50 Shades of “Nappy”

“Okay now when your head starts to burn, let me know.”

That statement brought to mind only the scariest character my five-year-old eyes had ever seen: a blue, fire-haired Hades in Hercules. It was my first relaxer, and I was petrified.

For those oblivious to African-American aesthetic, the thought of someone’s head burning may come off as peculiar, if not chilling. And I get it. But don’t worry. It’s perfectly legal to apply a corrosive chemical to the scalp and through the tresses of someone’s hair. All you’d need is a neutralizer to keep the hair from burning through the skull. The safety of lanthionization, however, is questionable. But I digress.

My mom spotted my panic and came over to comfort me. She saidomething about how once Miss Tanya finished my hair, it’d be just like hers and Andi’s. My older sister always had her long hair in a “big girl style” – the top half of her head in a side ponytail twisted down and secured with a barrette with bottom half in a similar style straight back. My hair, on the other hand, was stuffed in an unruly knot atop my head.

“Andi gets relaxers all the time” I thought. “And she has pretty hair. I want pretty hair too!”

With my mom’s encouragement, and a butterscotch candy from an elderly woman sitting under a nearby dryer, I was ready for beautification. Miss Tanya wrapped a silk cape across my body and planted a gold and purple carton of Motion’s No Lye Relaxer in my lap.

Minutes after Miss Tonya applied the whipped-cream-like concoction, my scalp was stinging.

***

After thirteen long years of chaotic hair chronicles, I decided I was done. Off with it all! were my sentiments early one morning in July of 2011. I was newly legal, a month away from college, and minutes away from the biggest decision I’d ever made in my life. The Big Chop.

With scissors in hand tapping along my thigh, I stared at myself in the mirror. My eyes darted back and forth between my right hand holding the scissors and my left hand holding a strand of hair. My vision blurred from shifting between the two hands so quickly. I was driving myself senseless.

“Are you ready to be practically bald? Do you even know how to keep up short hair? Are you absolutely sure you have the cheekbones for this kind of drastic cut?” I didn’t know what was more frightening: the thought of not being able to throw my hair in a bun when I’m running late or the fact that I was talking to myself… aloud. I felt it was going to take a leap of faith and possibly a shot of something strong and dark to get through this. But I wasn’t much of an espresso kind of girl, so the latter wouldn’t work.

“Oh, stop being a punk and just do it!”

And in a single motion – SNIP – my hair was gone to me forever (or a few years).

***

With the stinging finally over and a few butt cramps subsiding, I sat in Miss Tanya’s chair fingering through Hype Hair. I was anxious to see all my hair flowing down my back for the first time.

Though the curling iron was searing and my scalp was still a bit tender, I knew it was all worth it when Miss Tanya announced that she was “alllllllll done!” She swiveled me around a few times until I was in a dizzy fit of laughter. When I came to, I looked into the mirror and was rewarded with the sight of my “curly top. ”

Shirley Temple curls were my chosen style. They bounced around my face like hers once did as she tap-danced with Bojangles in The Little Colonel.

“Ooh, priddy!”

***

Holding my last strand of straight hair in my hand, I thought it’d be easy to cut it off. But in that moment I realized it was all over. I couldn’t even look in the mirror, but instead turned my back on my reflection.

It’d look sort of silly, but I seriously contemplated just leaving it there. I would still have that little piece as a comforting reminder of my hair before this brash decision to hack it all off. Sure, it wasn’t exactly rational, but it made perfect sense in my head.

But I was cutting my hair with good reasons, right? Assert my independence. Make my hair healthier. This was a good thing. But that didn’t make it any easier to cut off years of hair I’d grown and nurtured. I’d grown attached to it so much that I didn’t realize just how unhealthy my dependence had become. I felt like Samson; without my hair I’m exposed.

Now my hair really had to go. Whenever you begin comparing yourself to ancient biblical figures in a very literal sense, something must change.

With that I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and SNIP! It was gone. Years of damaging chemicals, edge-depleting braids, and not so flawless weaves were all puddled at my feet. I opened my eyes. By God’s grace, the world hadn’t ended. A slow pivot and a step forward found me staring at my reflection again. Again, my eyes darted back and forth between my right hand holding the scissors at my side and my left hand combing through my now cropped curls.

“Wow, I’m still pretty.”

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