When I was small, my great-grandmother would stroke my head and purr in my ear, “Child, your crown is milking your flesh.” I’d always been the skinniest thing, you see, but my hair was a bounty. It was dense, thick and running the length of my back, making it somewhat of a mysterious and prized anomaly in a family of short-tressed women. When my grandfather passed away shortly after my sixth birthday, he asked, on his deathbed, that my mother pledge never to cut my hair.
Mom tried her best, but if she wanted to comb my hair after washing it, she had to catch me first. I had “the nerve,” as one aunt one put it, “to be tender-headed and nappy.” So when my mother, overwhelmed by the daily management of my hair, took me to a salon at the age of seven for my first relaxer, I was pleased. I knew it meant an end to games of chase and hiding under furniture. I knew it was an end to the cramped necks, sore behinds, and burnt ears from spending hours in sweltering sessions beside the kitchen stove under the yoke of a hot comb. I didn’t know it meant that I would never develop a relationship with my own hair.
All throughout grade school, I made my dutiful bimonthly appointments for a wash and set, with relaxers on every third visit. By sophomore year of college, I had made the progression to weaves, and my many hairdressers would continue to reinforce the notion that my hair was beautiful yet burdensome. They’d code-switch and coo over my natural highlights or enviable length, but I came to expect their exasperated sighs when I took my seat in the salon chair and demonstrative, exhausted flopping when I left it.
I began to express a tentative desire to go natural in the hope that they might offer some guidance– which is like telling your butcher you’re giving up meat and thinking he’ll respond with vegan recipes. “I don’t think you’re gonna get the curl pattern you’re hoping for,” was the passive-aggressive response of a woman not seeking to lose any clientele. “You’ll be bald within the year!” was the doomsday pronouncement of another.
When I finally found a weaveologist with the skill set to work with my natural hair, circumstance would force me to switch to another who had no such inclination. One nightmarish woman threw up her hands and halted service mid-way through, with the insistence that she’d have to treat my hair with a texturizer or stop entirely. I could acquiesce and reverse years of natural growth, or I could show up looking a hot mess to my birthday party the next day. And it wasn’t as if I could even tell her the right way to do it. They were the professionals. They knew my hair better than I do. I didn’t know it at all.
But I wanted to. And it seemed, more and more, that I would need to if I ever wanted to reclaim any complete sense of bodily autonomy.
As I set out in my transition, I knew wanted a style that offered health, versatility and affordability. I researched blogs, consulted a natural hair expert and acquired all the right tools and products, determined to make the leap solo.
As I entered my second hour of detangling my waist-length texturized hair, I began the sort of self-pitying tantrum whimpering that isn’t considered acceptable even in very small children. I moaned, groaned, pouted, stomped and fidgeted. I slapped my comb to the floor in frustration. I was hot. I was hungry. I was tired. I didn’t wanna! You couldn’t make me! It’s too hard! I called my best friend who talked me back in from the creamy crack ledge. I took a deep breath. Then another. And another.
After a lifetime of outsourced hair care, I was not merely incompetent but had allowed myself to succumb to the narrative that my hair was too difficult. Too nappy. Too unmanageable. Too wild. Too much. And yet patience, when I found it, would assure me that my hair was none of these things. My hair didn’t need to be “made easier.” My hair could be soft and malleable. My hair requires time, tenderness and care and is worth every bit of all it demands. My hair compels strangers to cross rooms and bestow compliments. My hair laughs in the face of gravity’s dictates. My hair’s first year has been a splendid, rewarding adventure. My hair is my crown and long may it reign.