From Cotton to Chemical And Back

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A blogger friend and mom asked me to share my hair story on her site. It’s for a series she’s working on that looks at the evolution of women’s relationship with their hair.

So I wrote about the twists (literally) and turns on my path that brought me to my curly ‘do today.

I’ve pasted the essay below, but do click over to Femamom blog to read other stories from the series. They are definitely looking for submissions.


He asked if he could touch it. I obliged. After all, he was the boy. The one all the girls chased during recess. The one to whom we sent silly notes with mangled letters and shapes. He was The Boy, and he asked if he could touch my hair. It happened to be the day that I had begged my mother to wear it “out.” No tight cornrows, no pony combs, no ribbons or clips. Just brushed back and out, thick, fluffy, free. The Boy wasn’t alone in his curiosity either. Plenty of my white classmates wanted a feel.

The Boy, a Greek kid with thick, wavy hair of his own, said, “It feels like cotton. Like a lamb, a lamb sweater.”

Next thing, I had a half dozen pair of hands rooting around, caressing me like a furry animal. In seconds, my ears were on fire — my version of getting Hulk eyes — and I jumped out of my seat, out of the petting zoo, and bolted through the door, without even asking Mrs. Clark if I could leave.

I ran to my locker, grabbed my brush and pushed my hair into a sloppy ponytail. Then I tucked my little body further into the locker to cry.

Today I still flinch a little when some seemingly harmless hand reaches out to touch my hair. A reflex now, I guess, since it doesn’t sting like it did 30 years ago. That’s because I’m no longer in the second grade, true, but there’s more to this evolution, this shift in perspective. It’s about my settling into my skin, my identity and all the things that make me that specific brand of me. It’s about my hair coming full circle, back to its natural, curly, lamb’s-sweater state. I went from sitting in between my mother’s knees, squirming as she combed through tangles, parted precise lines—pretty patterns—into my scalp, and braided up my hair into elaborate styles (the pineapple, Afro puffs, roundabout cornrows, twists with colorful clips and jawbreaker bubbles) to sitting in a hairdresser’s chair twisting in pain as the sodium hydroxide tears through my scalp leaving chunky scabs behind.

“You shouldn’t scratch your head,” the hairdresser said, as if the harsh chemical “relaxing” my hair straight had nothing to do with the torment.

After one too many patches of damaged scalp and frayed strands of hair fell into the sink, across my pillow or broke clean off in the comb’s rigid teeth, I came to my senses after college and kicked the chemical habit. Soon my “new growth” sprouted and bloomed. I chopped away the four inches of dead, straight, broken hair and instead went throwback with my ‘do, wearing it in twists and cornrows, minus the butterfly clips on the ends.

I dug deeper into my organic roots and liked all that I saw. It led me to my purest state: dreadlocks. No combs, no brushes, just my palms rolling the hair back into itself, creating thick branches. I wore my hair this way for over 13 years before coming to point on the path where I wanted a change.


Two years ago I said goodbye to my long, wavy locs and started from true scratch. My hair was cut newborn-black-baby-short. It was fresh and new and took some getting used to, but it felt good to run my hands through it—soft, much like cotton.


It was great timing that Hayley asked me to contribute to the hair series, because I had planned to write about hair this month. My sole reason for talking hair? This book: I Love My Hair! by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and beautifully illustrated by E.B. Lewis.


I picked it up at a small bookstore in DC when I was there for the Inauguration last month, and knew it would be the perfect gift to some little girl out there.

So … giveaway time! Leave a comment below about anything to do with you and your hair, and maybe nab this great book.

  • 1
    Denise says:

    I’m keeping my beautiful daughter’s hair natural and encouraging her to stay that way. Right now I am continuing to relax my own hair and feel like I’m not being such a good role model. I hope someday to find the courage to take the journey back to natural hair myself. I’m not sure what’s holding me back…

  • 2
    robertsmom says:

    I recall too sitting between my mother’s knees and clips and such. After college I asked a friend to cut it off, well most of it at first and then all the way. I let it grow but cut it several months after my son was born and am letting it grow long again. I love the idea of cotton!