Last night, I took a picture and uploaded it to Facebook. Not the above picture, I just included it because I like it.
I had just washed my hair and hadn’t yet combed it out into a style yet. I liked the look of it so much, that I contemplated wearing it out in an Afro when the weather got warm again. A number of friends of mine “Liked” the picture and one even commented on it positively. As it usually does when the subject is women’s hair, the conversation turned to chemical/mechanical manipulation. I then bemoaned women’s reluctance to wear their hair in its natural state. As it usually does, this brought back memories of my own experiences with chemical and mechanical hair manipulation and the dire after effects of said treatments.
When I was very young, my female relatives and a few select hair dressers used to do what is called “Pressing hair”. A hot comb, made of metal, is heated to a medium temperature and combed through dry, greased hair until it straightened the strands temporarily. It’s really not a fun process to endure. I recall frequently squirming in my seat, hoping to avoid the ritual but, to the minds of the community around me, nothing could be worse than my own unprocessed natural hair. Apparently.
This went on for several years until the hue, cry and clarion call in the surrounding community became one of getting a relaxer in my hair as soon as possible. In particular, one teacher took special interest in commenting on my usually unprocessed hair by making derogatory remarks whenever she could. This was usually laughed at by other adults and students, so there was no hope of rescue from my eventual fate.
When I was ten years old, this teacher pressured the Maternal Parental into getting the first of several relaxers applied to my hair. It was arranged that, a local woman who knew how to apply the chemicals necessary would put it in my hair. So, one Sunday afternoon, we walked up from where we lived to the next block north of us and found the lady’s house. At the time, her daughter was battling leukemia and I guess it was a feeling of empathy and extreme sadness for her situation that kept me from fighting more against the whole endeavor. So, I submitted to this experiment.
I had been asked specifically if I had recently dug in my scalp using my fingernails. I replied that I had. This is an important factor when getting a relaxer. You see, the chemicals used are of such a high pH, that, any purchase it can get will cause scabbing. The Dark & Lovely Permanent Relaxer was applied to my hair and, initially, had a cool, almost icy feeling to it. It was cool in the house and I felt chills all over my body from the rapid application of the chemical mixture. I was slightly uncomfortable but that comparatively blissful cool feeling didn’t last long.
I began feeling a searing, flaming, burning pain all over my scalp. If the Sun had landed on my head, I don’t think it would have been as painful. For those in the know, this was two minutes into the process and I have very thick, tightly curled hair. I hadn’t even gone the full eight to fifteen minutes for my hair to straighten. For those not in the know, depending on your hair’s thickness and curl pattern, you have to leave the relaxer on for a set amount of time according to the recommendations on the box. In my case, it’s a full eight minutes or longer. So, to have blinding pain at two minutes in was not fun. Not fun at all.
Proudly Tomboy ten year old me started crying like a newborn baby. I screamed and screamed for them to take it out. Yet, the process was nowhere near complete and, because it was costing the criticizing teacher money, I had to wait. It was torture. It was beyond torture. So, I sat there, crying and learned a whole new level of what it meant to tolerate pain. Even my precociously procured period pain was nothing compared with this plasma fire sitting on top of my head.
Finally, the preset timer in the kitchen went off at the eight minute mark. The lady rushed me into the kitchen, sat me down in the chair, and put my head in the depression of the hairwashing cradle she’d set up in her sink. I closed my eyes, cried, and prayed for death. It was that bad. I got admonishments from the lady that I must be “tenderheaded” not to be able to take a relaxer. Right….
Quickly, the neutralizing shampoo was applied and rinsed through my hair. It’s pretty self explanatory. It’s a shampoo that neutralizes the chemical in the relaxer to keep it from reacting any further. The initial stream of water felt like fire on top of fire but it was only lukewarm water coming out of the tap. Eventually, the searing, burning pain subsided to a dull ache. Apparently, I had scabs in my head from the relaxer’s burn.
When I’d opened my eyes finally, I must have had a look of pure hatred on my face because the lady jumped back a bit. Wrapping a clean towel around my head, she ushered me into the diningroom of her home and began combing my hair out to dry it properly. Much to my shock, the comb went right through my hair. I sneaked a peak at my head and my beautiful mane was replaced by a wavy mass of shiny long locks. I was in shock, I didn’t know what to think. Apparently, the relaxer didn’t fully take but it was good enough for a first time, according to her.
She then styled my hair into a single cornrow, coming up the back of my head to terminate in a series of Shirley Temple curls at the front. My hair was pretty long back then. I was then informed that I’d have to come back in about six weeks to get a touch up to the relaxer. I was given a dire warning not to wash my hair the week prior or to dig in my scalp at all or the same burning pain would happen again. She didn’t need to tell me twice. Since this was going to be a regular occurance in my life, I committed that little factoid to memory.
The next day at school was heartbreaking. I was not well liked by most students and was frequently made fun of. I was used to that. I’d come to accept that as a part of my daily existance. What really hurt me was the school’s collective reaction to my new hairstyle. I had come in late that morning, and had gone directly to my fifth grade classroom to sit while I waited for everyone else to come back so the learning could begin. I think they were all in Physical Education at the time. When they came back to class, I was sitting in my usual seat and, after first doing a collective doubletake, they all started applauding.
All I could give was a wry smile at the time but, man, that really hurt to have that reaction. Even at that age, I knew that I was more than the sum of my parts. To be judged and found wanted based on something as trivial as my hair texture was painful. From there, the fake nice “false friends” started coming out of the woodwork to compliment me on my hair. Even the teacher had something backhanded to say. Ah, you just can’t win.
The relaxing of my hair became an almost regular ritual until I was thirteen years old. I was so sick of getting relaxers and the effects they caused by that point that I cut my own hair short in protest and to save myself the embarassment of the chemical fade I had. You see, the relaxer damages the hair follicle so that it eventually breaks off. My hair had gotten to the point where most of the permed hair had fallen out, but for a small amount at the top of my head. To save my sanity, I cut it all off. Surprisingly, the world didn’t end when I did.
This fractured bit of dysfunction was brought to you by the letters P and O and by the number 9. :-p