“I want style, body, and shine/ A look that’s to-tal-ly all mine/ Hair so soft, silky, and free/ I want something just for me/ Just for meeee … ”
(Just for Me lyrics)
When I was a young girl, there came a moment in my life when my hair became unmanageable for my Puerto Rican mother, whose hair was a different texture than mine. While my mom was not against styling hair, she wasn’t necessarily fond of it, as other moms appeared to be when I was growing up. There were several memorable “hair” moments in my childhood, where kinfolk or “other mothers” participated in hair rituals such as cutting my hair, pressing my hair and braiding my hair so that it would be more manageable and easy to maintain. Then one day, around the age of 9, I received my first relaxer. The act of young girls getting a relaxer is a gendered act that is very common in communities of color; it is often influenced by the many images of beauty that we are exposed to from the media and hair care advertisers.
Since relaxers make hair more manageable, many parents make the decision to relax their young daughter’s hair at an early age, as pressing takes a long time and can be painful. Growing up, young girls were expected to have neatly combed hair, especially on occasions such as church or school ceremonies and family events. When a young girl would receive a relaxer, the moment was often praised and considered almost like a rite of passage. Other women would say, “Awww, look at you! You are a big girl. You got your first relaxer.” With straight hair and smooth edges, young girls were now able to wear their hair down and meet society’s (both mainstream and often communities of color) standard of beauty, which was long and silky hair. This process also allowed young girls with coarse, naturally curly or wavy hair, an opportunity to wear soft spirals, crimps and other hairstyles with a smooth finish.
A special church event prompted my first relaxer. I was taken to a local barbershop where my African-American Dad went to get his haircuts and his barber—a woman named Linda, who was also a cosmetologist—relaxed my virgin hair. Linda relaxed and styled my hair on several more occasions. Prior to Linda, an older family friend, would press my hair in her kitchen with a hot comb. Then later as a pre-teen, a talented teenager from church played kitchen beautician and continued the act of relaxing my hair. Eventually I selected my own hairstylist in high school and began going to a hair salon to receive my relaxers. My friends and I went on a regular basis. Our stylist made sure we stayed on schedule with our relaxer, reminding us to get our relaxer touched up each month or every 2-3 months. The treatments depended on how much new hair growth we had.
While I was growing up, the majority of women and girls in my class who looked like me had a relaxer. It was the norm to go to the beauty salon or purchase relaxer products and use them at home. When I was young, girls were taught that hair was an opportunity to express their beauty. Girls were pressured to have the perfect hairstyle on school picture day.
One time, there was an incident where my third grade teacher—an African-American woman whose hair was unrelaxed and natural but often covered in a head wrap—phoned home one day to let my parents know that my hair was not picture ready on this day, which was school photo day.
My childhood friend had tried to wash and style my hair (which might have been due for a touch up) the night before school, but didn’t press it, as she was too young to use this method. She did a good job, but my thick hair moved to its own beat the next day. In my opinion it was fine—it was just bigger than most of the other girls’ hair. While it was not a concern to my parents, in retrospect, that incident played a subconscious role in leading me to think that “au naturel” was not the right way or beautiful.
Later on in life, my third grade teacher’s concern of how my hair should be worn was echoed through other channels such as advertising and images of women in the media. The “ethnic” hair care market, a billion dollar industry, manufactures and sells a lot of relaxers. Beauty supply stores, which are within a 5 -10-mile radius of most African-American neighborhoods, offer many relaxer brands in their establishment. Additionally, consumers are constantly reminded via magazines or television that beauty is straight and silky hair, which is easy to achieve with methods such as relaxers, wigs or weaves. As a youth, the names of a few major at-home relaxers for women included: Dark & Lovely; Motions Silkening Shine Relaxer; Soft & Beautiful, which also manufactured a children’s relaxer version, Just for Me; and PCJ, which offered an adult and children’s formula too. Some advertisements included moms and daughters in them, which encouraged the act of relaxing at a young age; while other advertisements included a Black man positively responding to a Black woman while she seductively tossed her hair.
My relaxer ritual continued until the year I graduated from college and decided to take a break from relaxers (I do get my hair colored–which can alter your hair texture). While attending a historically Black liberal arts college for women, I was exposed to many different women of color. Our diversity was demonstrated in so many ways, such as our backgrounds, our dialects, our religions, our dress, and our hair. Additionally, at that point in my life, there were more options for women of color with unrelaxed hair. It was a lengthy and grueling process to “grow my relaxer out” and it was a bit shocking for people. For example, my sister and her best friend constantly teased me as I went through this journey. Nonetheless, after seeing the flexibility and the healthy condition of my hair, they became inspired and stopped getting their hair relaxed a few years later.
Relaxers have done so much physical damage to women of color’s hair that more hairstylists have begun to encourage their clients to stop using relaxers. A lot of hairstylists have started to provide more styling options for clients with unrelaxed hair. Communities of color are becoming more accepting of women with natural hairstyles, unlike my days as a youth. (Now the natural hair care market is a booming business that every hair company is trying to jump in.) However, there is resistance to natural hairstyles being worn by women of color in corporate America jobs or jobs in television, such as the news.
Below is an interesting news report about an anchor that went natural.
Although the reporter calls it a “new trend,” it is important to remember that there have been people wearing their hair natural for years. If one were to look at 70s advertising, you would see many advertisements for products (sheen spray, picks, etc.) that supported natural hair. This time in history reflected African Americans who expressed Black pride in ways such as going natural and wearing African-inspired clothing and accessories– in an effort to celebrate their African ancestry, as well as resist mainstream standards of beauty.
In conclusion, getting a relaxer as a young girl was a natural experience that was very common in my community and even celebrated. Women in the community such as my teacher, kinfolk, friends and hairstylists taught me this act and made sure that it was a part of my hair care rituals. Additionally, actresses and female news reporters of color reminded me that this was a symbol of beauty and success to have relaxed hair. Advertisements via TV, radio, magazines, billboards and even posters in the beauty salon reinforced the idea that this act should be practiced—although it sometimes led to hair loss and hair damage for some women. These common themes in advertisements included the idea that relaxers were an avenue for mothers and daughters to connect and that men appreciated a woman with a relaxer. I had my hair relaxed on a regular basis for ten years, before I realized that my natural hair was beautiful too. Maturity and exposure to diverse women of color ultimately reversed the effects of an act that I had practiced half of my life and had conditioned me to believe that long straight hair defined my beauty.
D I S C L A I M E R :: This is my hair story-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y. I do not represent all Black women…all African-American women…or all women who identify as Afro-Latinas. Remember, no matter what style you rock (straight or curly), be confident and be you!
 PRESS HAIR The use of a hot pressing comb, heated on the stovetop or inside a special stove, to smooth and straighten hair without the use of chemicals.
 RELAX HAIR The use of chemicals to straighten course or naturally curly or wavy hair.
 VIRGIN HAIR Term used to describe hair that has never been treated with chemicals.
 KITCHEN BEAUTICIAN Colloquial term that refers to a person who is a non-licensed cosmetologist.
 GROWING RELAXER OUT Let natural hair texture grow without applying any chemicals.
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