I did something terribly wrong during my transition from relaxed to natural hair. Perhaps I omitted a few steps, mixed incorrect ingredients or screwed up a technique because my lush layers morphed into tangled tumbleweed and I lost nearly half of my hair within four months.
I got the bright idea to go natural so I could run, practice yoga and take swimming lessons without scrambling to restyle my hair afterward. I grew obsessed with the wild, coiled, spiky look. Never mind I hadn't shampooed, rolled or flat ironed my own hair in over 12 years or I only had a mere two inches of new growth attached to inches of bone straightness. I could still achieve a full ‘fro with the right product, Nikki Walton's “Better Than Good Hair” and step-by-step instructions on a few YouTube videos, right?
What I got most weeks was a stringy, sticky, greasy mess: a throwback to my third-grade self when I went through that ma-I-can-do-my-own-hair-because-I-am-too-old-for-ribbons-and-plaits phase. Only this time I was 38 not 8. The products that tamed my roots left the chemically-straightened part of my hair limp.
I tried to fluff it out one morning before a short road trip. My aunt’s boyfriend stopped mid-step and fell into a fit of laughter.
“You look like one of the Jackson 5,” he finally managed to say.
Attempts to use less curling soufflé resulted in a big frizzy pouf. I positioned my body face-forward, with no left or right turns, because my hair didn’t fall back into place as it once did. If I glanced down, my hair stuck straight out. I looked like I wore a bad wig. Or weave. In a mug shot.
My natural ‘do became the epitome of a natural don’t and I didn't know how to fix it. My appearance definitely didn't feel complete. How was I supposed to look cute with a jacked up head?
I really should've kept my regularly scheduled touch-ups.
I was over 200 miles away from my long-term stylist so I texted one of my girlfriends who had been natural the entire 10+ years I’ve known her. I told her I was going to resume relaxing my hair because I didn’t like it. I looked crazy. She replied, “Natural hair is a journey and [once] you make it, you will feel so free and empowered and there is nothing some knucklehead can say that will make a difference.”
But I really did look like a Jackson.
My friend proceeded to send texts about two-strand twists, blow dries, pins and puffs. Did she not remember I only needed to finger my hair into place before all this? With no vegetable glycerin, coconut oil, oil sheen, pudding or water, might I add. Wrap, unwrap and go. But in this semi-natural state, I needed variant concoctions of moisture and protein depending on daily use, pre-poo, deep conditioning, nighttime, midmonth...I can’t.
And my hair couldn’t either. A few weeks after those texts, I looked down and to the left as I styled my stiff pouf in the bathroom mirror and noticed my sides were significantly longer than the back (after I adjusted the hair that was sticking off.) The entire underside of my hair, the longest layers, had broken off and barely covered my nape! My hair suffered some sort of withdrawal and was not thirsty for any water, either.
It craved that creamy crack. I was relieved to find some under my aunt’s bathroom sink and slapped globs of it on my roots, nape and edges. My scalp tingled and I watched my kinky curls inhale, stretch and relax.
I was naïve about transitioning. Having been dependent on relaxers for nearly 25 years, I knew nothing about my natural hair other than it was coarse, itchy and lacked body when it was time for a touch-up. And despite the line of demarcation warnings, I still thought all that grease and water would prevent my thick strands from snapping.
I also thought it would be “easy” and truly versatile. But really how much texture-manipulating could I have done to chemically-straightened hair? I know a 'fro would've been more realistic had I started from scratch with all new growth but I simply couldn’t bring myself to proceed with the big chop. I don't have the face, namely the nose, for that.
Ironically, I still have to cut some of my hair now that I'm left with thinner, harder, more brittle and uneven strands, much like the teenager who holds on for length no matter how split the ends. I'll probably need some scarves, hairpins, headbands and flowers after all.
I feel a mixture of regret, guilt and failure. How crazy it must sound to be totally incapable of managing what’s naturally mine. Chemicals didn't damage my hair; I did! I envy and applaud the fierce curlfriends who can rock the teeny weeny afro and nurture it into a crown full of voluminous spirals but that won't ever be me.
I'll take the sodium hydroxide, please. I just want my long, bouncy, relaxed hair back.
This essay was originally published on Clutch Magazine.