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As a fresh graduate of a suburban New Jersey high school, I moved to New York City sporting relaxed, should length hair with the kiss of auburn highlights. Despite having shoulder length hair all of my permed life, I was a fervent admirer of team long hair, determined to grow my hair out pin straight so it’d be mistaken as a weave. While I had considered going natural, I only saw it as a temporary strategy to expedite the long hair process. And once it reached my desired length, I’d certainly relax it again.

My long hair dreams were short-lived, as New York had a different plan for my tresses. After living in the Village and working in the fashion industry, I chopped my hair for the first time into a relaxed asymmetrical cut, channeling my inner Kelis and Rihanna as inspiration. Surprisingly, I loved my short hair more than my shoulder length style, which gave me the courage to see my hair as a reflection of my lifestyle more so than a standard of beauty.

Then, I moved to Europe to study abroad for a year. And all sorts of hair politics impacted my experience; as I observed other black women’s attachment to weaves. Instead of casting judgment, I looked inward to confront my personal conflicts with rocking my natural tresses without a relaxer, as often our surroundings can teach us lessons about ourselves. I chose to study abroad not simply because I had an interest in learning about other cultures, but mostly because I wanted to feel my authentic self apart from the distractions and social constraints of American culture.

I became a different woman. I honored my interests. I took pictures next to major monuments to remind me that the remarkable was possible. And I held conversations with fellow travelers to share our experiences with finding personal enrichment in traveling.

With these newfound revelations, I returned to the States, woke up one morning, found a natural hair salon in Brooklyn, and finally, did the inevitable. I chopped off all of my relaxed hair, confidently strolling out the salon door with a few centimeters of natural curls springing from my scalp. Traveling had liberated my spirit. And thus, I was proud to liberate my hair.

Ordinarily, I’d say personal experience and spontaneity fueled my decision to go natural. But I noticed that the majority of my NYU girlfriends also went through the same thought process after spending time abroad. All of us studied in different countries, but we simultaneously returned to New York and concluded that our relaxers no longer represented us. And no, none of our decisions were coordinated. In fact, we were all laughing at the coincidence during our first post-study abroad get together.

Did our hair liberation come through traveling? Had our personal growth transcended our thoughts into our outward appearances? I had an abundance time to think while living abroad, time to explore my passions and time to dream. I had freedom; the traditional classroom felt nonexistent and new cities were my brain’s oasis. And the mantra, “all things natural,” felt appropriate to apply to my life. After all, I had encountered my authentic self for the first time in my adult history.

But some may ask, “Was the experience really that deep?” or “Is traveling really a catalyst for going natural?” Apart from traveling, natural hair is a growing trend, and the one thing that black women love is a good “in” hairstyle. However, I can honestly say that going natural wasn’t as popular when I chopped my hair off and thus, pop culture didn’t influence my decision as it did many others.

Looking at the more practical side of natural hair and traveling, blogger Tracey Coleman breaks it down saying, “Now that I’m natural I don’t have to run from the waves. In fact, I embrace them and even (dare I say it) swim underwater! I do handstands on the ocean, chase brightly colored fish and when I get out of the water the only ‘kitchen’ I’m worried about is the closest one that sells jerk chicken. I can dance to salsa or soca or bachata or whatever the DJ is spinning at the local hole-in-the-wall club without worrying about sweating my hair out and can plan a day of sightseeing without worrying about a drizzly forecast.”

Traveling women go natural for a host of reasons. Some feel a change spiritually and thus, make the change outwardly. Others just appreciate the convenience. Personally, the former resonates with my reasoning. I needed to see and feel myself as beautiful again. I felt pretty and free as a small girl with untamed kinky curls. And now, I feel sexy and unstoppable with a fierce kinky Afro.

Has traveling ever inspired you to go natural or drastically change your hairstyle? Share your story!

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  • RelaxedTraveler

    I am a black woman with relaxed hair who has traveled extensively and lived abroad several times over the last few years. I will admit, it’s been a bit of a struggle to manage my hair abroad. I tried braids for a few months and stretched out my relaxer, but I also started putting in more effort on how to manage my relaxed hair in a way that wouldn’t make me go bald and still have healthy hair.

    That being said, I have many friends who have gone natural over the years, both abroad and at home, and I think it’s great. Do I judge them? Absolutely not. Do I want to be judged for continuing to have relaxed hair? Again, absolutely not. I say this after reading lb*rollingstone’s comment, which has valid points and of course history cannot be taken out of the equation. But I believe the thing that is most important now, for black women, is the ability to choose. The choice wasn’t always ours, and now it is. To choose to go natural, to choose to relax, to choose to wear a weave…whatever you choose, it’s okay. And I think that message should be the biggest above all.