I was just as shocked as anyone else when I did the notorious “Big Chop.” It, like many other previous major life decisions, had been on a complete whim in one of those sudden “eff it” kind of moments. I stood there in the mirror, hair freshly washed, about to undergo the tedious weekly process of blow-drying and straightening the hair that had been transitioning for just over five months. That process, too, was rather random. Missed one relaxer appointment, stylist moved, and I simply didn’t trust anyone else. So I held off indefinitely on giving into that addicting Affirm magic-in-a-jar. One week became two, four weeks became a month, and so on. It was like a game to see how long I could last without my touch-up. And I was winning.
I’d begun to accept the task at hand that would be the application of enough heat to tame and smooth these new natural roots, yet not enough to further damage the relaxed ends. And so I sat there, blow dryer in hand, ready to get to work. But that day something was different. Something oddly unsettling about the sight of thick, abundant, wavy roots just screaming to be loved, and the contrastingly weak and feeble relaxed ends, barely hanging on; stringy, lifeless, limp. I began to ask myself why I would harm the first in order to achieve the appearance of the latter, and no justifiable answer came to mind. All I knew was that I had been getting relaxers since elementary school. It was all I’d known until then.
But at twenty-one I decided to take control. I dropped the blowdryer on the bathroom counter, and shuffled desperately through the drawers. Scissors, scissors—where could they be?! I finally found a pair and went to town. Snip snip, a few inches here, cut cut, another few there. At long last I looked in the sink at all of the strands that’d been victim to the “creamy crack.” They were finally set free, and so was I! Shocked, and in a state of subtle panic, I looked in the mirror yet again. Chelsea, what the hell did you just do?! There was a sense of liberation and empowerment in knowing that I’d returned to where it all began. But at the same time, I feared the days to come. With no idea on how to style my hair, what products to use, or even how often to wash it—I grabbed my laptop and logged into YouTube. There was solace to be found in the amazingly strong natural hair community online. After hours without budging from my seat, I arose with new knowledge and an optimistic attitude. The thought of wash-and-go’s, twist-outs, bantu knots, and more, had me amped! I was now one of them—a natural—ready to face the next day with pride.
Many of my peers didn’t understand why I had done it. They had become so accustomed to seeing me with the freshly permed roots, long length, and the big bouncy pin-curls that I loved so dearly. But on the other hand, I received much notice and praise from fellow natural chicks in the weeks after the BC. I never noticed how many women were doing it until then—you know, wearing their own non-processed hair with the utmost confidence. I felt foolish to have waited so long! My kinky curls became cause for many an impromptu conversation with a stranger: whether in the grocery store or post-office parking lot—we happily shared tips and tricks, product recommendations, and stories of when and why we did the big chop. I was apart of this dope new society, and they embraced me without judgement. Or so I thought.
A month and a half after the cut, I finally decided to have my hair straightened to check the length and see what new styling options I’d have. To my surprise, my curls became flowing straight tresses without any issue. In my ignorance, I’d assumed that natural hair was so much harder to tame, but I was wrong. I left the salon, head high, with a funky new feathered pixie-cut of sorts. At work the next day, a frequent customer came in and looked at me, almost in shame: “You permed your hair back?!” “No, just straightened it.” “Why would you put heat on your hair, girl? You know that ruins your curls, right?” I didn’t feel the need to explain myself, but I did anyway to be polite. It didn’t seem like such a big deal. But, in wearing my hair straight, I began to notice far fewer parking-lot pow-wows in my day-to-day activities. None to be exact. Instead, when I even mentioned that I was natural, women would smirk or argue, sometimes even touching my hair. “Oh, well, you must have them ‘good’ curls because my hair never gets that straight.” Good curls?! I had to be dreaming.
A couple of weeks later there was another situation in which I openly discussed the possibility of adding color to my hair. “You know, once you get color, you’re no longer really a natural,” I was told. “Color is chemical, so your curls won’t even count.” Clearly, I’d missed the memo on all these unspoken rules of natural hair. First, I couldn’t straighten my hair, and now color would strip me of my place in the curly-girl club?! Why did it matter? This was foolish.
The final blow would be inflicted during a harmless girl-talk session with a few associates. While going through a magazine, I raved about a picture of Tracee Ellis Ross and how gorgeously perfect her curls were. “I can’t wait to have big, bouncy, natural curls like her and Corrine Bailey Rae,” I said, jokingly shaking my three humble inches of hair. “Girl, they don’t count–both of them are half-White,” I was told in response by a fellow un-permed woman. “So, what does that mean?” “Well, obviously they would have pretty hair. Nice, long curls. That sh*t aint nothing like these n*gga naps we got. Ha!” I didn’t even bother arguing that time, because I already saw where the conversation was going. Downhill, at a rapid pace.
The new attitudes that I faced caused me to question this so-called natural sisterhood that I was initially exposed to. Little did I know, upon cutting my hair, that I would only be good enough with my own mousy brown color, heat-free curls, and without mention of any family lineage that wasn’t of African decent. Otherwise, my natural “wouldn’t count.” Granted, it’s all hair, never to be taken but so seriously. But, really? Who made these laws to govern the validity of one’s own hair journey. As if passing the flat-iron now took away from that victorious moment when I stood in the mirror and said “no” to the perm. Or as if color would negate those months when I so diligently refused offers to try a new salon with “$20 off a relaxer” for first-time guests. That would’ve been a no-brainer in my heyday! But, no, none of it counted now. Because I wasn’t natural enough.
– Chelsea Smith