Nappy is not nice. This is a so-called “truth” taught to countless black girls from their childhood. From as early as I can remember, I permed my hair. The chemical process of perming was both intriguing and terrifying. My grandma would plaster the creme all over my head, targeting the untamed roots of new growth on my scalp. Shortly after finishing, she’d say “come get me when it’s itching or burning.” In this time, I would fantasize about how nice and straight my hair would look. I would push myself against the burning sensation that danced on top of my head, a feeling that vibrated so hot it felt cold. When I couldn’t take it anymore, my grandma washed away the creme and left behind long and straight strands of my new beautifully kinkless hair.
I would sit beside pools and watch the water glisten and sparkle. Sitting by a pool on a hot afternoon of a summer day is not unusual for a third grader with no real responsibilities. However, sitting by the pool watching your best friends swim with no intention to get in, is unusual. I didn’t just watch kids somersault into the pool and soak in the escape of the scorching sun; I looked into my reflection on the water’s surface and found myself reflecting on much more.
“If you get in the water, my hair concluded, you will never be beautiful. I went home early.”
I remember feeling an all too familiar sense of exclusion and difference. I didn’t get in because of my hair— a lifeless and voiceless part of my body that had the power to dictate my actions. If you get in the water, my hair told me, you lose the beauty of the magical transformation that the perm gifted you. If you get in the water, my hair reasoned with me, your hair will frizz, and you’ll go to school looking unkempt and untamed. If you get in the water, my hair concluded, you will never be beautiful. I went home early.
Eventually, I stopped caring about the transformative and detrimental-to-straightness effect that water had on my hair. Freshly permed or flat-ironed, I would jump into pools when I wanted. I no longer cared about how my hair looked because I hardly exposed it to the world. Instead, I braided artificial hair with my own. Braids were my savior and protector. When I got tired of them, it could be twists, weaves, or ponytails. It could be anything but my own.
But after time, I got tired of the cycle. The long hours of no movement as the hairdresser sectioned my hair to put them in and then the tedious time it took to take them out after my new growth sprouted from their hold. It was too much effort to hide away my hair. So I decided to expose it.
There was uncertainty, there was fear, and there was doubt. I learned a lot about taking care of my hair; it felt like having a newborn. Sometimes I fed it things it hated and reacted badly to, other times I tried a combination of techniques that got the job done, but most importantly I was exhausted from the constant need of attention and care.
“I wanted to go full on exposure, bare and natural, but my hair still managed to whisper to me that I would sacrifice all chances of being beautiful.”
The real problem was that I was not exactly baring my natural hair because it was partly permed. The strands of my hair grew curly and wavy but abruptly fell straight in the middle of them. It was like standing halfway in a door; your hope and strong will urge you to move forward, but your apprehension and comfortability hold you back. I wanted to go full on exposure, bare and natural, but my hair still managed to whisper to me that I would sacrifice all chances of being beautiful.
And then one day, the dead and straight hair slowly fell to my sides with every sshh the scissors made. I sat anxiously and excitedly as my older sister cut away the last bits of my perm. After almost eighteen years of life, half a year into college, I decided to step through the door entirely. As I ran my fingers through my short and damp afro, the hairs brushed against my skin like a soft peach. When my sister rose to clean herself off, I picked the nearby mirror to see my new self. My raw self. My free self. My hair puffed out slightly past my ears, the individual curls resembling coil springs. Gazing upon myself, I realized I had it wrong all of these years. The majestically bouncy and kinky hair before me had not been the one keeping me from it. I let the voice of everything but myself dictate what was right. You see, my hair said, you’re beautiful.