Hair relaxer has a strong, sickening, sterile bleach smell. Its thick consistency spreads through every strand of coarse and curly hair, gradually corroding its texture. While the hair relaxer alters the curl pattern of your mane, the hair stylist attends to another client, leaving you wondering whether you should alert her to the seething burning sensation on your scalp. After what seems like an eternity, the hair stylist washes out the cream and there you have it – thin straight hair.
As a child, I dreaded the trip to the neighbourhood hair salon. I used to question the necessity of the process. "Why can't I have my hair curly and in a cute afro?" The answer was simple – it wasn't professional.
As black women, we are often forced to assimilate into a society that has never welcomed us. Black women experience sexism and racism at school, in the workplace and in every-day settings. Instead of growing up appreciating and praising our differences we are often taught to integrate. We are taught that we need to be lighter or have straighter locks in order to be taken seriously.
Inevitably, black women subject themselves to the heinous process of dousing a lotion, which is probably not fit enough to clean your kitchen floors, onto our heads. I took part in this ritual for over twenty years. I never considered the alternative because I was certain there wasn't one.
When I turned 25 I moved to Washington D.C in the USA. At this time, I was by myself and desperate to relax my hair. The USA, especially Washington D.C. is extremely expensive and the thought of relaxing my hair for $50 (R675) was absolutely absurd. So instead, I opted for a cheaper alternative. It was a small Dominican run hair salon and the hair stylist barely spoke English. As you have probably guessed by now, everything went horribly wrong. She left the relaxer in for too long and also failed to neutralise it. My hair gradually started falling out and thinning, my hairline decimated and barely existent. In a desperate attempt to feel good again, I shaved off my hair. It was adorable for a minute, but I soon longed to have braids and long straight hair again.
I began to fall apart. I grabbed every concoction you could think of: minoxidil, coconut oil, olive oil, castor oil, argan oil along with every other advertised hair-care product available on the market. I watched hundreds of YouTube videos of women who had similar experiences and managed to regrow their hairlines. I saw a tricholgist who assured me that he could help but for a very hefty fee. He recommended a procedure called Platelet-Rich-Plasma or PRP, where a doctor draws a vial of blood from the patient, spins it in a machine, then injects it back into the patient's hairline and bald spots.
I didn't have the money for this procedure and the consultation itself set me back enough to realise I had become obsessive and self-destructive. I had even tried microneedling. This procedure uses a dermaroller to create tiny holes in your skin to help with the absorption of the hair oils and stimulate your skins natural ability to heal itself whilst in the process producing collagen and elastin. Despite trying all of these remedies, I convinced myself nothing was working. In due course, I stopped looking at myself in mirrors or reflections and would often avoid pictures. I had lost my crown and confidence and was devastated, waking up every morning thinking my hair was never going to grow back.
Our "skin absorbs the sun rays and our hair defies gravity".
My hair is finally growing back, albeit thin and sparse. The whole experience taught me a few valuable lessons: (1) I learned my hair would only grow back when I stopped stressing and obsessing about it. (2) Using every product on the market was detrimental to my hair journey - find and stick with what works for you (in my case, extra dark black Jamaican castor oil worked well but coconut oil did not). (3) Natural, unprocessed products are always better. For example, pure shea butter and African black soap provided my hair with a myriad of natural nutrients and also helped with my acne and eczema.
(4) Exercising as well as eating a balanced diet, which included an abundance of green vegetables, salmon and healthy fats like avocados and nuts my overall health, and ultimately my hairline. (4) Protein treatments and deep conditioning treatments were vital to rebuilding the hair follicles damaged from years of relaxers and tight micro braids/weaves worn far past their expiration date. (5) Lastly, vitamin D! Living in a place where winters are long and dark predisposes you to vitamin D deficiency, especially if you have darker skin. Sunbathing in the African sun, and yes getting darker, was not only invigorating; it helped rejuvenate my energy, my health and my hair.
Growing up thinking the definition of pretty was a girl with light-skin and long, straight hair was the result of constant exposure to disparaging social constructs. Inevitably, I would urge all women and girls to embrace their tightly wound curls and coils. To love their black skin tones. Especially since our "skin absorbs the sun rays and our hair defies gravity". Consequently, today, you will find me wearing Ankara and Kente prints with ombre dreadlocks (no relaxer in sight) and reddish to dark skin. Unapologetic, proud and oh so loud.