Confessions of a Naturalista: Natural Hair is Overrated

I want to be clear and explicit: I love my (natural) hair. I really do! Like most Black women, my relationship with my hair is a reflection of my relationship with my culture, my womanhood, and my journey. Each hairstyle and phase I’ve gone through with my hair is a marker for where I was in my life, what my values were, and how I felt about myself.

That being said, I often feel that being “natural” is not all it’s cracked up to be. In recent years, it’s evolved to be more than a way of wearing one’s hair. I dig this. I believe Black women should feel free to wear their hair anyway they want, especially if it means giving the double middle finger to Eurocentric beauty standards. But I can’t get with the sense of enlightened superiority so many natural women have over their sisters/sistahs who do still choose to straighten/relax their hair or wear wigs/weaves. Not to mention that not every type of natural hair is valued or appreciated.

So, yes, I (sometimes) believe being natural is overrated.

I have been a “naturalista” for almost five years now. In October 2009, I chopped off my hair at a Super Cuts in New York’s Greenwich Village. I was a new transfer student at NYU. It was my first time living away from home, which meant it was my first time living away from a reliable and trusted hair stylist. When I asked the Black girls I met on campus about their hair care routines, many of them suggested I “go to the Dominicans” in Washington Heights… or simply chop it off. The idea of taking the A train to Wash Heights and randomly searching for a Dominican woman to do my hair didn’t sound so appealing, so I chose the latter.

I wrangled a friend who had made the same decision a year before into accompanying me to my Big Chop. She had experienced the same anxiety and frustration of having to maintain straightened hair in New York. But she said once she cut her hair, it was freeing… and much cheaper. No longer did she have to worry about where she would get the $100+ per month to straighten her hair. No longer did she have anxiety when it rained or snowed. No longer did she have to worry about rough edges or “kitchen.” She sat behind me, the poster child of moral support, as the stylist (can you call them a “stylist” at Super Cuts?) took scissors to my hair. As we walked back to our dorm, I made her reassure me the entire time that I didn’t look like a boy.

In keeping it 100, I should admit that I went natural before I even really understood what the term meant and what the movement was about. But I did know that for the first time in my life, I could actually feel the wind on my scalp. And I discovered a beautiful curl pattern that had been hidden by years and years of using the “creamy crack.” As I embraced my new short hair, I began reading blogs like Curly Nikki. As I learned about curl types, moisture layering, and protective styling, I realized would still have to put in work to maintain healthy hair. Still, I felt excited when I saw photos of other natural women’s hair journeys from The Big Chop to the Teeny Weeny Afro to full-on Esperanza Spaulding glorious mane. I looked forward to when I would experience all of these stages in my own natural hair journey.

But as I progressed through those stages, I mostly felt apathetic. With each new stage of length, my curl pattern changed and started responding to product differently, which meant buying brand new moisturizers and conditioners every 2-3 months. When I reached the stage where I actually had to begin detangling my hair for real every two weeks—as opposed to lazily dragging a comb through it every once in a while—that was a battle all in its own. Plus, there was all the damn shedding. (I was sure I was going bald.) And then… fairy knots, which had never existed in my world of straight hair! What the f*** were all these little knots wrapped around individual strands of hair?! I have since learned the fairy knot is a scourge on all natural girls’ hair.

The process of going and staying natural meant (re)learning how to view and value myself… as well as how others viewed me. For years, I had always been the girl with “good” hair. (Yes, I know. That’s why “good” is in quotation marks.) I was praised for my hair length and thickness, how easily it became straight when flat-ironed, and how smooth and soft it was. Most of my friends and family had never seen my hair any other way. Thus, I learned how to value my self-worth and femininity by how much hair was on my head, and how closely it resembled that of a white girl.

When it was all gone and replaced with a short ‘fro of kinky ringlets, my friends and family started acting a damn fool. My mom—who has short natural hair herself—asked me, “So, does this mean you’re a lesbian now?” My best friend from high school—who often uses my Blackness as a punch line—asked me what happened and when it would grow back. And as my hair kept growing and I remained natural, my grandmother and aunt would imply that I “needed to do something with my hair,” because it was getting “too wild.” There were my fellow natural friends, who would tell me what I should do with my hair, without really understanding my hair’s curl pattern and behavior.

Everyone had an opinion… and none of them had to spend $11.99 on a bottle of Kinky Curly Knot Today, $8.99 on raw, organic coconut oil, and another $11.99 on anything by Shea Moisture… just to dedicate two hours of my life to combing this shit out every other weekend.

In trying to escape being ruled by my straightened hair, I encountered the same thing with my natural hair. Even when people responded to my hair positively, it could sometimes be a backhanded comment. There was the man at the gym who felt it was appropriate to ask me why other Black women didn’t wear their hair like mine, instead of ruining it with relaxers and weaves. (Mind ya business!) Or all the women who have wondered what I do to get my hair to curl the way it does… and then were dissatisfied when I answered, “It just grows out of my head this way.”

These days, I have the same mixed feelings of love and apathy towards my hair. It has now reached another new length—the longest it’s been since high school. Thus, my curl pattern has changed (again). It refuses to keep in moisture. I’ve realized that my hair responds better to finger detangling, but that shit takes forever. This was the first summer I’ve had this amount of hair in almost ten years, so my head and face were constantly sweating. My scalp is always itchy, because it never gets a chance to breathe. And I don’t even want to get into my (nonexistent) protective styling game. All you need to know is that my two-strand twists have me looking like a mix between Kizzy in “Roots” and Queen Latifah in “Set it Off.”

I really do love my hair. I get excited when I see a fellow naturalista rockin’ a fly-ass ‘fro. But I also spend a lot of time watching videos of women doing their own weaves. There is an art to creating your own lace-front closure, and I have mad respect for the women who can do that. In the past five years, I have straightened my hair a few times… and absolutely loved it. I will always feel a little more glamorous when my hair is flat-ironed, and that’s OK. (That burnt hair smell is not the business, though.) But I always return to my wild curls, because my natural hair feels more “me.”

All of this to say: Black Women are beautiful and so is our hair, no matter how it looks or how we choose to style it.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, storyteller, and teaching artist from Southern California. She is a graduate of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She is currently co-producing an original web series, “GIRL, GET YO' LIFE!” to be released in early 2015. You may find her on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

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