Enjoy another testimony in the black hair world as another of our guest bloggers, Dana Barka, President of Barka Communications, Inc., shines a light on her hair journey.
Kinky Curly Me: How My Natural Hair Journey Changed Me From the Inside Out
I’m always the first to say it: Hair is our most natural accessory. You don’t need any money at all to change it. Shave it off – it grows back! Change the color… change it back. Straighten it, curl it, iron it, twist it, braid it. Put it in a ponytail, an updo or a wrap it up in a bandana, you really can’t go wrong.
So why did I find myself 32 years old and I didn’t even know what my real hair was like?
As a black woman, I had been relaxing my hair for 27 years. My mother once told me she gave me my first relaxer around the age of 6, after my hair had been determined completely unruly and unmanageable. I don’t blame her. By the early 80s, afros weren’t really the most fashionable option anymore, and cornrows required specific skills that no one in my immediate family has ever grasped, including me.
There was also the added factor that we attended schools and church in rural Tennessee with very few black people, and even fewer brown people. No one looked like us. Our elementary schools would deliberately separate the black children so only one (or none) was in each class. I like to think they did this so that each class would have some level of diversity, but as a child I just felt more isolated, often put into positions of answering for all black people everywhere, as if I somehow knew more about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement than the other children.
I recall my little sisters coming in from church one day complaining to Mom that they couldn’t wear their hair “down” like the girls at church. Little did they know that there was no such thing as wearing their hair down. It would poof and puff around their face wildly, as natural black hair care products didn’t even exist back then.
So from an early age, it was ingrained that to fit in, I had to have straight hair. And without a relaxer, my hair was so unruly that it would be an enormous chore to manage.
Then a change began to occur.
It all started when my youngest sister decided to go natural. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first. During her “transition” she would just blow dry her curly straight like her relaxed hair or run into a Dominican hair shop to have it flat ironed into submission. Her hair looked the same to me except when it was wet, so what was the big deal?
And then she stopped straightening it.
Oh my dear Lord.
She was gorgeous. She started rocking this big loose bouncy spirals and I could not believe she had been hiding that beautiful mane behind a relaxer for so many years. But it sparked my curiosity. What did my own hair look like? What did it feel like? Would it be an afro? Bouncy loose curls? Too kinky to manage?
I gave it some thought, but relaxers keep a gal hooked. A half inch of new kinky curly growth under straight hair feels awful. It’s like raking straight hair over brambles. I kept straightening my hair, dealing with massive chemical burns that would form hard scabs on my scalp. I would have to use a Sulfur formula or straight up Vaseline to cool off the chemical burns. Such pointless torture, but when one has been doing the same routine since childhood, it didn’t seem so strange.
One day in June 2010, I simply said “No more.” No more chemical burns. No more paying $100+ plus tips to stylists every six weeks. I didn’t know what I was in for, and I wasn’t even sure I was ready to follow through and go natural, but I knew I didn’t want another chemical to touch my head.
It went well at first. A quick blow dry after washing my hair did the trick. My hair was still long enough to pin-up and cover up the new growth. When my new growth got to be around an inch long, I started going to the Dominican shop. They charged me extra to straighten my hair due to texture alone, but $40 was a far cry from the $100+ I used to spend. After a while, that became ineffective and I switched to braids for a while.
About 5 months in, I knew things were getting serious. I still didn’t want that relaxer to touch my head, but I was running out of options. Flat irons didn’t work. My straight hair was clearly rebelling against the curly, breaking off in huge chunks. I tried to hang in there, but I knew I was going to have to make a decision to cut off all the straightened hair or turn back to the chemicals.
I was at an impasse. What would my employer think? Would a kinky curly style still be viewed as professional? Would I be perceived as this tough, militant black woman, instead of my regular soft-spoken self? Who would my stylist be? Every single stylist I knew did relaxed hair only. Could I use the same products? Would I look like a man? Would my husband, who likes long straight hair, hate it? Would *I* hate it?
The transition is difficult. You really can’t see what your hair looks like at all. All I could see and feel was a hot mess. My younger sisters and mother – each of whom had all gone natural in the past two years – encouraged me to keep going and say no to the “creamy crack.” I stayed the course, but it was difficult.
