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Scared Straight

Babygirl, wearing the scarf she snatched off my pin-curled hair yesterday morning.

I wear my hair in an Afro. Not one of the teeny weeny variety, although of course it started out that way. I’m talking about a great, big, get-stuff-lost-in-it Afro. I always had a vague idea that I’d “go natural” one day, but I went through a lot of other phases before reaching this one in July 2009, when I finally got the courage to stop relaxing my hair. My mother first processed it when I was about eight, which left me without a clue as to my natural texture. In fact, I was secretly afraid of it, not just in the way we tend to fear the unknown, but in the ways no Black woman wants to admit: I was worried it would be too nappy to manage, too subversive to make me attractive, too Black for me (and others) to handle.

I hated having those fears. After digging them out of my darkest corners and turning them over and over in my hands, I discovered the cracks, the imperfections, spidering out from an initial blow that was dealt when I was young, one that told me what grew out of my head was inferior and needed to be changed.

So I set about destroying them, exposing them to reason and love. The reality was, no matter what my hair looked like after I cut off the relaxed stuff, it couldn’t make me feel any worse than I did each time I hopped into the chair to have a chemical applied that helped me conform to a standard of beauty that had absolutely nothing to do with me. I eventually came to understand a lesson that took tentative root when I was wearing my hair short and straight: it’s just hair. Cut it, dye it, grow it, cut it again—it keeps your head warm, it grows back. Though, of course, it’s never that simple when it comes to Black women. Everything we do with our hair is a Statement. If any other American woman dyes her hair blonde, she’s trying something new. If I do it, I’ve lost touch with my roots. If that same woman later decides to cuts her hair super-short, she’s edgy, but if I do it, I’m militant. If she leaves her hair be, no one notices. If I simply let my coils grow out of my head the way they please, I have an agenda. Whatever.

But I know that it’s just about accepting myself as I am, and finding joy in that acceptance. 
So with Babygirl, it has been important to me that she knows that I love both my hair and hers, and that I will never do anything that rejects our texture. I don’t believe it is up to me to make the choice to alter the structure of her hair, and I never want to do anything to her that I wouldn’t do to myself at this stage in my life. So she wears her own Afro, a little sandy brown version of mine, with looser curls that reflect her dad’s texture. And I don’t do much to it, because I don’t want her to think she has to “do” her hair. I wash it, condition it, detangle it, oil it, and send her out into the world. Occasionally I put it into a few ponytails, but that’s mostly to prove to my hubby that I can, ‘cause he has jokes. I want her to be able to see herself in me, and vice versa.

So you can imagine my trepidation when I got my hair straightened last weekend. After 3.5 years of wearing my hair curly, and months of prodding from a couple close friends, I was starting to worry that my ends were splitting from all the rough detangling. I finally visited a salon that specializes in healthy natural hair and had it blown out with low heat, so I could have them clipped. Now, my hair is hanging down my back in the most discomforting way, and I only made it a day before I pulled it into a lose ponytail.

I was struck by something my stylist said while I was in the chair. I 
asked how often I needed to come in for trims (quarterly), and told her that would be the extent of my hair straightening. She said that wearing it straight is a good option for “special occasions.” Which made me wonder what makes straight hair, special occasion hair? There is a value judgment inherent in that statement, and I’m not a fan. I guess I could take it as, it’s special because its different—and I have enjoyed changing things up a bit for the first time in years—but my experience as a Black woman says that’s naive. Besides, I feel anything but special with straight hair; I’m having total hair envy when I see girls with Afros and twists. I want to rush up like a lunatic and tell them this isn’t the real me, that we are curly sisters, so they don’t judge me for straightening my hair, or horror of horrors (!) think I’m wearing a weave, because its so long. My prejudices are showing.

Anyway, the biggest trial was when I went to pick up Babygirl after my appointment. I was afraid she wouldn’t recognize me, but the reality was even worse. I leaned over to take her out of the car seat, which was strapped in my sister-in-law’s car, and she let me hold her. But as we walked into Bed Bath & Beyond to help her auntie find a new shower curtain, I realized something was wrong: I was talking to my child and covering her face with kisses, but she was studiously not looking me in the face. She gazed just past me, and when I leaned into her field of vision, she moved her head to avoid making eye contact. She wasn’t quite sure it was me!

After a minute of prodding, she finally locked eyes with me. As I watched, she slowly reached up to her own afro and pulled on it, her eyes still on mine. She all but said, “Et tu, mama?” I felt terrible. My child had immediately noticed that my hair wasn’t the same as hers, and I worried that she thought I had deserted her. I explained to her that my hair was styled differently, that it wasn’t any better, or any worse, just different, and I’d be back to my Afro in a few days. For the sake of not being neurotic, I’m going to say she understood. Anyway, moments later, she gave me a hug and kiss and all has been normal. She has only pointed out my hair one other time, and plays in it while nursing the same way she does when it’s in Afro form. Me, meet relief.

Lots of women cite having kids as the reason they went natural. Sometimes because they are trying to limit their chemical exposure during pregnancy, sometimes because they want to be living examples of self love. Do your kids influence the way you wear your hair? Tell me why and how!

1000 Words

I’m Kenrya Rankin Naasel, a lifestyle + parenting expert who—after much prodding from her friends—decided to share her hippie-dippie Black chick mama life.