First, a little background: My grandma is from Daegu, South Korea, and my grandpa grew up in South Carolina, which makes my mom half-black/half-Korean and makes me three-quarters black and one-quarter Korean. Why the cultural math? What does a woman with stick-straight hair and a woman with superthick, wavy hair know about taming a wild, tangled mess of curls? Nothing, at least in my mom’s case. My childhood in the late ’90s was a blur of creative pigtail combinations, and sometimes we’d just resign ourselves and I’d wind up with one massive puff in the center of my head. Then one day my mom decided she was tired of spending hours every night detangling my hair. I got a relaxer, or, as it’s interchangeably known in the black community, a perm.
I loved my perm! I loved the ease my newly straight hair afforded me, and how long and frizz-free my pigtails were. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how damaging the treatment was until I was about 12 or 13, when my mother did the unthinkable: She let me do my own hair. I refer to this period of my life as the Dark Ages. I had no idea what I was doing. At one point, I was even washing it with—wait for it—bar soap. Shudder. Worst of all, I could never get my permed hair as flat on my own as my mom could when she’d blow-dry it for me. My hair started to get shorter and shorter as the tattered split ends climbed higher and higher. My split ends had split ends. I wish I was joking. As each strand of hair began to resemble a branch, I realized I had to do something before I went completely bald.
A few months into my senior year of high school (after I’d already gotten a perm in preparation for the first day of school), I decided it was time for a big hair change: either cut my hair supershort á la Nia Long or transition out of using relaxers altogether.
It took my entire senior year and a few months of my freshman year of college to fully transition my hair. During the growing-out process, I wore my hair in an admittedly un-artfully scraped-back bun with a little bump at the crown (don’t judge). Sometimes I’d throw on an elastic headband to keep my crown flat (and to make me look prepared to run a 400-meter dash at any given time). It was awful.
It’s 2016, but for some reason, black girls allowing their hair to grow out of their head unaltered and without the intervention of chemicals is still a noteworthy—and supercharged—topic. Weird. Although voluminous natural curls like Amandla Stenberg’s and Solange’s are en vogue now, I remember a time when I chemically straightened my own hair to the brink of destruction because I felt like my natural texture was too poufy, too unkempt—almost like the hair equivalent of wearing sweats in public (which is insane, considering that my hair is now my favorite and most often complimented feature). Here’s how and why I finally came to my senses.