Two years ago I made the decision to stop relaxing my hair. This decision was not out of whim, I was contemplating doing so for years, trying to muster up the courage to actually stop relaxing my hair. After 17 years I finally made my decision and in June 2015 was the last time I straightened my hair.
I first relaxed my hair when I was about seven (7) years old. Everyone around me was getting rid of their kinky afros, their pajon, unmanageable hair and replacing their curly locks with “beautiful” long straight hair. Hair that did not tangle and that was easy to style. Upon seeing my cousins get their hair straightened, I wanted mine the same way. I wanted to have the same “beautiful” hair they had and it became my mission to convince my mother to allow me to relax my hair. My mother was very adamant about letting me relax my hair because I did not live with her at the moment; she recently expressed that she wanted to be able to witness such turning point of my life and ensure that my hair was not damaged.
Somehow, my convincing worked and my mother arranged it all. She had one of her good friends, who was a hair stylist, relax my hair. I could not contain my excitement, I wanted straight hair like a child wants the candy waiting to explode out of a piñata. The day I went through the hair straightening process, I remember loving my hair even more and wanting nothing to do with my naturally curly hair.
It was not until I moved with my mom to the Bronx in 2002 that I started to see curly hair for what it is, beautiful. That’s when I started appreciating beauty for more than straight hair. Years passed and I envied my friends who had curly hair and would wear their curly hair to school or would wet their hair anytime they pleased without worries, I was displeased and sometimes jealous because my hair was relaxed and it could not just get wet. And what about my curls, you would ask? Well, I never saw my curls. Each time I would let my hair air dry after I washed it, it would become a frizzy mess. If one or two strands of hair would show signs of curl patterns, I was lucky.
To be honest, I do not remember if I ever asked my mother to stop relaxing my hair when I was a teenager. What I do remember is wanting to stop going to the hair salon every week and relaxing it every other month. I just did not know how to stop or how to even go about it. In my mid 20’s I sought out the information that was missing, I did research on the internet and found articles and videos that provided me with the information I needed. There were people that were sharing their stories of how they stopped relaxing their hair and how their beautiful curly locks came to life. To my dismay, it was not going to be an easy process.
After spending some time doing research and seeking ways to care for my hair while undergoing the hair transition from processed to natural, also known as hair transitioning, I devised my master plan. I was going to spend a year without relaxing my hair. During this year, I was going to go to the hair salon every week for a wash and set. I would wash my hair, do rollers on them, spend 30-45 minutes under a hair dryer to then get the hair stylist to straighten my hair with a blow dryer. This entire process would be about 2 hours long, sometimes longer if the hair salon was busy on said day. I remember my hair stylist being supportive about me stopping relaxing my hair, except she was very much against me cutting my hair or doing the big chop.
The first six months were the hardest, my natural hair and processed hair seemed to be fighting for their territory on my head. They could not get along and every time I washed my hair that year, the thought of aborting the plan and just relaxing my newly grown hair would resurface, and I had to remind myself of the reasons why I wanted to stop relaxing my hair. I wanted to stop putting unknown chemicals on my head, stop the headaches that came every time I processed my hair, enjoying my natural hair once this process was over. I wanted to embrace who I am as an Afro-Dominican woman, loving every inch of myself regardless of the negative connotations that I have internalized from my family and culture. On my not so bad days, I would ask my hair stylist while she detangled my hair if I should just cut it all off and allow my natural hair to grow free without previous entanglements. To this she always said, do not cut it off just yet, your hair would be too short and your hair is too long to just cut it all off.
After six months of starting my hair transition, I went to another hair stylist and decided to cut most of my relaxed hair off. I cut about one-third of my hair length, four to five inches of relaxed hair, enough to let the hair rest off my shoulders. While undergoing all these changes, my mother would say things like, “I can not believe you are doing this”, “why don’t you just leave your hair the way it is”, “are you really going to be walking around with a pajon“, “I don’t understand why you are doing this, your hair is just right the way it is at the moment (relaxed)”, and other phrases I can not remember at the moment, though you get the point. Through it all, I persevered, I was not going to let my mother’s words dissipate all the work I have put on my natural hair transition and my self-esteem.
My next step was cutting off all of my relaxed hair. I was aiming to cut it off in May 2016 and somehow was convinced by my mother and aunt to wait until after my graduation. On June 7th, 2016, one week after earning my Master’s degree, I went to the hair salon and cut my hair, did the big chop. Unfortunately, there was still about two to three inches of relaxed hair on my head, that month I was though on my hair because I did not like the way it would not curl, my hair would sit on my head half dead and half alive, it looked like a mixture of straight and curly hair, very damaged and unhealthy. I wanted to cut as much of my straight hair as possible and a month later I was at the hair salon cutting it again. Since then I have trimmed my ends four times, to this, my sister frowns upon because “I have not allowed my hair to grow”. Yet, I see the progress and I am very happy with the results.
At the beginning of this journey, I did not know what to expect, I just had to take a leap of faith and hope for the very best, like when you are starting a new relationship. I did not know all the answers or everything that I was going to undergo with my hair transitioning process, though I envisioned my head full of naturally curly hair. What I do know today is that I am thrilled of where I am in the process and happy to have a head full of natural, curly, and unprocessed hair. A year after doing the big chop, I am writing this in celebration of myself and how far I have come throughout this journey. My hair is not yet where I would like it to be, just like any relationship, though I can’t wait to see all the progress it makes in the next year. As I hope that every day this transition gets easier with time as it has been so far and that each passing day I learn something new about myself and the kind of person I want to be.
Even though this has been a relatively positive journey, I understand that this hair transition is much more than a beauty statement, as this is just one side of the story. My hair transition is a testament to accept my roots, my culture, to embrace my DNA and who I am as a woman born and raised in the Dominican Republic. This is me liberating myself from the prejudice and oppression of beauty and women because their features are different than the norm. It is important to understand that women with curly hair have been oppressed for centuries in the Dominican Republic as here in the USA, and other countries around the world. Curly hair represents a blackness not accepted by Dominicans because it shows our Afro-Dominican and indigenous roots. Understand that being Black is looked down upon in the Dominican Republic, that things like ese negro feo, esa prieta (that black woman), esa greñuda (disheveled haired girl), esa pajonua, esa Haitiana (that Haitian, referring to how dark a person’s skin is) are all racially charged terms and slurs used to devalue a person just because of their physical appearance (I highly recommend reading The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat, for more historical context on the history of oppression in the Dominican Republic).
I used to be on that side of the spectrum once upon a time, shaming those around me because of their physical appearance, and it was because I did not know better. I would repeat what I would hear my elders say and would copy what my friends would say. I looked down upon those whose hair was not straight like mines and people who were darker than me because they were mala gente, bad people, people you could not be friends with.
I am thankful to live in a place where all those preconceived notions are challenged and where I became the person I am today. I am thankful to have gathered enough understanding and knowledge about the world where I can accept myself for who I am and accept others as well. However, understand that there is still a lot of groundwork that needs to happen, not only within me, and those around me, but also in my community, in our communities. This journey has taught me that just because I learned to accept myself for who I am, pajon and all, it does not mean that everyone else will. To be honest, I am okay with that because at least I am walking down the street proud of my curly locks, showing future generations that curly hair is beautiful. That your hair can tell countless stories about your ancestry, yourself and your culture, and no one should take that away from anyone.
A TIME LAPSE OF MY HAIR TRANSITION