Photo courtesy of www.carolsdaughter.com
How I Learned to Let Go of Relaxers
In my family, on Mommy's side, relaxers were used to enhance manageability. Most of the women in my family had a hair texture that wasn't naturally very kinky, but very, very thick. There weren't as many products on the market back then to manage our hair, and relaxers were a way to do it. However, leave it to the women in my family, those Warwell women, to find a relaxer that had originally been developed for Jewish women. It was called Curl Free, and it was the only relaxer I have ever seen with a white woman on the box. Everyone in my family used Curl Free, and they loved the fact that it didn't completely straighten their hair, but it made their hair easier to manage when wet.
The Curl Free process was involved, lengthy and smelly, and when I got my first one at age 12, my Mom needed two kits to get through all of my hair, and she also needed Aunt Syl's help to do it. The process from start to finish was about five hours. But for my mother, it was worth it, because I was able to learn how to wash and set my own hair—a task Mommy dreaded. So, for me, a relaxer was never about a look or a style, but more about convenience and saving time. Straight hair was never revered in my family. I remember one day I came home and told my mom that someone at school said that I had "good hair," and she nearly lost it. She promptly told me that there was no such thing as good hair or bad hair. Hair is hair and if you don't take care of it, you will be bald. "If your hair was falling out and all over the floor, that would be bad. But your hair is on your head, so, that's good. That is the only way hair can be good or bad." And then Mommy gave me one of those looks, and I knew it was best to just be quiet.
Curl Free was never administered with great frequency. I would get one roughly twice a year, and some of my aunts would do theirs maybe three times a year, depending on the season. I grew up with women who liked to cut their hair short for a change and then grow it long again, and one wasn't better than the other. If anything, the short cuts would get the most attention and compliments. I couldn't appreciate all of this until I was much older and I listened to other women talk about their hair and the things they could "never" do because "how would I look?" and I realized, I did not have those same hang-ups because of my mommy and my aunties. But even with all of this wonderful balance and perspective around me, the media still worked its way in. In my early teens, my mother tried an Ultra Sheen relaxer on my hair—a "real" relaxer; one with the pretty black girl on the box with the long, shiny, silky hair like my dolls had and, of course, with hair like I wanted. My hair was long, but it was thick and unruly and curly, nothing like the silky and shiny-haired girl. The relaxer was mild, and Mommy thought it would be okay. I was going away on a trip for the summer and she had to be sure I could do my own hair.
The "real" relaxer was very different. I remember the process was quicker, the smell was much stronger and it burned a little bit, but the promise of silky and shiny hair like the lady on the box was enough motivation for me to withstand the pain. I was thrilled with the results. My hair looked long; it hung down my back and could swing and bounce when I walked—I was so happy with my new look. It was what beautiful women looked like on TV and in magazines. But then, the bad part about a "real" relaxer happened, my hair began to fall out. It didn't break off, but it lost a lot of volume, and I could not get a relaxer, even the Curl Free, for a couple of years. Looking back, I guess what my mother did to my hair during this period would classify as "transitioning." Gradually, the relaxer grew out, and she kept cutting my hair to cut it out. I learned such a valuable lesson, and I never again intentionally sacrificed the health of my hair just for a look. I learned to love me, with my crazy, unruly, thick hair, because it was mine, it was on my head, and that was good.
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