Transitioning. The word carries so much, it should be accompanied by spooky ghost sound effects every time someone dares to utter it. To those who are less acquainted with the term, welcome to the world of black hair! This word might seem to imply a transformation of seismic, life-changing proportions, but it’s actually just the term black women use for the process of allowing their hair to grow out of their head as it is. Except here’s the catch: this is not a simple process – hardly anything to do with black hair is.
When you transition, you stop using the chemical sodium hydroxide to ‘relax’ (codeword for straighten) your hair, allowing your curls to come out once again. Gradually, you end up with a half-puffy, half-straight creature emerging from your head, at which point you have an important decision to make. If you cut all the relaxed ends off, your hair will be pretty short. If you leave them it will look quite strange. Some women opt for shaving it all off for a fresh start. Some women turn to trusted protective styles, such as wearing wigs, weave or braids to shield their hair during the transition period. I’ve previously heard several people of other ethnicities claim that we make such a big deal about our hair, but in the words of Fleabag, hair is everything. Anyway, if they also risked being suspended or even fired for their hair choices, they would probably make a big deal about it too. With a little patience, the time and the effort we spend on our hair are worth it in the end…but it’s still a lot of time and effort (and often money).
My ‘transition’ happened in lockdown. Since the age of 13 I’ve been relaxing my hair, and since the age when my brain began to efficiently store memories I’ve wanted to have long, flowing, essentially European hair. It was all well and good having hair that defied gravity or that didn’t need a hairband to remain in a plait, but none of my dolls, favourite Disney princesses or even female family members had afros. I was tired of entire Sundays being devoted to washing and detangling my hair when I could have been playing Club Penguin, or reading, or watching High School Musical. Most of all, I wanted to look pretty, and in the eyes of ten year old me, the words ‘pretty’ and ‘afro’ existed in two different dimensions.
As I got older, natural hair began to make its presence felt beyond the closed doors of black hair salons. One by one, my aunts began to reveal their new manes. Fellow black girls in school began to don braids instead of fresh perms. Beyoncé released the Lemonade album. Gradually, I came to realise that natural hair too could be beautiful. Lockdown acted as a catalyst for my own transitioning for two reasons. The first was that having to stay at home made me go through a continuous cycle of learning to appreciate the familiar and then beginning to tire of it. In short, I got bored of the sight of myself in the mirror. If I couldn’t change my surroundings, I might as well change myself. The second reason was the fact that I was shielded from the societal pressure of being presentable. I had time to tackle the new terrain that my natural hair laid out for me, to try out new styles and see what worked, and, much more importantly, what did not.
So what’s the verdict? I’m not quite sure yet. Whereas the ten year-old me would not have been able to believe that she could be perceived as beautiful as long as she had her ‘fro, I’m able to see the beauty in my natural hair now. I have Janelle Monae, Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o to thank for that. However, I still have my reservations. As I mentioned earlier, natural hair requires time. In the first lockdown, this wasn’t an issue: if anything, sitting in front of a mirror for a couple of hours combing, parting, moisturising and plaiting was a form of free therapy in turbulent times. My hair is not such a therapeutic distraction now that I’m back at university, however. I also tend to feel a sense of dissociation when I look at myself in the mirror because in my brain, my afro is inextricably linked to my younger self. Although I would rather look younger than my age instead of older, the prospect of returning to my pre-pubescent self is quite frightening (I wouldn’t mind getting back the flawless pre-acne skin though).
The most pressing reservation of all, however, is the fact that when I look in the mirror at my newly-transitioned self, I get the sinking feeling that I look good, but I could look better. My ten year old self is still in there somewhere, reminding me that what is on my head still isn’t upheld in wider society as something to be admired in the way that European or Asian hair is, and when it is, it is often regarded as an exotic plaything. I’m reminded of classmates exclaiming “Look, her hair stays up!” whilst prodding it with various classroom paraphernalia, and pushing down the discomfort I told myself I didn’t deserve to feel. I’m reminded of all the times other tourists petted me like a cute dog on holiday, commenting on how soft my hair was and telling their family to join in too, and then beaming with delight at having finally satiated their curiosity – seriously, if my mum had charged them a pound for each petting, we could have paid for an extra holiday each year.
I’ve learnt to appreciate my afro’s beauty but I’m still learning how to love it. There is still the gnawing feeling that, regarding the many levels of beauty, my afro won’t be able to break the glass ceiling (not without a Beyoncé-sized budget anyway). Gradually emerging from and re-entering lockdown has made me realise how much my perception of myself, or more specifically of how beautiful I am, is formed by others, and that this needs to change. It has made me see that despite all the praise I will heap on black women that wear their hair in whichever way they choose – natural, relaxed, under a wig, weaved into braids – my ten year old self is still very much here, and she still sometimes craves the hair I will never naturally have.
It seems her and I have some talking to do.