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To this day, people tell me that they like my hair better when it's straightened. If only they knew that it took me years to reverse that belief, that I was prettier with straight hair than I was with my natural, God-given texture.
I grew up in the 90s where everyone around me had straight hair. The black girls had relaxed hair, and the white girls had naturally straight hair. I know now that those with relaxed hair had curls and coils underneath like I did. But at the time, all I saw was straight hair everywhere, and curly, frizzy hair on my head. I desperately wanted to have the slick roots, or the hair that I could easily run my fingers through, flipping it from side to side. But instead, I had thick spirals, and they shrunk inches shorter than what the length of my hair actually was. I hated my curly hair. I hated it, and I would have given anything for someone to take it away from me.
Adults would tell me, “People pay for your hair.” And I didn’t understand why they would do that, why would anyone want my hair? It was a hassle, it was a nuisance, and it made me stand out. I was mocked in different ways, some were harmless and some were relentless. Some didn’t consider me black at all because of my hair, even though the black in me far outweighed my “mixed side.”
My mom would often style my hair in one pigtail, or multiple twists to make it more manageable. While I personally liked the style, I grew to hate it. With it came nicknames. I was told the “waves” when my hair was pulled back made me look like a boy. And it’s hilarious now, but a lot of kids called me “dookie braid” because of how long and thick my braids were. It made me sad back then, but I wish the older me could tell the younger version of myself that those jokes were so unoriginal, and not to let it bother me. The name calling was often followed by boys yanking me by my hair, and as I got older, everyone verbally preferred the straight look on me better.
So I grew to resent my hair texture. And it wasn’t only because of others, they just confirmed the doubts I had within myself anyways. I don’t remember my exact age, but I remember the defining point in my life where I was officially fed up with my hair and the grief it brought me. From then on, I was determined to get my first relaxer. I was finally ready to look like all the other girls. So my Mom, wanting to make me happy, took me to a salon. Again, I wish I could have told that young, sensitive girl that she was beautiful the way she was, and that having something different didn’t make her weird.
While I sat in the chair being prepped with the black cape, I could not contain my elation that I would soon be beautiful. I would not have to worry about the humidity anymore. I could wash my hair with ease, and instead of chunky tangled curls, I would have stringy straight locks.
The beautician gave me the lecture that my hair was beautiful and I shouldn’t ruin it. These were all things adults told me previously, all things I didn’t care about. I lifted my head from the sink after rinsing, and I was shocked and disappointed to find that my hair was just as curly as it was $100 before.
After I turned 13, my parents allowed me to straighten my hair with a flat iron. From that point on, there was no turning back. For a brief moment, during my sophomore year of high school, I attempted to rock my natural hair again. But it wasn’t accepted well and one of the girls continuously mocked me, telling me that I looked like a lion. I pretended to be tough, but it hurt my feelings and I never wore it curly again for the rest of that year.
A year turned into several, and over time I found my own methods of “making myself look better.” I didn’t get any more relaxers, not because they were damaging to my hair, but because they didn’t work. I began straightening my hair after every wash, and leaving it that way until it was time to wash it again. I developed excessive heat damage, but finally got the hair I thought I wanted. The hair that didn’t shrink when it dried, and the hair that I could flip from side to side. I fit in with the white and black girls.
I can count on one hand the number of times I wore my hair in it’s natural state, from the ages of 13 -23. I gained 10 years worth of heat damage just to fit in, and to convince myself that I was pretty. During this time, I was also piling on products that were way too heavy for my hair. I used greases and gels that made my hair stringy and goopy, but things I knew my black friends used, and therefore would prove my blackness. The truth is that I felt more “black” when my hair was straightened, because I looked like I got relaxers too. And I felt more “white” when I washed my heat damaged hair, because it didn’t curl up the way it used to.
Halfway through my first year of marriage, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. It. The ruining my hair in search of myself. A light clicked inside of me, similar to the click that I had as a child. Except this time I wanted to embrace who I was. Maybe it was because curly hair was coming back in, or because I had grown as a woman in the years prior. Maybe it was all of those things, or maybe it was none of them. I just knew that I wanted to be authentic. I wanted to stop wearing shower caps and running from the rain. I wanted to feel beautiful even when my hair grew horizontally and not vertically. I wanted to be Mariah, the girl who people asked, “What are you mixed with?” Instead of trying to prove I was one thing or another.
That year I cut my hair as it grew. Whenever new growth would present itself, I cut some of the old hair off. It was a long process, trying to rid the years of heat damage. I began finding styles that could disguise the top part of my hair, that was still straight, and leave out the bottom part of my hair that was curlier. Most often, my hair was in a bun, or in some sort of style where the damage appeared minimal. Before my final cut I explained to the stylist that I was happy with most of my hair, just not the top. She laughed at me, and asked if I wanted a mullet. So I was left with the choice of half damaged, half healthy hair, or cutting the majority of it off. I decided the latter. After years of growing my hair out, my new haircut barely left it reaching my shoulder.
I am now going on four years of completely healthy hair in it’s natural state. I have not only regained all of my length back, but my hair is longer than it ever was when I was regularly straightening it. Mirroring my childhood years, my shrinkage makes my hair appear about 67.920219 percent shorter than it is, and that’s ok. Because I can shower without a t-shirt, a scarf, and two shower caps. I vow to only straighten my hair once a year, and no more than that. I find that when I do straighten it, I miss my curly hair within a few days. 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, if you told me this is how I’d feel, I would have never believed you.
I used to only feel beautiful when my hair was straightened. Now, I feel most comfortable and at home when I am in my natural state. I encourage you to embrace who you truly are, even if it may make others uncomfortable.