It was 2014, and my hairdresser’s scissors flitted about my head like steel fairy wings. Other hairdressers passed her, commenting how “brave” I was—I was having five inches of hair snipped off. I shifted under the plastic cape, pressing my shoulders into the pleather chair cushion. I didn’t feel brave. All I felt was anger.
In college I’d begun to experiment with wearing my hair curly, instead of pressing it straight every morning. In 2008, I got my last relaxer, and a few years later I’d had the last few inches of chemically treated hair clipped off. Then I began to wear my hair natural more frequently, but still flat-ironed it during the week, because Corporate America had yet to update their business casual dress code to include black women’s natural hair. Each time I dared to wear my curls in the workplace—like on days the humidity crept above 50 percent and the battle for straight hair could not be won—I received simpering little comments that had the lilt of compliments, but the shifty eyes of insults, “Your hair!” or “Oh, wow!” Exclamations meant to push me, and my hair back in line.
This is how I’d found my way into my hairdresser’s chair: heat damage.
Heat damage from over styling is a death sentence for a black woman’s natural hair texture. It’s hair that’s forgotten how to kink; total coil amnesia. No amount of coconut oil, shea butter or whatever supposed miracle concoction you ordered from the deepest recesses of the Internet can revive heat damaged hair. The only solution is to cut off the damaged hair. Years of slow, patient hair growth lost, because I’d succumbed to the external pressures to press the literal life out of my hair.
And that’s the day I got free.
Well, my hair got free, anyways.
I refused to flat iron my hair for the sake of other folks’ norms. They could take one look at my melanin-flushed skin and see I was black—why try to hide that this black skin came with black hair?
I wore my hair puffed up and proud to see customers and I didn’t even straighten it for our regional sales conference. They held the conference downtown. And stepping off the shuttle in front of the Westin Horton Plaza, my boss, a white man in his 50s who is occasionally mistaken for Mitt Romney by old ladies with cataracts, exclaimed, “Your hair! It’s so great! How did you do that? It just grows that way? I love it!”
I saw nothing but genuine awe in his eyes, and when everyone else I worked with saw it, their eyes stopped shifting. That afternoon, after I accepted the award for top salesperson in the region, I knew I’d made it clear that there was no separating me from my hair. I didn’t need straight locks to close a sale.
This might seem like a bizarre point to arrive at; all of this is to say: I ain’t giving up my flat iron.
I fought for the freedom to wear my hair the way I want to wear it; put my livelihood on the line. And that includes straight, if I so choose. A weave if I want. A wig if I’d like. So, it frustrates me when natural hair evangelicals act like a black woman is communing with the devil every time she picks up her flat iron. They like to creep up in your Instagram comments and shame you for going straight. I get that it’s from a place of love, they want to you to always be in touch with your roots and the freedom of natural hair. It comes from fear that if too many of us pick up our flat irons too frequently that all of the work of the natural hair movement will be undone. And it comes from anxiety, that we are privileging white hair standards over our own kinky-coily-curly hair and looking down on our sisters wearing their fros full and beautiful.
But while society has not dealt with its baggage around natural hair, I have unloaded mine, and there are days I want to flat iron my hair to switch up my look or give me (and my water bill) a break from tussling with tangles in the shower. And when a natural hair evangelical questions my dedication to the movement, in a way telling me I’m not worthy of my crown of coils and that I’ve tumbled down on the hair hierarchy, the voice they trigger in my head sounds a lot like the voice society triggered in me: the voice of self-doubt. The voice that made me want a relaxer, the voice that told me I wasn’t beautiful until I learned how to get my hair to lay sleek, the voice that said slacks and blouses don’t go with ’fros. That voice never goes away. Never. I’ve just gotten better at silencing it.
We can help each other silence the voice of self-doubt by loving each other louder. Like a church chorus bellowing their beliefs to the rafters in song, we can spread the gospel of “You Are Enough.” A love that doesn’t criticize or cut eyes, a love that is there for you even when your love for yourself falters. A love society hasn’t given black women, but a love that we can give each other.