“If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” —Paul Mooney
In business class one day, one of my closest high school friends eyed me strangely. “I just don’t really like the texture,” she said.
She was talking about my hair. It was the kind of jab that I never saw coming.
“What do you expect me to do about that?” I asked. My hair had just been straightened. I clamped my hands down on my head self-consciously, trying to smooth it. What more could I have done?
“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging, and turned back to the work the teacher had assigned.
Throughout my adolescence, everyone seemed to have an opinion on my hair, and it was almost always negative.
Owing to slavery and a complex history of oppression and marginalisation of blacks, black hair has always been seen as unkempt and unusual. Society’s aversion to black hair goes far beyond the scope of this essay. But comprehensive studies are not necessary to see the effects of these social norms. Stop a little black girl on the street and ask what kind of hair she wants. (Please don’t, but I think you know where I am going with this.) I will bet you any money that she will tell you: straight hair.
“Your hair is nappy,” our many stylists would tell myself and my sister. “It’s hard hair. Thick. Difficult to comb.”
“Do you wash your hair?” our friends at school would ask. This was humiliating. Of course we did, but why did we constantly need to affirm it?
“Why does it do that? It’s so strange.” Exhausted and embarrassed, I would tell them that my hair was very curly and this was how curly hair acted.
“Can it grow?”
“It’s so different, your hair.”
“Why don’t you just wear it out? I don’t think I’ve ever seen your hair down.”
“Can I touch it?
“Your hair is just like velcro,” said a girl on my street.
There was a game we used to play outside, with two velcro paddles and a felt ball, which you would throw to try to get it to stick to the paddle. What she had said was not a compliment, and it chafed me that she found my hair so strange, even at 9 years old.
She said, “What if I—?”
She approached me and I took a step back, but I was too slow, and the velcro paddle came down, fast, onto my braids. Just as she had expected, the paddle stuck to my strands, and she tore it off with a sharp, ripping noise. “Cool,” she said.
“Ow,” I said, my eyes filling with tears.
When I was a child living in the Caribbean, my hair was coaxed into neat braids by the many nannies or “helpers”—as we say in Jamaica—that doted on my sister and I throughout our childhood. Cornrows or twists in elaborate designs. We cried every time we got them done, because they were so tight, but we quickly learned that this was necessary to look presentable. The image of a young black girl sitting between an older lady’s legs, rubbing her eyes, is not unusual, and is actually depicted in a lot of black artwork. “Beauty is pain” has always been the resounding lesson.
For myself and my sister, moving to Canada at ages 7 and 5 meant leaving our beloved helpers, more like aunties to us by then, behind. For the first time, it was my mother who sat us between her legs and attempted to plait our hair. She really did try, but taking care of black hair is complicated, and her hair, like that of many black women, had been relaxed since she was in her late teens. Young girls always believe their mothers are the most beautiful women in the world, and of course, we want nothing more than to look like them. I wanted nothing more than to look like my mother. And her hair was relaxed straight.
With society reinforcing this standard of beauty, there is no reason for young black girls to think their hair is beautiful. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a black hair product advertised in mainstream media? When was the last time you flicked through a magazine and saw a model with natural hair? Where are the black hair how-to’s in magazines like Cosmopolitan, as they have for white hair?
My mother quickly passed us off to professional stylists. We got our hair braided by a woman in Toronto, and would smile tearfully into the mirror when it was all over. We could ask for anything and Aleisha would do it with flair: zigzag patterns, twisting swirls, braided or twisted ponytails.
We dutifully wrapped our hair in satin scarves to preserve the shine. My parents paid inordinate sums for these styles, and wherever our stylist moved we followed her, no matter how far she relocated to in the city, no matter where she moved to—even once getting our hair done in a pretty dangerous part of Toronto—owing to the lack of women who could do our hair.
Once, our hairstylist did something a bit outlandish with my sister’s braids. The result was strange. “It looks…” my mother said.
“I was trying something different.”
My mother was not amused. We were paying a lot for the style.
“Should I do it over?”
My mother bit her lip. My sister’s face was twisted in indignation. She was what stylists would call “tender-headed,” which meant she would cry easily at the tightness of the braids. And I could see that her scalp was already red and sore. I watched the standoff closely, feeling horrible for her but feeling—cruelly—relieved that it wasn’t me. I couldn’t imagine sitting in that chair twice in one evening, having the whole thing done again.
