By Olivia Funderburg '18
Steps to growing out my natural hair:
- Ask a friend what they think
- Make the big decision
- Tell Mom
- Chop off a few inches over Thanksgiving break
- Remember to moisturize
- Settle down to wait
I think about how I have relaxed my hair since the seventh grade—that’s pretty close to half of my life. I think about how I’m tired. I’m tired of perms and of worrying about how my hair looks every day. I should be tired of trying to conform to unattainable beauty standards. I know I don’t want to be relaxing my hair every other month for the rest of my life.
Even when permed, my hair has never been completely straight. When wet, it’s something in between—not quite curly, but a wave that’s a little more than just a wave. This is probably why “relaxed” is a more accurate description of the process. Without fail, after every weekly wash and the random in between washes after a summer beach day, I remember looking into the mirror at my hair that was definitely not straight. It’s as if all this time my hair was longing to return to its natural state. I hear its whisper in my ear: Look at me, aren’t I pretty? Isn’t this what I am meant to look like?
There is more than one way to grow out your hair. Well. Mainly two ways: the big chop and what I’ve decided to do, which is not that. I didn’t really consider doing the big chop, mostly because it would be too drastic of a change for me to handle; I don’t know what I’ll look like with short hair. But then again, I have no idea what I’ll look like with my natural hair, period. Let me repeat that: I have no idea what I look like with my natural hair. I have pictures of myself as a young child with big smiles and a head full of curls or twists, but that isn’t a great measure for what I will look like as a twentysomething with curly hair. By the time I got to fifth and sixth grade, my hair was always up in a ponytail or bun, because that was the easiest way to deal with it. That was also the best way I could think of to blend in with my classmates, if such a thing was even possible. A fifth grade school portrait with my hair pulled pack or a sixth grade school portrait with it flat ironed aren’t much help in guessing what I will look like either. Will I like what I look like? Will I like who I am with my natural hair?
Sixth grade me didn’t like who I was with my natural hair. She looked around herself and didn’t see anyone else who looked quite like her; she wanted her hair to be straight so that it would be prettier. I don’t blame her for falling prey to pervasive Eurocentric beauty standards. She didn’t know any better, but I do. Maybe it seems ridiculous to consider such a question, but I don’t think it’s far fetched to claim that identity is linked to appearance whether we like it or not.
During my sophomore year, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Twice. And it was just as good both times. I didn’t realize it then, but reading his book may have been part of my wake up call about my natural hair. (Not to mention about myself as a black woman.) Malcolm, like me, “conked” his hair, encouraged to do so by his friend and fellow hustler Shorty. Reflecting on his life, Malcolm’s adult self clearly labels this a mistake: “How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking ‘white,’ reflected in the mirror in Shorty’s room. I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years... This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are ‘inferior’—and white people ‘superior’—that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look ‘pretty’ by white standards.”
Malcolm X, being Malcolm X, offers a somewhat extreme and not to mention fifty-year-old view of the hair problem. People might relax their hair for a number of reasons; it’s a personal choice, and I don’t think it’s my place to judge anyone else’s. But he’s not wrong. Sixth grade me wanted to look prettier and have the “right” kind of hairstyle. Seventeen-year-old me worried about looking “presentable” when I went to work in a retail store. Presentable by whose standards?
I should judge my hair—and my beauty—by no one’s standards but my own.
The other day I saw a girl on the tube with a head full of curls—I wondered if that’s what mine will look like. Some days I’m impatient and want to grab a pair of scissors until all that’s left behind are the curls that are determinedly growing in. Some days I’m worried because I don’t know what new routine I’ll have to create for myself. But most of the time I’m content to wait and think. I think about how healthy and beautiful and big my hair will be and who gives a damn what the rest of the world might think.
From March 2017 issue