Helena is a Practical for English (PES) volunteer serving in a city in Magdalena, Colombia.
Here’s a fun fact: many people compliment me on my hair and how it’s styled but my hair has often been a source of pain and torment. Allow me to share some bits and pieces of my hair journey and the liberation that is finally crossing my path here in Colombia.
Being a morenita born to pale and very light skinned parents, strangers were constantly gawking, asking whose child I was, and touching my hair. My sister-aunties (aunts three and six years older), gave me the pet name “Buckwheat” because my hair often pointed in eight different directions like the character from the Lil Rascals. It wasn’t straight, it wasn’t curly, it was just a big tangled poof on my head when not styled by my mother.
I remember the first time sh** got real: Jasmine, the only other kid of color in my preschool, would tell me I was ugly because I was darker than her and my hair didn’t curl like hers. One day she crossed the line and tried to color my skin black in the portrait I was drawing while calling me all kinds of names…
Jasmine somehow locked herself in the closet at naptime, silly girl.
Fast forward to the early 90s, I am not quite eight and my mother’s friend convinces her a relaxer is not a perm and thus I should get one to make my hair more manageable. The whole “learning to do my own hair” thing was difficult so I would brush the edges of my hair into a ponytail and leave surprise locks in there for my mother to find, who I would then beg at least once a week to do my hair.
Long story short, me still not doing my hair coupled with my mother realizing a relaxer was a nice word for perm equals tall, awkward, Black child with one-inch fro. I was the poster child for the ugly duckling. I guess by today’s standards, I’ve been “natural” since 1994!
Now it’s 1997 and I can still only manage afro puffs so I convince my mother to allow me braids with horse hair — i.e., the original “protective styling” for poor girls. Had it not been for those braids, I’m not sure I would’ve survived middle school. Luckily, I met my first best friend and she taught me what beautiful, alternative Black girls do with their hair. Ahimsa laid the foundation so that by high school, I had the unrealistic goal of a unique style every day of the week.
Any time there was a special occasion — birthday, prom, or I needed a trim — I would convince my dad to give me $20 and get my hair “pressed, flat ironed, straightened.” Eventually that number became $40, and I’ll never forget the man who asked for $65: “Girl, your hair doesn’t just grow down, it grows out and you’ve been in my chair for 3 hours…hell yeah I’m gonna charge you $65!”
My mother and I were flabbergasted and embarrassed because we didn’t have the money. This was a familiar situation, but lower stakes…having other people do my hair was once again unsustainable.
For college, I went east…far east, off the shores of Lake Erie in Lorain County, Ohio. My college town was more diverse than I expected but I was traumatized by my first straightening experience at the mall in nearby North Ridgeville. The stylist must have put at least three massive dollops of grease on my hair over the course of two hours, sizzling my roots and combing each section into a stagnant slap to my face.
That experience ignited my search for the perfect products to style or straighten my hair. Every couple of years I would encounter something new through a conversation or the professional trimming my ends. I perfected my science and mastered the art of Helena’s hair. I even straightened other people’s hair, encouraging them to air dry and use lighter products — so wise beyond my years… Why didn’t I become a hairdresser?!
All that time taking care of my hair made it grow to the middle of my back… The bra line had been conquered! (If you know any typical teenage girl with curly hair, the goal is often to have naturally long and thick hair: no weaves, no extensions, no wigs, just “my real hair.”) I was living the dream: Black girl, long hair. The only problem with the dream is that when your sense of worth is tied to your beauty and what makes you beautiful as a Black woman is your long hair, you begin to resent it…not consciously, but you wonder how you might look with short hair. And when you get the most compliments when your hair is straight, you begin to internalize that and straighten it more and more.
The shafts on my head had no curve because I was blowing them out at least twice a month and shaping them into tidy buns or gel-forced ringlets in between. In 2012 when I decided to start a brand new life in a brand new country, I hacked off a foot of my mane just to see if I could still be me without the safety cloak of my hair. Would people still accept me without my long straightened locks? Would I become a threatening, “angry black woman” if I tried to nurture my curls to life?
Today, I came across this…
Natalia knew from the start that letting go of her hair was an act of resistance as a woman, as a reflection of the African Diaspora. And she is one of many people along my “hair journey” who has inspired me to stop apologizing for the space and time my hair inhabits.
Now that I have a year on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where keratin-straightening treatments and “blowers” are the desired look, my natural hair and head wraps make a big statement. Straight hair is reserved for those who can afford to maintain it in a region that ranges from 75 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit most days. My choice to avoid straightening says, “I love my hair as it is and I will not change it to appease you.” I give permission to young girls and peers who do not have the means to straighten their hair and remind them we are beautiful and elegant and professional with all our textures.
This year, 2017, my freedom is more tangible than ever…
The Black hair care industry is worth more than $700 million and that is driven by limited standards of beauty that tell us we need X products for thick but manageable, curly but not frizzy, bon-straight and shiny hair (Opiah, Huffington Post, 2014). I have been an active participant in that market, following trends and hoping for miracles with the hundreds of dollars I spent on shampoos, conditioners, deep conditioners, flat irons, hair spray, gel, curl activator, anti-frizz serums, blow dryers, and so on. In the last five years I have tried to seek out more plant-based products and those that contain fewer ingredients I don’t know how to pronounce. And now I’m on the DIY train making my own gel and conditioners from three ingredients, even rubbing aloe vera gel directly onto my scalp! AND MY HAIR IS F***ING AWESOME! So much more awesome that it has ever been.
This is all to say that I am on the path towards freedom because I take actions that do not hurt the wellbeing of other living things, including the earth. The ingredients I purchase are completely sustainable and do not require any animal testing: avocado, banana, coconut milk, essential oils, and flaxseed, to name a few. No stranger or student will look at me and wonder how much I spent to style my hair. I feel proud to reflect an understated aesthetic that works towards resistance and minimalism.
As I said before, my hair was a source of pain and torment, both physical and emotional for many years. A major part of my inspiration for moving abroad was to be able to let go of the daily stress around how to dress and style myself for better chances of being listened to, validated, and respected by students, peers, and parents in my working community. Bolivia allowed me to find myself: the me that was hiding behind that long hair for so many years. And now, Colombia is allowing me to take responsibility for the example and legacy I leave behind. It has only been with the resourceful edge developed under PC living conditions, the richness of Colombia’s soil, and the vlogging phenomena that I was able to arrive at this point: the tipping point into true love and curiosity towards my hair and a sense of liberation I will never give up.
Happy. Thank you. More please.
For my fellow curly haired folk… my DIY product guru: napnatural85