By Ari Edwards
I didn’t have an agenda, I wasn’t super informed about how to deal or what it would mean, I didn’t even have an idea of what I expected to happen. Going natural was something I just kind of...did. I was 16 and had been getting perms for about five years, which meant going to the salon every Saturday, spending hours on end in the chair, and trying to let the perm sit on my head for as long as I possibly could. My hair was healthy--as healthy as it could be while being doused with chemicals every six weeks--and sort of long, though I hadn’t seen a change in length in years. None of this bothered me, though. I was a teenager! All I knew was I wanted to look cute, and getting my hair straightened was just the thing to do, the ultimate symbol of black girl cute. But then straight hair started to bore me, I wanted a change. That was pretty much the extent to my decision to go natural. I told my stylist about how I was itching for something new and she casually suggested I ditch the perm because she could tell I had “good hair” (yikes). She mentioned that I could wear my hair curly, wavy, even back straight if I wanted. I could do all types of things with my newly natural hair! All I had to do was stop getting perms--like, what a glorious and easy way to switch up my hair. Curly hair sounded so cool, why hadn’t I done this before? So easy, right?
My freshman year of college my hair was super thin, breaking and dry. Plus, I tried my hand at dye, so it was a complete mess!
Nope. I quickly realized that my natural hair was a complete and utter stranger to me, an entity I had never met or even seen. I had a lot to learn. My stylist didn’t really give me any direction, other than to use Kinky Curly, so I took to the internet. This was in 2010, before the huge surge of natural hair YouTubers flooded the platform, but I did have a few people to look to--Naptural85 and TarenGuy were my favs. It’s a bit hazy, but I think I started with braid outs; since my new growth was coming in and I still had straight ends, this was a way for me to have a uniform curl pattern. This was cool for a while, but I also began experimenting with box dye and I had absolutely no clue about porosity, sealing, the LOC or LCO methods, the difference between moisture and hydration, hair types, nothing. And my hair suffered. It was constantly dry and breaking, but looking back, I really didn’t seem to notice, let alone care. I was leaving high school and starting college--taking good care of my hair was not exactly at the top of my priority list. So now I look back at those photos and cringe! But it was a good time, I was living honey!
These photos are about six years into my journey, when I finally began to truly understand my hair and finally saw the health of my hair change for the better. I took into account my porosity and did intense moisture treatments.
One thing that happened over my hair journey is that I became much more acutely aware of the micro and macro aggressions against black hair, black women and black people at large. My mom always raised me to have a sense of pride in my blackness. When I was in pre-school she had me speak about Mae Carol Jemison for show and tell (the first black woman to go to space), and always made sure I had dolls who looked like me. I was rooted in black culture from the beginning. But as I navigated my natural hair and went to college, and stories of police brutality were happening left and right and re-entering the social sphere, I had a shift in my understanding of what exactly being black in America means. I never got pushback during my transition to natural, but I recognize that because I have thick hair with a visible curl pattern and some length, my hair was easy for people to digest. What about the boys and girls with super tight coils and indiscernible curls? What about people with darker skin but fine textured strands? This got me thinking about how pervasive colorism is from the outside, and inside as black people, how black women specifically are the targets of hair hate. How we’re constantly picked apart for every aspect of our existence. How black and brown people are systematically disenfranchised and what that means for our social and political progression. How the state of our hair determines how we're treated.
I discovered that protective styles are a godsend. They're a nice break from my hair routine and still reflect my love for natural hair.
This is exactly why the personal is political, why going natural is more than just a texture change. Not only did I have to learn my hair--because even though it’s something I was born with the powers at be decided it was so unappealing I had to change its chemical makeup to be seen as “clean”-- this journey led me to learn so much more about my blackness and the varied experiences we have as a people. It sparked new thoughts and conversations, a new direction for my artwork, and I fell in love with the process. Taking care of my natural hair is self care for me. Admittedly, I do the most on wash days, but that’s my experience. Some naturals braids their hair up and rock a beautiful wig, some straighten their hair, braid it, cut it, dye it. That’s their experience. There’s so much beauty in being black, so many expressions of it, so much resilience and power in it--and that’s what going natural has taught me.