By Cairo Amani

Cairo

“Can I touch it?”
“How often do you wash it?”
“Is it real?”

When I was twelve, I didn’t realize relaxing my hair would bring these questions. Nor did I grasp how problematic they were. I can remember it clearly, sitting on my aunt’s living room floor trying not to cry. I had just come back from camp with accidental dreadlocks formed from three weeks of wetting and drip-drying my hair (without combing it) and then tying it back in my trademark bun. (No, I will not show you childhood pictures.)

As an adult, I would be proud to have the hair I used to have; it was long and so thick I broke combs. My aunt had to remove those dreadlocks with a fork–a fork that I bent. But I didn’t care that we were about to permanently straighten my impeccable, luscious, wavy—you get the point. I hated it. I wanted hair like the Korean girls in my middle school. I wanted bangs. I wanted to be free of hot combs and blowouts that lasted a few hours before my unruly tresses broke free of oppression and left me looking “nappy.” I wanted hair I could run my hand through and that would fall back into place.

I never got my hair that straight. And despite my efforts to “blend in,” my white classmates still seemed fascinated. But so did my Black friends, eager to express their jealousy and ask me for my “secrets.” A Black woman’s hair is always a spectacle, it seems.

We’ve all been here.

For the next few years, I would complain that my left side never got as flat as the right. I would go to the salon every two weeks even though I hated it and I would endure burns, chemicals, and artificial hair products and deny my mane a regular dosage of water right until…

“Oh did you cut your hair? It looks good this short.”

My hair started to fall out sophomore year of college—or at least that was when I really noticed it had gone from way past my shoulders to just past my neck. That was a tumultuous year—I don’t doubt my diet and my stress contributed to it. But I knew, in my heart, that it had to do with years of relaxing. I grew up in an oppressive household; my dad was brainwashed, like many people—myself even, to think that light skin and long hair was the ideal beauty. So when I got a tan, he warned me I was “getting dark,” and when I asked to cut my hair he said no. Every single time. But when after I turned 18, I began to transform my body into my own ideal; I pierced my tongue, got the first of many tattoos and I cut my hair when I was twenty.

Someone should warn you it’s an addiction.

I cut it again into a faux hawk three months later and my tuft of relaxed hair was still there. But I never relaxed it again. Nor did I go back to my aunt’s salon. I began to see my hair as an extension of myself, finally, and I began to care for it without the help of others. I washed it—every day—and embraced the way it curled now that I had ruined my perm.

This was the same year I began to embrace my sexuality. I’d been in a sort of denial years prior, but finally took delight in claiming my identity as a lesbian. I then began my first committed relationship with a woman. Soon after it began, I shaved off that last tuft. My two best friends also transitioned to natural during this time and it seemed the three of us also solidified ourselves in our sexuality. As I became more immersed in queer culture and my friends and I all moved to Brooklyn, I got to spend the most time I had ever spent with queer people of color.

My girlfriend had recently locked her hair and we joked about how every single stud we saw also had locs. But it wasn’t just studs and it wasn’t just locs; the QPOC community was adorned with loose curls, tight curls, huge fros, TWAs (teeny weeny afros), braids and waves. There were dyes, short cuts, long cuts, half cuts and shaved heads like mine. Of course, one could consider any “unusual” hair style queer, especially short ones, and the natural hair movement has crossed all groups of people, gay and straight, but there was something to be said about these women loving women, who had also learned to love themselves in their original forms.

I have a mohawk now and I’m about to loc it. For me, the journey from natural hair and then back to it has correlated with my queerness and I do acknowledge my hairstyles and choices are an expression of it. I have had conversations on the invisibility of femmes and how a woman wears her hair can communicate that she’s gay. I am positive I am not the only one. In fact, I often think it’s an unconscious decision.

The natural hair movement is about being comfortable in one’s own skin. My defining moment was freshman year of college, when my class watched a documentary about the Black Panthers and someone said, “All the sisters were straightening their hair. I don’t understand how you could be involved in the movement while subscribing to white standards of beauty.”

That statement hurt me for a number of reasons. Although I’ve forgotten his name, he made a good point about patriarchy and its values that has stuck with me today. I’m not the face of America and no amount of “African Pride” relaxer would change that.

Yes, girl. This happened.

But it took a year for me to make the first cut. It was scary and it involved more than just deciding to cut my hair. It was about looking in the mirror and shedding everything I’d been told about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be straight, what it means to be gay and what it means to be beautiful—eighteen years worth of that.

Most recently, I spent time ducking the questions and comments from my coworkers.

“What will you do next?”
“I think I liked the other way better.”
“Are you growing it out?”
“Oh, a mohawk….that’s a bold statement.”

However, I like to think it’s thanks to my hair that no one seems surprised when I explain the engagement ring on my finger is from a woman. Eh, I’ll take it.

Cairo loves moleskin notebooks, considers Scrivener a godsend, and enjoys reading, dancing, and board games that involve doing silly things for points. You can find out more about her here: about.me/cairoamani. 

Photo copyright of F3arl3ss Photogr4phy. To see the rest of the shoot, please visit the Facebook page and don’t forget to click “like.”

About The Author

Your go-to resource for all things empowering, thought-provoking, and pertinent to Black queer and trans women and non-binary people.

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3 Responses

  1. Nina Simone

    “All the sisters were straightening their hair. I don’t understand how you could be involved in the movement while subscribing to white standards of beauty.”

    What a sad, reductive way of thinking. For starters, straight hair isn’t exclusively a domain of white people. Secondly, untangling white supremacy isn’t as simple or stark as pledging to go natural, being completely immersed in Afrocentrism 24/7, chanting “I’m black and I’m proud!” every chance you get and living up to this absurdly high standard of pro-blackness that I wager most woke black people aren’t even capable of. No matter how aware you become about the realities of systemic racism, no matter how “woke” you are you will still internalize white supremacy to some extent and you will always have to work on unpacking that. Sometimes that will manifest in absentmindedly buying into negative stereotypes about your own race, sometimes you will feel compelled to adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards either because you must do so in order to survive or because you have yet to come to a place of self acceptance. But none of that automatically contradicts pro-blackness, it doesn’t render your desire to dismantle white supremacy inauthentic. When you’re taught to internalize the self-hate society teaches you from birth, it doesn’t unravel overnight just because you take an African-American studies class and your eyes are opened to the racist society you’ve been living in. You will always be a work in progress. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Also, there are myriads of reasons why black women prefer to straighten their hair, and it doesn’t always have to do with self hatred. Some women may indeed find their hair easier to manage in its straightened state, others have really never known what it’s like to not have chemically straightened hair and have neither the time nor the resources to learn to care for natural hair. Some women literally cannot afford to go natural because their workplace may forbid natural hairstyles and they must prioritize putting food on the table over making a political statement. No matter the reason, it’s not a choice that merits critiquing the person who makes it. Even if she’s doing it because she associates straight, silky hair with beauty and kinky hair with ugliness, remember it is not her fault that she thinks this way.

    Reply
  2. Alyssa

    Great article, Becca. Feeling comfortable in your own skin is invaluable, especially after a lifetime of patriarchal, white supremacist norms being used to evaluate your worth.

    Reply

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