super delicate processes that require careful time management. No, it’s because Fuck you, pay me.
There’s genuinely no good reason EVERY black hair salon I’ve ever been to has been a vicious time suck. It just is what it is.
Maybe the women doing hair needed to stop doing hair (all of the women at this salon) mid-way through processes and order then eat some food (true story). Maybe they misjudged how long it would take to do the client(s) before me and are now running behind by 2 hours (true story). Maybe the stylist is on the phone with her ex and has been for ages and will get you me when she gets to me (true story).
From the rundown nature of every black salon I’ve been to—I don’t WANT to be sitting in a broken chair reading VIBE from 3 years ago in a rented space in a project building (true story)— to the rundown nature of too many stylists I’ve encountered, I gave up on Black salons late in high school.
In high school I decided to start relaxing my hair myself.
How hard could it be? If I was unsure, I just erred on the side of caution and might not have had bone straight roots. Whatever.After a while I got more comfortable with blow dryer-free wash and go styling. I went longer and longer between touch-ups until I stopped doing them altogether.
Freshman year of college I grabbed my hair at the roots and felt where the unrelaxed, natural hair ended and the relaxed hair started—this was my line of demarcation.
I started cutting in the front and didn’t want to live with a mullet so kept cutting until it was all gone.
My mother saw me over winter break and disagreed. She grabbed my hair (Damn it, there was just enough for her to grab a fistful) and exclaimed, “What have you done!?”
“Mum, we’re in the middle of the food court and it’s gone so if you could just let it and my hair go…”
She sucked her teeth and I thanked god we were in public meeting my cousin’s small children for the first time. “Can I touch your hair!”
“It’s soft!” (children are always shouting to me.)
My dad loved it. He’s 100% for natural hair. Maybe from the experiences of his youth or mine… Either way he was for The Big Chop.
Years later, out of college and into the workforce I got lazy.
Natural hair is hard work. My hair is thick and my arms are weak.
I research different kinds of relaxers, though I’m not totally sure what I was looking for. Maybe the most gentle or the most effective or the least chemically.
As an adult I got pretty good at doing my own hair. I was quick and efficient and cared the most about my scalp and ear health. I only did the relaxer lightly to just weaken the curl, not kill it completely.
I could blow my hair out if I wanted or I could keep it looking a little natural. The best of both worlds.
One Saturday afternoon I’m in the bathroom happily parting hair and applying cream when a cluster of hair swings from its group on top of my head right into my face. Not just my face but my wide open eye.
“What’s wrong with you?” my Chinese-Italian (Asian&White) fiancé shouts from the other room not quite sure if this is worth pausing his game for.
As I scramble to remove the gloves and get to the kitchen sink where I can safely rinse my eye, I ask him to read the paper that came in the relaxer kit to see if there’s anything else I need to do. Eye drops? Ointment? Counter agent?
“It says to wash your eye thoroughly with water.”
“Okay good. Thank you.”
My expectation was that he’d put the paper down, pat himself on the back and go back to his computer.
As I’m getting in the shower he says, “You actually put this on your body?”
“No… just my hair and just at the roots.”
“It says to put in on your hair but not your scalp. How do you put something on your hair but not your scalp?”
“Um, you’re careful? I mean if it gets on you scalp for too long you get chemical burns.”
“You just got it in your eye!”
“So you don’t think we should relax our kids’ hair?” I asked with a chuckle.
Genuine horror. “People put this shit on children?”
At the rehearsal dinner for our wedding one of my aunts asked me what I was going to “do about my hair”
Initial visceral reactions and presumptuous defensiveness of blackness and MY choices quelled, I said, “Probably stick some flowers in it.”
- My mom is awesome and I love her to pieces and wouldn’t trade her for anything or anyone. She’s super nice and when the car dealer tried to screw me I called her to straighten them out– and she did. She’s wonderful and inspiring and shit at doing hair. She gets her’s done at a salon(not black) every weekend. ↩
- From the pictures it seems like my Dad isn’t around or we’re not cool any more (I feel like because of black people stereotypes I need to say this). My dad is still around and I love him to pieces and take him to see scifi movies when I miss him and he and my mother are still happily married, living in the suburbs. ↩