“She can’t wear it outside like that,” my mother said.
“Beauty is pain,” Aleisha said, and started all over again. My sister bawled.
We eventually outgrew the braids and, like most black girls, we relaxed our hair—me at age 12, and my sister at age 10. My sister’s hair texture was looser than mine, and so her relaxed hair was straighter. I looked at my own tresses in the mirror, still quite curly, and started to cry. I wanted my hair as straight as hers. I felt less beautiful.
I started to come to school with my new straightened, relaxed hair. “Your hair looks great,” people would say.
“I like your hair better that way,” people would say, meaning, ‘straight.’ They did not know that the harsh lye could sometimes cause the scalp to ooze pus and scab if it was left on too long. It made it hard to sleep, the first night after.
To give myself a break, I tried occasionally to wear my curls, but the relaxer had stretched them into strange shapes that were not uniform.
“It’s interesting,” people would say at my attempt.
My processed hair was limp and couldn’t grow past my shoulders, and was so weak it would break off. When we went swimming, people liked to comment on how strange it looked wet. But the relaxed hair could be easily straightened, and when it was straight it was beautiful. Everyone said so.
For years, my sister and I would hand our stylists as much as $150 at a time to relax our roots. We did this for picture day, school dances, special events. Just before I relaxed my hair, I would run my fingers over curly roots and think they felt sort of nice. Soft, but strong. Shiny. Healthy. I wondered vaguely what they would look like all over my head. And then I would go to the salon and relax them into submission, the curls disappearing as quickly as they appeared.
Beauty was straight hair.
When my hair was straightened I felt a satisfaction I cannot explain to you. I looked in the mirror and felt, at once, older, more attractive. I stood out a little less. (This was in high school, you know, before we realized that the things that made us different were the things that made us interesting.) Relaxing was $70 every time, and periodic hair straightenings were $35. We have never calculated our hair expenditure but I will do that here, now. $3500 between my mother, sister, and I, every year.
But we paid the money, as so many black families do.
In high school, I tried everything to blend in, trying desperately to brush my hair flat and sometimes retreating to the washroom in the middle of class to make sure the style held. Somehow my beauty was in constant flux, prone to sudden decrease depending on how my hair decided to act that day, sticking up in ways my white friends weren’t used to (but that black hair tends to.) I would flat twist the front of my hair and try to coax it into styles that my hair did not want to be in—ponytails, for example—styles that were not meant for black people. I figured out how to tie a neat bun and wore my hair this way for much of my adolescence. My hair began to take up disproportionate space in my mind. I was constantly worried people were looking, or that my hair had freed itself from my very deliberate bun.
Like many, in the tumult of adolescence, I would sometimes find myself unhappy for reasons I could not explain. So, if I was feeling low, I would try to trace back the emotion to the root source, and this worked swimmingly, making me more self-aware over time, and more conscious of the things bothered me most. Sometimes, I could trace my unease back to something someone had said earlier on in the day, but most often my mood was directly correlated with how my hair looked that day.
If it was straight, I was upbeat, and felt beautiful. If it wasn’t, the day seemed gloomier, and I was unhappy. This was what it came down to.
As high school went on, it became annoying to try to outline the fundamentals of kinky hair to my friends on a daily basis; everyone seemed very underexposed and I was embarrassed on their behalf, yet I still felt like I was the one doing something wrong somehow. (There were so few black kids in my high school that it was very easy to feel like the odd one out.)
“My hair is so frizzy today, it looks like an afro,” my non-black friends would say, frowning into the mirror in the washroom. Or: “With this humidity my hair puffs up like an afro.” The word afro always had a negative connotation, and I wondered if they realized that’s what my hair was: afro-textured. I thought their complaints ridiculous, and felt a mild resentment and jealousy that they could roll out of bed and wear their hair as it was.
At sleepovers with our friends, my sister, and I always faced a dilemma with regard to our satin scarves. It was a cultural norm tying them on at night, and we felt strange without them. Tying your hair with satin not only maintains whatever style you’re trying to wear but also prevents harsh rubbing and breakage from cotton pillowcases. But at sleepovers, we didn’t want to make our white friends uncomfortable. So, sometimes we wore our scarves, but most times we didn’t.
