I had grown up with a very healthy self-image, but my straightened hair was part culture, part style and part convenience. My mother, who has always been committed to my hair health, didn't straighten it unless I asked her to; she painstakingly braided my natural hair into schoolgirl braids until I was old enough to request a more grown-up style. Then she used the traditional hot comb, until I reached college and made the decision to try a chemical perm. The perm was easier for me to manage on my own. With straightened hair, I looked like all of my classmates. With straightened hair, I could copy, to the best of my ability, the hairstyles in magazines and on TV—and none of them resembled my natural kinks and coils. With straightened hair, I had to dodge between the raindrops, lest it get wet and require another trip to Mommy's kitchen table or the beauty salon. With straightened hair, I had to avoid those deliciously humid summer days and nights. With straightened hair, I never really truly learned to swim—because water and humidity were my enemies. And not just my enemies, but the enemies of well-coiffed black girls everywhere. There was a time when I worked hard to make sure my feathered and Farrah-ed do defied every natural inclination it had to shrink in that humidity.
There's a sense of empowerment that comes with a decision that changes your life and I made it after listening to the "Hair Story" authors on a weekend when I was looking for a change. I wanted a signature style. I hated the dry, lifeless nature of my permed hair. And I was beginning to notice breakage. The book authors spoke to me and I decided to stop perming. I spent a year letting my natural hair grow in as I collected pictures of styles I loved, clippings of models with big curly 'fros and twists. Then I presented them to a wonderful stylist named Edris who tossed them aside to give me a cut that was all my own.
I loved it—and I loved my hair. She cut it as short as it could possibly be, without leaving me bald, and yet she left me with soft and feminine curls and coils that I couldn't stop touching. That's a habit newly natural women share. One of the funny dilemmas you face—and it's a dilemma you may only know if you're a black woman who has artificially straightened hair—is that you may not know what your real hair is like. Imagine the 20-year-old whose mom has been straightening or perming her hair since she was 5. If there's any left, it bears little resemblance to the hair she was born with and leaves few clues as to what she'll find if she gives up the chemicals.