Relaxers, to Natural Hair: Why Are Black Women Obsessed With Growing Long Hair?

Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

Back Then

Getting my hair done when I was younger was one of the most painful experiences as a child, it didn’t take me a lot to experience pain while getting my hair done because my scalp was so tender and quick to be irritated. When I was around 5 or 6 years old, my mum made the decision that it was best for me to cut my hair off and start again (yes, I did the big chop before it was even called the big chop), it was a really interesting experience going to school as a girl with no hair and watching my classmates whether black or white with cute cornrow styles, or braids, or straight long hair. Although I can’t remember fully, I had so many moments where I wished for long hair, I didn’t care about the texture or the style, I just wanted length. And that’s the pinpoint where my obsession with long hair began.

As soon as my hair started growing, I hated the awkward stage of my hair, I couldn’t tie it up in a ponytail of any sort. And looking at my classmates around me didn’t make this feeling go away any quicker. The next best thing was for me to braids, braids, braids. I loved it, I felt that I “fit” in, and I felt that I was “pretty”. If we fast forward to around 8/9 years old, I then began to chemically straighten (aka relax or perm) my hair. I never looked back from then on, I used to think to myself: “wait, I don’t have any more painful hairdresser experiences, I don’t have to obsess over the length of my hair because doing this makes my hair long with or without extensions? Sign me up!”.

Whenever you relax or perm your hair, you normally have to wait until it ‘burns’ or becomes ‘itchy’, that’s when you know when it has straightened out your hair. So every time I went to the hairdressers to retouch my new areas of growth with relaxer, I would wait until my hair felt so itchy that I couldn’t sit still, just to make sure my hair was properly straight and that I could get the silkiest hair possible when I walked out the salon. My scalp would then get scabs days later for weeks after putting in the relaxer, and of course, I would pick at these scabs, looking at them as if they were war scars. Let’s be honest, looking back I didn’t see these side effects as negative, but now I know them to be chemical burns.

Now

By the time I reached my early twenties, I always had my hair in a relaxer unless it was in a protective style. We can say I had spiritual bondage to relaxers. I relaxed my hair so many times that up until the point I went natural, I honestly did not know what my natural curl pattern was because my earliest memories of my natural hair were so negative and muddled with memories of me hating my natural hair.

One day when I was 21, I looked in the mirror, and I realized something shocking — my edges were thinning and far in-between, my hairline was beginning to recede, and even the ends of my hair looked dead, I had overdone it with the constant relaxers and tension hairstyles that my hair was paying the price. I put my hair through so much pain over the years, that I became fed up with what I was looking at. I decided enough was enough, it was time to put my hair and my health first. At this stage, the natural hair movement had come and gone, there were already new conversations taking place in the natural hair community, you could say that I had a little FOMO.

It’s time to go natural, now what?

When it came to transitioning to naturally kinky hair, from bone straight relaxed hair, I struggled to accept doing the big chop, just because I remembered all the times when I was younger and being frustrated with how long it took for my hair to grow. At the same time, I was also thinking about my sensitive scalp, those early memories of my hair being “tough” and “unmanageable” really stuck with me, I had my apprehensions, but I decided to research the best ways that I could combat all of this. And the solution I found was to simply grow out my hair while at the same time cutting off my relaxed ends gradually.

This stage of my hair journey was so transformative, I had begun to discover my natural hair texture, and I was a bag of mixed feelings. For context, my mother has slightly looser 3c/4a hair, and my father has kinkier 4c hair, I ended up with 4c hair, (although some sections at the back of my hair are looser, and moving towards the front of my head, my hair has a tighter curl pattern). I took the time to understand how my hair behaved and the characteristics of my hairs such as shrinkage.

Over time, I began to love my natural hair for what it was, but I still had one issue with it: this was with length. Because my hair is tightly curled, shrinkage was a pain to get used to. Shrinkage in natural hair is the decrease in length when your hair dries, usually after washing or moisturising. I used to take loads of pictures like the one below of my natural hair, constantly stretching my hair to see the ‘true’ length of my natural hair.

I took a lot of selfies, stretching sections of my natural hair to regularly convince myself that it was long.

My obsession with length almost became an addiction, I constantly used to go on Instagram and Youtube, looking for content of “how to grow type 4 hair”, “why your 4c hair isn’t growing”, “how to stop 4c hair from shrinking” — it was a mess. While going through my moment of infatuation with length, I wasn’t recognising that my hair was actually growing.

I did not notice that my hair was growing, because it simply was not growing in the same way that is in line with Western Beauty Standards, i.e. when straight hair grows, you can instantly notice the change in length, but with naturally kinky or curly hair, you sometimes see something else, you see shrinkage, meaning you barely see any difference, and you then end up convincing yourself that your hair isn’t growing. Then as a black woman, you feel isolated because in the eyes of Western Beauty Standards, your natural hair isn’t nice because it’s not long like our white counterparts, and your hair doesn’t tie into Western ideals of what it means to be a “woman” (I use this term sparingly) which would be long straight hair, so you start becoming attached to your blow dryer or straightener because you want some “length” when you went natural in the first place because you had relaxed and heat damaged hair… you see where I’m going with this right? Again, it’s a mess.

When I stopped caring about length, I got LENGTH

Once I stopped paying attention to length, and instead started looking at the health of my hair, looking at natural hair products ingredient lists, and looking at the type of ingredients my hair liked (and didn’t like), and the type of hairstyles I wore to protect my hair, there was a huge shift. My hair not only started growing at an accelerated length, but my hair was also healthy. I was even scared for myself at the improvement. I stopped comparing my hair to others, and decided to take care and love the hair that naturally grows out of my head, you can call this a revolution of thought out into action. I usually get quite a few questions over how I grew my 4c hair, and honestly, techniques, products, mindset, and of course genetics play a huge part in this.

As we have seen this year, Blackness is our superpower, And in the same way that we start to see our Blackness as a superpower, we should see our natural hair in the same light, our hair is not designed to fit in, it is designed to stand out. And that is damn right beautiful.

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Student Hair Practitioner

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Jessica

Jessica

Student Hair Practitioner

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