Owing to the racial make-up of our neighbourhood, my sister and I had very few black friends growing up, so the people we talked to the most about our hair was our family. At family gatherings, we would quickly start in on hair talk. What we were doing, what products we were using. Trading ideas. Some family friends would complain they suspected they had been passed over for jobs because of their hairstyles, and vowed never to enter the interview room with their natural hair again. This is not a new thing.
But I soon grew tired of the straight look. I tried everything, from roller sets to rod sets to braid-outs and twist-outs. I tried to curl it like my white friends did, which just did not work. To educate myself about my hair, I watched YouTube videos and bought reams of black hair products, which, in my predominantly white town, were expensive and hard to come by. Black hair products are much more expensive than white hair products and are scarce; we would sometimes crisscross the city in search of them.
My mother was on the receiving end of many of my anxieties. “I can’t do anything with my hair!” I cried, brandishing my flatiron and comb like weapons. “I just need one style! One style I can wear!”
She would shrug. “Oh, Marisa.”
“Why don’t you just embrace the natural look?” my father would say.
“It’s just not that simple,” I would hiss. But then again, what was simpler than wearing your hair the way it grew out of your scalp?
Someone—I can’t remember who—recommended I watch the music video for “I Am Not My Hair,” by India.Arie, and was instantly struck by the lyrics.
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations, no (hey)
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend? Oh
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
I am expressing my creativity
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
This, to me, was a new concept. For the first time, I considered my hair as an entity separate from myself—a simple accessory, rather than a sign of my worth. I had radical ideas, then, about individuality and inherent value. Who was I without my hair? What if my hair was short? Or gone? Would I still consider myself a woman? Would I still consider myself beautiful?
I came to the conclusion that I could never be truly happy if I continued to hate this part of myself.
But could I really wear my hair natural? All throughout my life, stylists had been telling me that my hair had to be relaxed. It was hard hair, tough hair, nappy hair. Impossible to handle. And after almost a decade of relaxing my hair, I had all but forgotten what my natural hair looked and felt like. I began to go through old photos to try and gauge the texture. The situation soon gained new relevance: at university, the cost of relaxing my hair along with textbooks and groceries was starting to weigh me down.
By the mid-2010s, the natural hair movement was in full force, and my friends and family were all getting swept up in the wave. One of my Aunts stopped relaxing her hair. Watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, I pointed out to my sister that all the black characters were wearing their satin scarves before bed.
“It’s different. Accurate,” I said to her. “I like it.”
I watched Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” documentary, outlining the ins and outs of the 700-billion-dollar industry hinged on the self-consciousness of black women. I began to realize that the black struggle for beautiful hair was symptomatic of a larger issue, and that I believed my natural hair was ugly and hard to handle not because it actually was, but that’s what society was pushing me to believe.
Now aware of these invisible, societal structures, I tried to educate people when they’d say something offensive about my hair.
“How often do you wash it anyway? Once a week?” one of the girls in my residence building had been talking to my roommate and now addressed me.
I furrowed my brow. “Actually, if I washed my hair every day as you do with yours, it would dry it out, because the oils don’t travel down curly hair shafts as quickly as they might on straight hair. So once or twice a week is good.” I even forwarded her a link to a webpage explaining this.
But even this became tiring. When, in second year, a roommate asked the same question, I merely said, “Yeah. Once or twice a week,” and retreated to my room.
In March of 2016, at age 19, I relaxed my hair for the last time.
At the time, I wasn’t trying to reclaim my identity or anything. I just decided I didn’t like paying almost $100 a month for it anymore. I had also begun to suspect that relaxers had to have negative health effects, and had done a bit of research. I read some unsettling articles about the links between hair relaxers and long-term illnesses such as reproductive problems, fibroids, heart disease, cognitive disorders, cancers, early puberty, altered immune systems or even blindness. It felt ridiculous to pay so much to potentially hurt myself.
“You’ll regret it,” my stylist back in Toronto said. “You have hard hair.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
Having two hair textures—relaxed and natural—is not easy. The hair is extremely weak at the “line of demarcation” (where the two textures meet) and breaks violently. I could have cut off the relaxed ends in one fell swoop but I was scared; scared of cutting my hair too short and shedding, with it, my femininity. So, I bought a pair of trimming scissors and cut the ends off slowly, struggling to blend the two hairstyles during this transition period. My family followed my hair journey with mild amusement, but also with interest.