At six months in, my relaxed hair started falling out in clumps. I had so many patches of hair missing that I could no longer cover it up with the longer strands from other parts of my head. I knew at that point that even if I DID decide to straighten it, I would have to have a major cut just to remove the damage. My kinky natural hair didn’t want my chemically straightened hair around at all, and it stopped playing nice.
Thankfully, Christmas vacation came. I hit the internet, looking for someone who could do what us naturally curlies call “The Big Chop.” That’s when you finally take the plunge and cut off all the relaxed hair and you only have your own natural hair left. For some women, this can take years. For me, I could only do it six months because my kinky hair took over.
I found a positive, inspiring stylist and booked an appointment. I told my husband, “It’s time.” I was ready. My new natural stylist talked me through it, and as she listened to me tell my story, she said, “You’re ready. Some people are not ready, but you are.”
As she began to cut, I felt powerful and strong. I know it’s just hair, and I always considered it the ultimate accessory, but I was finally going to be me. I was going to see who I truly was underneath the chemicals. I was going to use this haircut to enter into a new era of being me all the time. It’s the first thing I had truly done for myself and only myself in years. I shared my anxiety on Facebook, and all the women, all the sisters, of all shades and races, supported my journey. It was empowering and encouraging, and I was surprised to receive dozens of responses to each post about my hair, something I previously considered insignificant.
But then as she cut, and my head felt lighter, I began to feel heavy. I felt a part of me lifting away. A part that I would miss. I couldn’t turn back. I couldn’t hide behind my layers of dark brown strands. I couldn’t use ANY of my old products or styling tools. I couldn’t wear the more popular styles anymore. I was no longer that other girl anymore.
I became quiet. My powerful talk ceased. The lump in my throat shut my mouth like a vise. The stylist did her work – she had done many Big Chops, she must have seen this 1,000 times. I wanted to cry. But I didn’t want her to stop.
When it was all said and done, I looked different. Not better. Not worse. Not “me” quite yet. Just different. My head felt very cold. I posted a picture to Facebook and many people said they loved it, but I was still not sure.
Sometimes, I hated it. My hair seemed kinkier than the other girls. I watched hours upon hours of YouTube videos just to figure out how to manage it. I spent hundreds of dollars on products that didn’t work. I felt insecure in professional environments, even though no one mentioned my hair at all. Even my very traditional white male boss at the time simply looked at me and said, “Your hair is shorter” when I returned to work from the Christmas vacation.
It was difficult to get used to. It took a couple of years to accept that I probably wouldn’t be returning to relaxers (and even now, note that I said probably).
Eventually, I found the right products, the right style, the right stylists and the right hair care regimen. But it took much, much longer for me to be comfortable with me. It helped that so many other women started asking questions. “How did you do it?” “How long have you been natural?” “What product do you use?” “How do you make your curls do THAT?”
What helped even more was running into sisters who had been natural for decades, and proud of it. The increasing numbers of black women choosing to go natural in professional environments was the most encouraging of all. It all just started to feel right. Just a few months after I went natural, I launched my own business, and it felt like it was all part of the journey to embracing my true destiny in life.
Now I tend to instantly notice women with natural hair, and I’m always curious about their hair care regimen. It’s not unusual for me to corner a total stranger in an elevator to ask about what she uses to achieve her sassy look. And also, I find myself completely turned off by weaves and wigs that rob otherwise beautiful women of their natural gorgeousness.
Do I judge women who choose relaxers? Not at all! I think going natural simply gives one more options. But I also think it brings with it a confidence and acceptance of who I really am. My younger sisters and I have even been working on developing our own hair product that keeps our kinks shiny and strong.
And since these days I know how us kinky curlys operate, my favorite hair products are Tresemme Deep Cleanse Clarifying Shampoo, Uncle Funky’s Daughter Curly Magic, Olive Oil Gel and Tea Tree Oil for my scalp. But be sure to ask your own stylist what works for your hair type – I have a very tight curl!
To my naturally curly sisters: thank you for your inspiration. To my sisters in transition: hang in there. To my sisters who go a different direction: do what’s best for you, but don’t be afraid to try something new. Don’t ever get stuck in the 26 year rut like me!
[Quick Black History Fact] Madam C.J. Walker was the first to create an empire around a hair product line. From sprays to conditioners, Mrs. Walker changed hair care for us all. You can still buy her products today. Go check it out!
Coming up on the LYFE-STYLE Files (A Mid-WYFE Crisis blog): [*Y-Not] Diversify your exercise: Yogie Love