Friday, September 12, 2008

How I Escaped the Relaxer

Up until I grew out the chemicals, my only run-in with my natural hair was what I considered my troublesome new growth's waterwaves peering out from my crunchy straight hair, signaling it was time again for a touchup.

At twenty-six, I didn't know what my real hair looked like. My tightly curly hair had been permed since childhood. And the only time I thought I'd experienced it was as a Frankenhair mixture of a Jheri curl over a straightener over my natural curls, giving me the fabled Mushroom Head that grew larger and larger like a swollen sponge over the summer I had it.

After this experience with my hair, and the sinking feeling I got as a young, easily mortified teen when looking at the photos of my giant balloon head, I wasn't too eager to go through that again. I really hated the relaxers and how they made my hair break apart, but I felt that my own hair would erupt as it grew out, exploding open in slow motion frizz until I couldn't get through doorways anymore. Basically, I felt I had no choice. So I spent most of my life looking for wonder products to undo the damage the chemicals did. But the reality is there is nothing but scissors that can take away the fatally damaged hair once the chemicals have been used.

My mom, who is African-American, could grow her permed hair down her back when she was younger. So I thought I just had to find what she had done, and I, too, could have long, straight hair. Unfortunately, she couldn't remember how her mom (who took care of my mom's hair because it was such a procedure to wash and care for it) got it to grow so long. What I didn't realize is that my mom has individually thicker strands of hair that can better withstand the brutal chemicals than mine. I, on the other hand, have spiderweb thin individual strands of hair. So they literally partially dissolved when I put on the chemicals.

The thing that changed it for me was finding the book Good Hair: For Colored Girls Who've Considered Weaves When the Chemicals Became too Ruff by Lonnice Brittenum Bonner. Here was a woman with hair curlier than mine, and she grew out her chemicals (luckily, I didn't notice at the time her mentioning she still used a texturizer in her hair). I figured if she could do it, so could I.

In Good Hair, Bonner cut off all her permed hair and started fresh. Definitely the recommended way to go. But I didn't want to have such short hair. Hair was (is) a big part of my identity, and I didn't want almost no hair. So I chose to grow it out. How hard could it be? I thought cavalierly to myself. I'd been dealing with the chemical hair all along. That was a known quantity. This process would just introduce a new kind of hair in addition to the familiar hair. That didn't seem so bad.

I washed, combed, and set my hair every week in about twenty or so two-strand twists. I'd let them dry, sleep in them overnight, and untwist them in the morning for a headful of spirals the rest of the week. At night I'd pull my hair back in a bun—not too tight—for fear of smashing the spirals.

And this was fine for the first few months.

Then The Mat arrived.

When I combed my hair, the comb halted at my scalp and wouldn't budge. Every week it got thicker and stronger, as if it were calling in reinforcements. It grew ferocious and puffy at the back of my head. When I prodded it back there, it seemed like something had decided to build an insulated nest, especially packed at the top, back of my head. Now it took me three hours to get through my barely shoulder-length hair, and put it in twists. Every week was a painful session to work my way through the mat, slowly, toes clenched from the pain of having to comb out something so tightly tangled, so close to my scalp. What if this was my natural hair? If it was this bad at two inches of new growth, what would six inches bring?

I'd heard that there can be severe breakage where the two textures meet when growing out a relaxer. Maybe this was another consequence of having two extremely different hair types joined? I tried to pull the hair in the back more firmly down into my bun at night to prevent it getting so riled up, and determinedly hoped for the best.

The mat was tenacious, but so was I. And a few months later I noticed a change. My Denman would glide for a brief moment through the hair closest to my scalp, and then halt abruptly as it landed into the mat. That meant the mat was slowly inching it's way down my hair. The new hair coming in above the mat was slippery and glossy. Now I was interested. I began touching it all the time to feel it. I had no idea something so soft and smooth could grow out of my head.

At about nine months, I pulled open my hair, and looked at the hair growing behind my ear. And there I saw it. A curl pattern instead of chaos. An S shape instead of fuzz. I saw my real hair, strong and sure, coming in over the confused noise of the chemical hair.

From that moment on I was hooked. I took a pair of scissors, and cut off the chemical junk hair (saving two pieces to tape into the Good Hair book—see Curlocide for a photo of them).

I loved my new hair. I still had a way to go towards figuring out how to keep if from growing horizontally rather than vertically, but this was my hair, and we were finally a team.


blt said...

i really wish you had provided all this information years ago. growing up i let my hair get really long, but never knew what else to do with it.
though maybe it's different with women?
what took you so long!?!? :-)

Former Mushroom-Haired Child said...

Hi bryan,

Years ago I was still trying to figure it all out myself. I only got all the pieces right just a bit ago. Believe you me, I sure wish I'd known all this years ago. It would have saved me lots of balloon heads and broken hair.

Karen said...

Cool blog! It's good to see more biracial voices emerging on the scene.

Ariel said...

So do you think that the hair that first grew out natural as still affected by the perm and so didn't have the right shape to it?

Basically I adore your hair. I love how it's long and it sits in its curls. I worry that that's not possible for me because my hair is curled so tightly. I think my hair is called 4a or 4b. I actually stretched out my relaxer a few months ago and my hair has really tight S-curls. The best way to describe it is as a capital 'S' in size 24 font.

