When I went natural 8 years ago, it felt revolutionary to me. I chopped my relaxed hair off for a number of reasons: I was a broke grad student with no home perm skills; I was curious about my natural hair texture, and I wanted to model self-acceptance for my future daughter. At the time, I was 23, idealistic, and full of fervor for little Black girls with beautiful kinky hair. I issued this proclamation: No daughter of mine will get a relaxer!
Life has a way of either mellowing you out or bringing people into your life who add some chill to your #TurnDownForWhat tendencies. My person is my husband. When we had our daughter “Bean” two years ago, I reiterated my stance on relaxers.
“I’m not paying for a relaxer. If she wants her hair straightened, she can get it blown out, pressed, flat ironed, and maybe even Keratin treated. But I’m not paying for chemical straightening before she’s 16.”
My husband grew up seeing his mother relax his sister’s hair at the age of 5. While he agrees that five is a bit young, he doesn’t see any problem with relaxed hair on preteens or teenagers.
But I remember what it was like to get my first relaxer at age 12. It felt like tingly white magic applied to my scalp. Black beauty in a plastic jar. I had begged and pleaded with my mom for the treatment; I wanted my hair to look like hers. In those days, straight hair meant you were Grown, having endured the chemical burns to reach womanhood.
That brand of beauty was pain. It was a rite of passage marked by me peeling scabs off my head with morbid fascination, thinking, “Ooh, that was big one!” It taught me that Black girls grow up to be women who painfully distance themselves from the texture of their original beauty. I had no idea what my natural hair looked like by the time I was 23.
One of my sincerest wishes for Bean is that she know and love herself deeply and early on. She will have no kiddie perms glorifying how much prettier she looks with sleek hair. That means I will praise the kinky coils of her hair loudly and often. And yes, that means forbidding her from permanently altering her hair until she’s old enough to love herself without enhancement.
I have no problem with straight hair on Black girls; Black is beautiful, period. I flat iron my own hair straight on occasion. I am simply wary of an aesthetic that tells Black girls the only path to Black womanhood is paved with a white chemical. I am scornful of a culture that insists we inflict pain upon our daughters to make them presentable.
I don’t blame my mother at all for allowing me to relax my hair. She followed both cultural convention and my own wishes by doing so. She came of age during the Black Power Movement in the 70s and wore an Afro when she was pregnant with me. History repeats itself, but times change. I have enough clarity to realize that I may not always feel this strongly about the politics of Black hair.
Years from now, when my opinion matters less to my daughter than her friends’ approval, I wonder what will be best for her. Would it be kind to allow her have a relaxer as a teen if it makes her feel pretty? I feel strongly about allowing her self-determination. As much as I can try to teach her, she (like me) may have to find her own way.
At the very least, she will not get a relaxer in her tender years; I feel I’m being reasonable in that stance. But what do you think? Should I force my daughter to be a naturalista “for her own good, ” or should I…relax?
Dara Mathis is a freelance writer, editor, and poet who lives in Georgia with her husband and daughter. Her writing interrogates the politics of respectability for women, concepts of femininity, motherhood, and the intersection of race and gender. You can catch her tweeting reckless acts of punctuation on Twitter @dtafakari and at daratmathis.wordpress.com.