I did the hot comb thing this week. This may seem ironic given my previous post about natural hairstyles, but no chemicals or permanent reversals took place. I got out the ol' flat iron, clips, curling iron, and fine-tooth comb and in about 3 hours turned into a straight-haired girl. First time since probably 2003. The reason I did it was because we did a session with the adoption/foster teen group about appearances and judging and what we do to fit in. I figured I could be a real-life extreme case of the adopted child going chameleon to fit into her surroundings. Because this is what I did as an adolescent, with chemical relaxers and bleach as well as flat irons.
At first I tried to find a salon to do it for me. My regular salon, The Natural Choice, was booked. And it was about the only spot open on Monday. (I've been out of the salon-hunting world so long I forgot that most salons close on Sundays and Mondays.) So alas I had to do it myself. I was afraid I'd hate it, that the act would make me sad remembering how many times I'd painstakingly steamed my hair into straightness in order to squash this most-obvious "racialized" trait.
The interesting thing is that it did not make me sad/angry/upset. In fact, the physical act of the process--curls transforming into flat paths behind slow-moving gold ceramic clamps, leaving behind rising pockets of steam and hair too hot to touch--was actually fun. Curls, especially the kinky kind, betray length, and I didn't realize how long my hair actually was. I had forgotten what it felt like to have a soft curtain graze my shoulders and back.
And I forgot how dramatic the change in my appearance would be for people who've never seen me like this. When I uploaded photos onto my Facebook page, no fewer than 19 people commented within a couple hours.
Many people said they liked it, compliments I had a twinge of mixed feelings about. Some of my friends reacted violently, namely my roommate Adri and my friend Marcela. Adri said I looked "suddenly Aryan," and that night she proceeded to dream about scalping Nazis. Marcela said she hated it and literally screamed when I came to her house with my hair straight. "You have to change it back," she said. "I cannot do this." Cottrell said I could now pass for "massa's wife."
Oh, people. Obviously my hair pathology is not solely my own making!
The adopted kids noticed immediately, of course, and the 2 black girls in the group were the first to call it out. (This was not a surprise.) One of them told me I should do my hair like that all the time. I told her it takes too long, and it's not so easy now that I don't use chemical relaxers anymore.
"You should use them!" she said cheerily.
I have such concerns for this girl already, because I believe she has some deeply internalized racism going on, but that's another post. Maybe hair is just hair to her. Maybe it's just easier for her to use the relaxers. Maybe her white foster family and her predominantly white high school and her preference for dating white boys has nothing to do with any of it.
Somehow I doubt it.
The thing is, it's fun to change your appearance sometimes--try new makeup, new clothes, new hairstyles. It's something a woman can have control over. But when you have ethnic hair it can be a burden, as Solange Knowles said (see previous post), because it's still quite tangled up with politics. In fact, an excellent article by Catherine Saint Louis in the NYTimes yesterday details the many still-prominent implications of black women's natural vs. chemically altered hair.
At any rate, my temporary hair alteration is over. Only 2.5 seconds in the shower and those curls turned back ferociously like I knew they would! I'm back to being me, the real me. It was a good experience--much healthier than the straightenings of yore.