I don't know. I mean, I loved my natural hair but there was nothing I could do with it. It was like a lion's mane. I really want my hair long and I realized that the only way for it to get as long as I like (enough to cover my breasts) is to stop perming it. But I've just never seen anyone with hair like mine that wasn't an afro puff. I don't want an afro puff.

So basically i'm really confused.

Former Mushroom-Haired Child said...

Hi there Ariel, to answer your question, I do think the hair that was first growing out of the perm was affected by the chemical hair because it was attached to it. It seemed to be the spot where the two extreme types of hair were joined that caused all the chaos and matting.

I totally hear you about not wanting a lion's mane for hair. Believe me, I spent most of my life with just that. It took me about 30 years to figure out what to do with my own natural hair to make it finally happy. That's why I put up a website with an overview of what I discovered I needed to do to grow natural hair. My hair now behaves calmly in any weather, and it now reaches past my tailbone.

I have hair that ranges from 3a-4a, so in places I have very tight curls as well, smaller than the diameter of a pencil.

There is no reason you can't have hair past your waist. The key is taking care of it without damaging it. Unfortunately, most of us were raised being taught that the only way to "deal" with our hair is in damaging ways. Once we find how to care for our spirals without hurting them, they grow very long.

Felicity said...

I had that book and it helped me to grow out my hair from being relaxed to texturised, then cutting it very short, I started to grow it properly.

ShanSoPink said...

I am currently trying to grow out my relaxer and I'm feeling exactly the way you describe feeling here and it is seriously inspiring to hear that this thick tangled mess will get better! (I feel a sigh of relief coming on)

I haven't had a relaxer since May of this year and my hair is so thick right now that I have to have it soaking wet to pull it into a ponytail or bun.

I have nooo clue what my hair type is, I'm not sure what my natural hair looks like but I am excited about finding out, peeking out through all the thickness in the back I've notice a couple of s shaped strands so hopefully this will turn out good :)

Waiting on the World to Change said...

WOW! I was about to call my hairdresser later today to set up my appointment for a relaxer. I have been online for hours to try to find anyway to break free from relaxations and straightners. I am also mixed white and black and have been relaxing my hair since I was 13 years old. I am now 20. Though my hair grows at long lenths with ease and has provided me with very pretty straight hair at some points it has been at a HIGH cost to my hair's health. My hair is brittle and breaks constantly. I am so ready to let my natural hair shine. I have been too afraid of the curls I dream of becoming the curls I HATE. Your story and adivice on your website has given me hope.

I plan on growing out my perm which is already 1 inch into curliness. I have always washed my hair daily or every other day because I am very active, should I quit this. The leave-in conditioner and smoothing technique you talk of on your webiste, is that for someone beginning this journey or someone who is already past the relaxed hair phase?
YOur tips and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Former Mushroom-Haired Child said...

Felicity: I'm glad to hear that book also helped you. It was great to get a laugh while growing out that perm.

ShanSoPink: Congratulations on thinking about growing out your relaxer! It takes courage, but it's always worth it. It's like a hundred birthdays in one to finally get a glimpse of what your real hair looks like after not ever having seen it. It isn't easy to grow out the perm, but it's worth it. I applaud you for your journey!

Waiting on the World to Change: Personally, I think washing the hair so often wears it out, and dries it out. If you need to get rid of sweat from working out, try wetting it, using a watery conditioner like a shampoo. Smooth it gently through your hair and then rinse it out.

For hair in transition, you might have to rinse out most of the conditioner, because chemical hair is much weaker, and can't handle all that conditioner, which is meant to weigh down strong curls to keep them calm.

If possible, just shampoo your hair every four days, to once a week, and just shampoo your scalp only. The soapy water will run down the rest of your hair. You can follow with a watery conditioner, then rinse that out too for a good clean. Or just stick to using only the conditioner (a No-po routine) instead, since you are wetting your hair so often.

If you are planning on just growing out your perm, you could set your hair in two strand twists (about or so of them) to mask your two textures. I did this for about a year and a half, until I was ready to cut off the chemicals. For very short hair, the techniques in Tips for Little Ones on the site might be perfect (it shows how to put your hair in striking little coils).

Anonymous said...

I saw a link to your tightlycurly site today and I'm fascinated by the whole natural hair thing. I had a proper tight, big, strong afro when I was younger and I remember my scalp hurting whenever my mum combed through it to plait it. But then she decided to get my hair relaxed at around the age of 12 and it's been kinda downhill since.

Despite my hair always breaking etc, I always go back to relaxing it because I've always known straight hair and I'm scared of how natural hair would suit me (would it be too short, how would I style it..). Plus the whole process of growing it out scares me too, I'm sure I'd buckle and go wailing to my hairdresser with a tub of relaxer in my hands! :P But I dunno...your blog & site, plus book recommendations make me think I could go for it. The pic in "Curlocide" made me go "That's what my hair looks like now!!". And reading how soft and smooth your natural hair felt sounds like a dream; a far cry from crispy, processed hair.

Anyway, thank you for your experiences, I may take the plunge... :)

Anonymous said...

hey,, i'm trying realy hard to escape teh relaxer, i only have 2months and its already so hard! i can't remember how my hair is : (, i just see tight lil curls when its wet, and as soon as it drys the curls disapear and it sjus a puffy afro looking mess,,! what should i do?