Sometimes, in desperation, I considered relaxing my hair. And this, I suppose, is why they call it the creamy crack, likening it to the highly addictive drug.
“If you’re not going to relax your hair, neither will I,” my sister said one day.
“What? You’re serious?”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling.
And later, my mother said the same thing. The Coulton women were going natural, and I was thrilled. But how long would it last?
“Have you found a hairdresser in France?” a family friend asked repeatedly. “What are you going to do with your hair in France?”
By the time I arrived in France for my full year academic exchange in September 2017, I was almost completely natural, with only an inch of relaxed hair left. And then one day I sat in front of the mirror and cut off the remaining silky ends. I looked back at myself, at my afro, and felt actual fear. There were no curls, just frizz, just as my many stylists had warned me. I figured it was only a matter of time before I relaxed it again.
I watched a YouTube video to try and figure out what to do with my hair. The woman demonstrated how to very gently define and detangle the curls. Not many black girls are taught how to handle their natural hair like this—how to properly take care of it.
I used the technique outlined in the video and sat in front of the mirror, examining the result.
It was beautiful. I had dark ringlets that sprung back vibrantly when tugged on. When I brushed it back, my hair shone. The hair was versatile and could hold any style I attempted, straight or otherwise. I knew vaguely what my natural hair looked like but not like this—not when it had been correctly styled, the proper curl creams and oils applied.
I noticed that I had the same hair texture as an acquaintance of mine. Years ago I had longed for her hair. It was really quite perverse; I knew so little about my natural hair texture that I was jealous of someone with hair exactly like mine.
I took pictures and videos and sent them to my family.
“Do you know our hair looks like this?” I said, stunned. “Our hair is beautiful; did you know this?”
My black hair journey is not over. Societal norms can creep into my head again, insidiously, at any moment. My natural hair seems childish, and less adult, in a way. But this feeling is fading.
My sister and I still get silly questions. I was recently asked if my hair actually grows. Then, later, I was told it “wasn’t even hair” and that it had a “three-dimensional quality,” which was particularly scathing.
In her first year of university, my sister was asked in a room full of people whether she washed her hair. She decided not long after to transfer universities, citing that her peers were just too underexposed, in more ways than one. Our university is outside of Toronto, in a small town. I fully support her decision.
I am beyond thinking that black hair is just hair, now. In fact, natural hair is a political statement, and a marked deviation from social norms.
When it comes to styling our hair, the issue is a lack of knowledge transfer as well as misunderstanding on all sides. The story is almost always the same: our mothers relaxed their hair for their entire lives and therefore are limited in their ability to teach us how to handle our natural tresses. Black haircare requires a measure of technique and patience.
The prevalence of relaxer-use in the black community is not linked to relaxer brands and beauty supply stores, but rather a lack of understanding about black hair, a lack of representation of our hair in the media. But most of all, it lies in perverted beauty standard branching from a buried history. It lies in the Caucasian, Euro-centric ideal that dominates our magazines and televisions, which translates to a lack of knowledge transfer in the black community and apathy toward proper styling techniques.
For the first time, I posted a picture of my natural hair on social media. Ironically enough, the first person to compliment my hair was the same friend from high school who, in business class one day, pointed out that she “just didn’t like the texture.”
It took some bravery to wear my curly afro out, the first time.
“Your hair is just beautiful,” a friend said immediately. “I would kill for hair like yours.”
I raised my eyebrows. My hair had a history she was not aware of, stretching back through my teenage years, to my childhood. But I accepted the compliment because she was right, it was beautiful.
Recently, I was getting ready to go out with a friend. My hair had been straightened using a flat iron.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, looking into the mirror, feeling uneasy for some reason. “Wait a minute.”
I stepped into the shower and washed my hair, watching my curls come back to life.
“I’m ready,” I said, after smoothing my hair into curly updo. The style was easy, taking all of 10 minutes, and so, so pretty. I couldn’t believe how I looked. I wanted to go back in time and tell my younger self about this hair, about what it could do.
“I feel very… I feel like…” I couldn’t pin down this emotion.
“Yourself,” he offered.
“Right,” I said, smiling. “I feel like myself.” We left my apartment and pulled the door shut behind us, stepping out into the world.