I was nine years old the first time I had my hair chemically relaxed. It was the 1970s. Kinky-curly Afro’s were in style, and as a little girl I wore mine with pride. Even Michael Jackson sported one back then. By contrast, I noticed my mother, grandmother and aunts relax their hair whenever a patch of natural roots popped up. For the black middle class, having smooth, silky hair has long been a sign of privilege, education and good home training. Getting my hair relaxed represented a coming of age into African-American womanhood. I knew my time would eventually come. Like getting my period, it marked a secret initiation into a society of sisters who every two months, sacrificed hard-earned money (usually $75-150 a pop), comfort and a day at the salon for a single goal: to get their hair as straight as possible.
I remember my first time vividly. It was the afternoon before Easter Sunday. Mom beckoned me into the kitchen to fix my hair like a “big girl” for church. With apprehension, I climbed the kitchen sink and bent over backwards. She whipped out a bottle of Vigorol, the liquid precursor to modern-day cream relaxers, which break down hair bonds so they can be molded straight. Like a surgeon, mom slid on her rubber gloves, told me “hold still” and intently worked the yellow potion onto my virgin locks. The smell of sulphur was so pungent I knew instinctively to keep my eyes closed and my mouth shut. The next fifteen minutes, I tried to hold my breath as she plastered the concoction into my scalp, which immediately started to tingle. Then, more combing and prodding until the texture was smooth. My scalp was now on fire.
The cold water rinse, neutralizer and conditioner came as sweet relief for what felt like hours of torture. And now it was time to survey the work that had been done. In half-amazement, I ran my fingers through a head of thin, straight, shoulder-length hair. My Afro was gone. Like land mines in a war zone, I stumbled across a handful of dime-sized burn scabs on my scalp and hairline, which I would later learn is customary during the lye-based relaxing process. By the time my hair was detangled, curler set, and hood dried, five hours had passed. But it was worth it. My hair was “bouncing and behaving” like my beloved Barbies and the girls in the Breck shampoo commercials
Little did I know that I was continuing a tradition that began hundreds of years earlier during slavery. Back then, African field slaves straightened their hair with irons and salves to look more like bi-racial slaves sired out of wedlock by white masters. Mimicking the hair texture, dress, and mannerisms of white society afforded slaves better chances for food, shelter, education, time off and less physically demanding chores in the “big house”. Eventually, this discrimination morphed into an internal color-based caste system adopted in certain echelons of the black bourgeoisie, which for years utilized “paper bag” and “ruler” tests to assess who had “good hair”, or at least looked white enough to gain admittance into an elite society.
Slavery ended over a century ago, but its cultural scabs remain. Shockingly, the majority of African-American women still relax their hair. In his 2010 documentary, “Good Hair”, comedian Chris Rock questioned this phenomenon. During the film, he interviewed a young woman who believes relaxed hair looks more “professional”. For decades, I did too. As a corporate attorney working in all-white environments, I felt most at home with straight hair, pearls and a pinstriped suit. Whenever I tired of the relaxing ritual, I flashed back to mom’s chagrin over my nappy “kitchen”—a colloquial term for short hair on the back of the neck that’s quick to revert between perms. Life, and my hair, always seemed slightly less chaotic after getting a touch up.
Years later after moving to Hollywood, I considered going natural but feared kinky hair would lessen my chances of success in a town that worshiped Barbie-doll beauty. Out of curiosity, I experimented with weaves, wigs, braids and straw sets that mimicked my natural texture without having to give up my precious perm. Ironically, I was wearing my hair kinky when I landed my first network TV hosting jobs. But it wasn’t until I moved to Sedona for a spiritual sabbatical and became an eco-advocate that I felt deeply challenged to return to my nappy roots. I was appearing live on the news teaching viewers about the dangers of toxic personal care products, but putting dangerous chemicals on my scalp—the most absorbent organ in my body–every 60 days. It wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t authentic.
Ever since, I’ve committed to walking the most authentic path possible. A few years back, I tried PhytoRelax, an eco-friendly soy and egg-based perm formulated by an Afro-Parisian doctor. It straightens the hair beautifully without burning or stinking, and is infinitely healthier than traditional lye-based relaxers. Yet and still, every 60 days, my nappy roots pop up like clockwork. This month, I’m trying to let them grow. I struggle to see them not as weeds to be uprooted, but beautiful flowers of my African heritage. My hair is curly in some places, straight in others. It’s both beautiful and frustrating. I can’t promise I’ll never relax my hair again. Or throw on a wig if I need to get camera-ready in a hurry. And that’s ok. But like most people trying their best to live more consciously, I’m a work in progress.
This article was written in 2011, just before I went natural. Today, I’m in love with my hair. Chopping off my relaxed ends and loving the nappy roots underneath has been a wild journey of experimentation and self-acceptance. But now that I’m here, there’s no turning back.