By Lauren Elmore
The New York Times recently published an article about Black women who are becoming online entrepreneurs by posting videos and blog posts about products and procedures to educate women about their natural hair. These women fill a gap created by overpriced “natural” hair salons and hair care products that don’t help women make healthy choices about their natural hair.
The article brought me back to my own hair beginnings. It was 2003 and I was living in Harlem, New York. At the time, Harlem was going through an economic resurgence. Young professionals were renovating the beautiful and neglected brownstones. New restaurants, lounges, and boutique clothing stores opened…along with the chain stores that now deemed Harlem “safe enough.” Local magazines and newspapers featured black owners of coffee shops extolling the virtues of owning a business in one’s community. President Clinton had moved his foundation offices to a building on West 125th Street two years prior. People (don’t ask me which people) called it the “New Harlem Renaissance.”
This reawakening of the communal and cultural power of Harlem served as the backdrop of my transition from processed to natural hair. Ironically, my understanding of my hair experience is totally removed from that backdrop. It would be silly of me to think neighborhood and cultural pride didn’t influence my decision in any way…I just also had a far more prominent influence.
My main influence was running; I started years ago because it was the only exercise I knew to combat the “Curse of the Apple Figure” that plagues the women of my family. I know, a vain reason, but it was the one that got me up to run before work. I wasn’t in horrible shape necessarily, but I wanted to stay that way. By running three miles three times a week, I was able to develop strength, distance, and speed. I became a member of the New York Road Runners, which hosted a range of races every weekend: 5K, 10K, 1-mile sprints, half-marathons, cross-country races. I always had motivation during the week. I developed a love of the sport, primarily because it made me look good.
My hair and my wallet, on the other hand, did not. I was running to keep in shape…nothing more. The increased libido, the guilt-free eating, the better mood were simply added bonuses. The negative effect of sweat on my relaxed hair was very, very annoying. I wanted my hair to look as good as my developing body. I owned two curling irons, brushes and combs galore. Gosh darn it, my hair was “organized!”
As with all love, my relationship with running made me lose my mind a bit. In 2003, I decided to run a marathon; my membership in NYRR guaranteed me entry into the NYC Marathon the following year. This decision meant running 5-6 times a week. It presented four problems: (1) I would “sweat out” my relaxer with more frequency; (2) I would have to go to the salon more often to keep my hair “organized”; (3) I wouldn’t have time to get my hair done as often because I wouldn’t have time; and (4) all of this would cost more money.
After contemplating and discussing, I made the decision to go natural. I figured it would be easier and – most importantly – cheaper to maintain during my busy and sweaty running regimen. However, I was nervous…the transition from processed to natural hair would be far from “organized.”
Unfortunately, there weren’t as many online resources as nine years ago as there are now. I made an appointment at the only natural hair salon I saw in the neighborhood; it was beautifully designed and had a highly polished look. I’m sure there were women and men that worked with natural hair in tiny storefronts or in kitchens across the city. But since I only knew where to get my relaxed hair done, I had no idea how to even find them.
I decided to find a hairstyle that would allow me to run as much as I needed and not have to spend so much money. I also wanted a hairstyle that would grow longer and healthier than my relaxed hair…so I chose ‘locs. Do you see a theme here? Vanity and money were the motivating factors for changing my hair. It wasn’t the emerging middle class pride in my neighborhood nor was it a personal connection to my Jamaican heritage (I had those already). I wanted a hairstyle that was cheap and easy and would make me look good.
For the first time in 17 years, I was going to a salon to not get more relaxer. The day of my appointment, the hairdresser explained my options for getting rid of the relaxed hair. I was too scared to chop it off in one sitting, so she trimmed a couple inches and did two-strand twists with them spiraled against my head so I would leave it alone to grow out. When it was done, it looked completely foreign. I never had hair so short in my life. I kept touching it, like it was a new part of my body; someone else’s hair on my head.
When I got up to the front counter my shock moved from the hair to the bill: $150! For one hair appointment! The hairdresser told me to have to come back in six weeks for her to wash, trim, and re-do my hair! And I knew that six weeks meant a month for me because I was running so often. This sucks! The only reason I decided to get rid of the relaxer was to save money.
That $150 salon visit was not fitting into my cheap, vain plan. However, I felt I didn’t have a choice…I didn’t know where else to go. After two months and $400, I had enough. Luckily, I saw an ad for a stylist who specialized in helping women transition to natural hair. Her marketing strategy was brilliant: she put up flyers on the bulletin board at the gym, where women’s hair was the most undone! Her name was Tamara and if it were not for her, I would have given up. I was still spending money for her appointments, but she was much more affordable and far more willing to teach me what she was doing. Tamara made it explicit: the goal was to teach me how to care for my own hair.
Once I got a handle on the cheap part of my hair goal, I had to work through the vanity part. I had been socialized to covet organized. Growing ‘locs is anything but organized. As methodically as Tamara created my parts and established the width of my ‘locs, there were moments that I felt I looked awful. My ‘locs were as thick as my middle finger. There were weeks when one grew straight up like a unicorn horn. Much of the time, my ‘locs would untwist and just look like a puff of hair in the middle of my head. All the while, I rubbed tea tree oil on my scalp like it was going out of style. I still wasn’t allowed to wash my hair in between appointments. My hair felt dirty and out of control.
What kept me going? Much of it had to do with the fact that for the first time, I was getting to know my hair. Tamara taught me how ‘locing worked and why mine would look like no others’. I was so obsessed with organizing my hair according to society’s rules, I never realized how my hair had its own organization system. What also kept me going was how easy it was to care for my hair while running. Even during the transition, I really didn’t have to do very much but oil my scalp. It was going to do what it was going to do.
It’s now been almost nine years since I transitioned my hair. I have accomplished the three parts of my hair goal: taking care of my hair is cheap, it’s easy to run with, and I love the way they look. But additional results have emerged. First, my relationship with my hair has changed radically. Taking care of my hair isn’t so much about being organized anymore. I have a newfound respect for it and I want to honor it by making sure it’s healthy.
Secondly, my relationship with running has also radically changed. Now, I don’t care how much I sweat; I don’t mind putting on a hat so I can run in the winter. Though I still run for vain reasons, I no longer let vanity rule my running. I have embraced the natural strength in both my body and my hair. Going natural enabled me to do this.