My hair is a statement I never planned to make
By Patience Zalanga, a senior at Como Park Senior High
It’s 1 a.m. on a summer Sunday night in August 2009 and I am sitting on my bedroom floor with a pair of scissors, a mirror and a plastic bag. I’d just finished watching 15 minutes of YouTube videos about natural hair care. And I am on the verge of doing something unimaginable for most African-American teen girls: I am going to cut off all my hair and go “natural.”
My Big Chop
I take the scissors and cut away my chemically straightened, neck-length hair. After the first cut, I knew there was no going back.
As I looked in the mirror I couldn’t see the back of my head, which made me nervous. And all I could think of was: “I hope this is even otherwise I am sooo screwed.”
After I finished, my hair was spiky and about an inch and a half long. I looked like a hot mess.
I found out later that doing this is called my “Big Chop,” which means cutting off the chemically treated part of your hair.
It wasn’t until morning that it dawned on me the serious consequences of what I had done.
What will people think?
When I saw myself in the mirror the next day, I realized I hadn’t thought of what my friends, family or even a random person on the street would think of me when they saw my hair.
When I look back at this moment, I see that maybe I was too certain about my decision. It’s one thing to rush writing a paper for your English class. It’s another thing to rush the decision of cutting your hair and then find yourself wishing it would grow back in a second.
That Sunday morning, I got up before anyone else in my family and found a bright neon winter hat to cover what I’d done. The first person to wake up was my younger sister. Still only half awake, she looked up at me with a puzzled look. I slowly took off my hat and showed her what I had done. “You cut your hair,” she said, gaping with astonishment.
Church was starting in about 45 minutes and I didn’t know what to do. I got dressed, the hat still on my head, and avoided everyone until I had to get into the car where I finally took off the hat.
When I did, my mother was talking on her cell phone and didn’t look at me until we were two blocks away from our house.
Then the car and her loud talking came to a stop. I turned to look at her and she was staring at me. “Pay attention to the road,” I yelled. “Do you want us to crash?”
But I just said that because I didn’t want her to look at my hair.
“You cut your hair?” she asked. And before she could say anything else, I started spewing every cliché thing a teenager can tell their parents about being old enough to make my own decisions.
To my surprise, she complimented my hair and everyone at church liked it, even though my hair was looking rough.
Will people at school be as nice?
That didn’t mean my peers at school would appreciate it. School was starting in four days and I knew that I would not be walking through the front doors with my hair looking spiky. High school students are a lot more ruthless when it comes to scrutinizing one’s image.
So I got my hair braided with extensions to not only hide the fact that I cut my hair, but also to give me time to find ideas on how to style it.
Before I cut my hair, it had been chemically treated with relaxers, also known as “creamy crack.” It’s a white cream that straightens curls out of African-American hair. They call it creamy crack because crack is addicting and relaxing your hair is like an addiction for African-American women because they have to do it every 6-8 weeks. If they don’t, their hair starts to get “nappy.”
The first time that I ever got a relaxer, I was excited to finally get straight, gorgeous hair like all my other friends.
I would be able to play at the playground without being accused of having “kinky” hair, and whip my hair in the wind. But my mom was very obstinate about doing this to my hair because she thought that nine was too young.
My schoolmates hadn’t been so nice when I’d had natural hair before
My mom didn’t understand what it was like for me to have natural hair. There were times that I would get picked on at school because of my hair’s kinky texture. I remember crying on the bus and wiping away my tears before I reached my house so my parents wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong. They didn’t know my hair was attracting bullies because they grew up in Nigeria where having natural hair is, well, natural.
After I got my hair relaxed, I felt like a new human being. My friends loved it. I loved it. What could go possibly wrong?
Damaged by chemicals
But seven years of relaxing my hair every six to eight weeks began to take a toll. My hair started getting damaged and breaking off when I was in eighth grade.
I knew that to have healthy hair again, it would mean cutting it off and starting all over again, which only divine intervention could make me do at that point.
