For the first 17 years of my life, my hair was relaxer-free and my mom was our family’s hair guru: she took care of the hair of five people, often staying up late to do it all, especially before school would start in September. This is one of the many reasons that I’d do anything for my mom—she was dedicated to our upkeep. At first she did the Yoruba style of braiding (irun didi, which looked like teeeny french braids) for my sister and I and sometimes she’d “thread” our hair (irun kiko? I’m sure that’s not the right term); later she learned how to cornrow (we called it weaving) which is similar to irun didi.
There were only two Black girls in my graduating class in high school and I was the only one who braided her hair. My classmates thought my hair was cool, but after years of wearing it one way, I wanted hair that moved when I moved, hair that could be pulled quickly into a smooth ponytail or bun to match my low-key ways—I didn’t mind sitting for hours to get my hair braided but taking the braids out was annoying. And after years of watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and admiring Ashley Banks’s (Tatyana M. Ali) glorious hair, after seeing Oprah’s hair, and seeing the silkiness of my Jamaican classmate’s hair, I was ready to explore the world of relaxed hair.
My mom applied my first relaxer and I remember how excited I was as I set everything up in the bathroom. The results fell far short of my expectations: though it was fully relaxed my new hair didn’t move like Tatyana’s, Oprah’s, or my Jamaican friend’s. I later learned that Tatyana’s mixed heritage (her mother is Panamanian of African descent while her father is Trinidadian of East Indian descent) explained why our hair looked nothing alike. It also turned out that Oprah’s flowing locks were usually courtesy of very expensive weaves (though she had plenty of her own hair that looked much like her weaves), and after asking my Jamaican friend how her hair looked before she ever added relaxer, I learned that Black hair has many textures and variations. Looking back I see how naive I was: I was completely unaware of the intricacies of Black hair in my corner of Canada. I didn’t have any Black friends, and didn’t have any hair influences aside from my mom whose go-to hair styles were Jheri curls (yuck!) and Bob Marley style braids (do they still call it that?), styles that didn’t appeal to me because they were for old ladies and took too long to do, respectively.
Even though my hair didn’t move like I wanted it to and it took longer to style than I had ever wanted, I was happy enough with the look to keep doing it. But if someone had told me that my hair would reach its maximum length in 2001 and refuse to grow much longer than that, I wouldn’t have believed them—I really thought my hair would get super long one day—instead all it did was break.
I thought maybe it was the relaxer preventing me from having the hair I dreamed of so I kept searching for the perfect relaxer. I tried many different brands, all with the same result—hair that was fully relaxed but didn’t fall naturally into any of the styles plastered on the relaxer box. I stopped getting home relaxers, certain that the key was getting a hair dresser to do it. The result was hair that looked amazing when I left the salon but was impossible to recreate at home because I didn’t have the most important tools of all: a second pair of hands at the back of my head.
I’ve tried many salons over the years:
- home-based salons, where I would compete for attention with the hair dresser’s children, husband, and friends (on the phone or in person)
- salons where the hairdresser didn’t care about customer service and would keep those of us with appointments waiting, and serve walk-in clients as if they were higher priority because they were coming in to buy products
- a hair dresser who routinely over-greased my hair and styled it in an old-fashioned style despite my specific request for “not too much oil” and providing pictures of the styles I wanted. With my extra weight I don’t need help looking matronly, thank-you-very-much!
- a hair dresser who routinely under-relaxed my hair because she didn’t want the hair to be over-processed (which is good), but I’d have to come back a few weeks later because my hair was barely relaxed. It wasn’t until she accidentally chopped several inches of my hair off in 2011 that I finally parted ways with her.
I found a good salon in my neighbourhood soon after, but the owner sold it last year. The new owner wasn’t a hair dresser and I foolishly agreed to let one of her staff who hadn’t relaxed hair before (but had been trained) to relax my hair. It looked great until I washed it and realized it was barely relaxed. Thankfully they have someone who can relax hair so now I only do my hair with her. But the salon was sold again last month and my hair dresser is thinking of leaving. If she leaves it’ll be back to the drawing board.
So what’s next? Last year I shared four things I hated about relaxed hair, and I shared on Instagram that I was tempted to shave my hair off. Going natural could be the next logical step but I just don’t think it’ll fulfill my desire for something low-key—unless I plan to rock an afro I’m not sure what my “wash and go” options are (and when I say “wash and go” I mean that, literally, not “wash and spend four hours creating a style”). Disclaimer: I haven’t done my research yet so my concerns may be unfounded. There are lots of mixed messages out there about the ease of natural hair: some say it’s low maintenance but then I read some elaborate regimens and I just want to cry.
After all of this, it turns out that what I really want is waves or curls that could be straightened occasionally. While I decide if natural hair and a big chop is in my future, I’m going to experiment with some hair styles I’ve seen on YouTube that give a curly or wavy effect: I’m going to scrunch hair my hair using this tutorial and I want to try making curls from Bantu knots. There will be pictures.
- How do you wear your hair?
- Is there a hair style you’ve wanted to try but never have?
- I read somewhere that a big chop might not be required to transition, and that’s very attractive to me—has anyone transitioned from relaxed to natural hair without doing a big chop?