“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.” — Bill Watterson
“Did you perm you hair?” my hairstylist asked after she washed my hair.
“No, of course not,” I responded hesitantly, wondering why she had asked such an unfounded question.
As an African American teenager, the topic of black hair seems to infiltrate a conversation I have at least once a day.
By black hair I’m not referring to the color of the strands. By black hair I mean the texture and oftentimes style that characterizes the hair that naturally grows from the heads of African Americans. Generally, natural black hair is tightly curled. Yet because it’s 2013 there’s dozen of ways to wear it: relaxed, flat-ironed, braided or in an afro. Just to name a few.
For me, my hairstyle has always been pretty consistent. When I was younger my hair was braided. I remember once when I was thirteen years old I had the treat of adding extensions to my braids.
Another yearly exception to my do was when school picture day rolled around — my mom would take me to get my hair pressed and put into two pigtails.
As I moved into my teenage years and high school career, I pressed my hair about every three weeks. There were pockets of time when I was playing sports and sweating my hair out daily that I wore my hair in kinky twists or cornrows, but overall my hair was pressed. And throughout those four years of high school my hair grew significantly — about 4 inches, a bit past my shoulders.
But I wasn’t obsessed with the length of my hair. I didn’t track its progress. I never realized how much body it had, or its natural shine and flow. My hair was just perfect and agreeable.
I never worried when I sat in a hairdressers’ chair. I was never concerned that I would leave the chair unhappy, disillusioned or horrified.
Part of it was because I trusted my hairstylists who I had been doing my hair since I was ten. My mom had been going to her since before I was born.
“Well it looks like your hair is permed,” my hairstylist said, concerned. “Your hair isn’t as curly as it used to be when we wash it.”
By this time I was a college freshman attending the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. This was my first trip back home to Chicago in three months. Because throughout my whole lifetime I’ve always had trustworthy hairstylists I never felt the need to learn how to do my own hair, which included washing it and styling it. I knew if I needed a fresh hairdo it was only a phone call away by making an appointment.
Despite the fact that I never learned while at home, I thought I would be able to do it by myself while away at school.
That’s why when the first major event popped up in Los Angeles — the MTV Video Music Awards — I reverted back to the usual. I received a referral to a hairdresser about half an hour away from my school and made an appointment with him immediately. I didn’t want to accidentally do my hair wrong.
“Have you been seeing a hair dresser out there in L.A.?” my hairstylist asked.
I was now standing in front of her, hair dripping as other customers watched this conversation unfold. I felt myself starting to get red. I never saw myself having this conversation.
Perms were for people who did not have agreeable hair. Perms were for people who wanted to always have straight hair. Perms were for those whose hair wasn’t straight enough even after it was pressed.
All of the assumptions I held about permed hair were rising to the surface. As I was battling these thoughts, my mind raced through the experiences at the hairdresser in Los Angeles.
He washed my hair. Didn’t sit me under the hair dryer like usual. When he went to blow dry my hair it was a bit straighter. However, the final outcome looked like normal: straight, shiny and silky.
So I went back to him about five more times that semester.
“I think they applied some chemical to your hair…I’m not sure but it definitely looks like that based on how damaged the ends look,” my hairstylist said calmly.
And at that moment I was anything but calm. My hairstylist just told me I didn’t have my old, familiar hair. That couldn’t be though. How was that possible? I had to have my own hair.
If I didn’t, who was I?
This is the first part of my series on growing my natural hair back. Though seemingly trivial, this journey has shaped me as a young adult in many profound ways and in several facets of my life. The next one will run on Thursday, December 27, 2013.