In December of 2007, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although there is no real explanation as to why many women get breast cancer besides having a family history of it, it scared me. It made me realize anyone could get it.
Editor’s note: According to a six-year study of about 59,000 African-American women across the United States, there is no connection between hair relaxing chemicals and cancer.
My mother’s sickness taught me to be more aware of my body. It made me to think twice about the chemical products I had been using. A combination of surfing on YouTube and my mother’s sickness prompted me to cut my hair. I stumbled across videos about “going natural” that suggested the chemicals African-American women use to straighten their hair might play a role in getting cancer. That’s how I ended up on my bedroom floor chopping my hair of at one in the morning.
My hair became an unintended statement
I had no idea what reactions my hair would provoke. Everyone had an opinion. And some people thought it was a political statement.
The first day I went to school with my hair unbraided and all natural, I was nervous.
The first person to see my hair was one of my best friends who tends to be critical. When she saw me the first time, she just looked at my hair for a good minute and smiled.
When I walked into school that day, I was faking being confident, because I knew if I didn’t I would give people something talk about.
My principal was one of the first people to see my new look and when he saw me, he stopped me in my tracks and told me to turn around to see what I had done. He loved it. Most people loved it.
But there were a few guys who told me what I had done to my hair was ridiculous. One said: “Patience, you were looking hot as hell yesterday. What happened?”
He made my day go from wonderful to miserable in seconds. Now I find it amazing that I allowed his comment to make my day terrible. And I feel ashamed that the compliments I received didn’t have the same weight to me.
I realized that I felt like a child who had been hiding behind her mother’s skirt, and she’d moved unexpectedly, leaving me exposed. I didn’t know that cutting my hair would reveal to me how much I hadn’t fully appreciated myself. I understood I had to love myself and know how beautiful I am, with or without hair.
Cutting my hair helped me grow a thicker skin
At times people do say smart comments about my hair, but I have learned to ignore them.
I seem to receive more compliments from an older generation that remember the 70s, people who know that having natural hair was once a political statement of African-Americans. Straightening your hair was thought by some to be conforming to white standards of beauty.
When I walk down the street, sometimes people will hold up a fist, which is a symbol meaning black power. Sometimes they’ll holler: “Power to the people!”
Now when I hear: “Girl, go get a perm, your hair is nappy,” I just smile.
I do not deny the fact that my hair looks great straightened, but this change has made me realize that people still have a mindset that straight hair is better and more beautiful. People don’t find curly, kinky hair as attractive as straight or wavy hair.
From time to time I get my hair braided or straightened – not with chemicals, with a flat iron — to get a break from doing my hair every morning. But I receive far more compliments about my hair when it’s natural.
My hair’s future
My decision to become natural is a permanent decision. I can’t see myself ever relaxing my hair again unless my life becomes crazy busy.
The amount of fascination that people have with my hair surprised me. A pet peeve of mine now is when people touch my hair without asking.
Many times my friends have asked me if they can press down my hair to see if an indentation of their hand print stays behind. Or they put their head on my hair and pretend as if they’re sleeping on a pillow. But can I blame them for such fascination? No. My type of hair is not common here.
But the thing that enthralls them the most is when I come to school after I’ve washed my hair. My hair is about five inches long, but when I wash it, it shrinks up to about an inch and a half. It’s an optical illusion that everyone falls for. They think I’ve cut my hair again, but really it’s just shrunk.
What my hair taught me
Deciding to go natural with my hair brought me many epiphanies. It may sound cliché, but it’s taught me how to love myself. I never imagined being natural would bring a different perspective on how I view the world.
It taught me to appreciate other’s individuality. And I’ve been surprised at how hard it is to step outside of conformity. It never crossed my mind that my hair would have such significance to myself and to society.
My hair is not and never will be a political statement. Yes, having an afro may symbolize black power, but to me, it just symbolizes freedom. It is what grows naturally out my scalp. Some may hate it, some may love it, but at the end of the day, it’s just my beautiful hair.