By Sierra Britt
I grew up in a home where Saturdays were hair days. I vividly remember sitting in between my mom’s legs, pink lotion on my left and a wide toothed comb on my right. She would comb, stretch and blow dry me and my older sister Olivia’s hair to silky perfection then proceed to light up the stove and place this turquoise blue hot comb on there and begin pressing our baby hairs into place. Olivia and I would dance and squirm, and she would tap us and say, “You better stay still before I burn you.” I can still remember the smell of the pink lotion burning from the heat of the hot comb. This is where my hair journey began—it’s all I knew. Hours upon
hours of pressing and pulling my hair into attention.
Living in a predominately white neighborhood and going to a predominately white school, my hair was always an insecurity for me. My mom initially pushed us to wear our natural hair; she would put our hair into puffs before Olivia and I would see it, but as soon as we got into a mirror we would freak out and pull the puffs out. She tried her hardest, but she was fighting against so many images around us that told us beauty was something different. I have been trained to think about my hair for ages, not from inside my home but from the world around me. I could never just go to the neighbor’s for a pool party; and I couldn’t just wake up, shower, wash my hair, comb through it and step out the door. I always had to think, “What am I doing today? And how is my hair going to look?” I wanted my hair to look like the rest of the girls I went to school with. I would beg my mom to let me wear my hair straight because in my mind at 7 and 8 years old, that was the easiest and prettiest state it could be in. Of course, my mom knew that my hair would not (and I repeat NOT) maintain its composure that way, so often times plaits became the go-to.
As I got older and my mom let Olivia and me take ownership of our hair, things started to change. I was straightening my hair every day which in return caused so much heat damage that eventually the hair at the center of my head started to break off, and I had to wear it in a wet set rod style. I remember one day in the 6th grade walking into class and a black kid named Edwin (who always picked on me) started to make fun of my hair, and although I had withstood his snark remarks before, this time It hit me differently. He told me that I looked like Rosa Parks and that I should change my hair. At that moment I felt myself go into a shell; I didn’t realize at the time but for years to come I would suffer with insecurities about my hair driven not only from other ethnic groups but even from my own people. I went home that day and told my mom what had happened; and like any good mom would do, she told me I was beautiful and to not let his words sink into me. She even went to the lengths of calling the school and speaking to the guidance counselor. At the time I was upset that she called the school as I figured everyone would find out and talk about me, but I now understand that she wanted me to know that she would always be in my corner.
Going into high school things changed. I got a perm (bad decision), chopped my hair into a pixie cut and was really in love with how I looked. My hair was silky smooth, short, relatively manageable and made me stand out. I had my first boyfriend (another bad decision), my body changed and honestly at that moment in my life you truly could not tell me I wasn’t bomb. Looking back at it, perming my hair gave me a comfort knowing that external factors would no longer affect how I had to wear my hair. I felt like I fit into society in a different way, and people viewed me through a different lens, one that was more digestible to their eye.
Next came college, the time for self-discovery and growth. Being that I went to school in NYC, the streets of Manhattan were my classroom, my 9-5, my teacher and my turn-up. I was immersed in so much culture; and I really began to unapologetically be myself even though this road was not easy. I started to grow out my hair, and although I did not do “the big chop” so to speak, it felt like I had. Having permed my hair for the past few years, I had learned to be comfortable with that texture; and as my hair grew out it felt like it shrunk, it hurt to comb it out, to braid it, and to honestly do anything to it. In hindsight it was like I was transitioning out of the pain of past grievances and misconceptions of who people thought I was.
Although there was pain and discomfort involved there was also expectancy; expectancy in discovering who I was in my most natural state and what my hair truly looked like. I would watch YouTube videos trying to understand my curl type. I had over 40 different hair products in my bathroom mixing and cocktailing to see what worked best for my hair, and throughout that time I was chopping the relaxed ends off bit by bit. It felt like I was growing into who I was and breaking off who I wasn't. Transitioning was not easy, but it was needed. It helped me live beyond the stigmas and images of what I saw as beautiful my whole life, and it taught me to embrace my natural essence. It didn't stop with me either—I brought my mother along in this journey with me. In the black community beauty is very generational; you learn what you know from your mom, your aunts and all the other women who have come before you. My mom is the woman who has taught me everything I know. I remember watching her at her vanity comb through her long, lush hair and wishing my hair looked like hers. To see her inspired by my hair journey and step into her own, I was overwhelmed and realized all the pain is worth the freedom.
A year after growing out my hair, I had a solid 15 inches of natural, untreated curled confusion on the top of my head. I was happy that all my hair was mine and pure, but my curl pattern was not fully defined. So, I began working at it, tending to every curl, coil and spiral coming out of my head. I learned which techniques worked for my hair and developed my own unique process to starting a day. And if it rained, I was unmoved by the conditions—I was FREE! Free to do as I pleased, free to be me in black and non-black spaces. I stopped caring if people liked my hair—I liked my hair. I learned that protective styles help my hair grow, that wash-and-go’s take a little time but are the easiest style for my hair and keep my curls moisturized. I learned what I wanted, what I liked and what I needed. I was not going to live in the past but rather embrace who I am. It took me 20+ years to get here, but I made it, and I love it.
I am on the brink of my 24th birthday, and like most girls, the topic in my group chat is what will I wear and what will my hair look like. Every once in a while, I think about chopping my hair off going short again, perming it and just rocking the pixie cut, but then I think of all the work and energy I put into getting my hair and my inner self to the place it is. Why would I go back to that girl from the past? I am proud of my hair and of who I am, and I have learned that my hair and I are complex. I am always shifting and changing just as my hair does.
Going natural is a term coined by black and brown women because going natural tells a story and symbolizes a path you have to walk through. You do not just arrive there—you sow, you work, and you dedicate yourself to getting there. This journey is as emotional as it is physical. For me it had and still has its ups and downs, but I have found who I truly am in the process. I am proud to be a woman of color, to look how I look; and I refuse to dilute, change or alter who I am for anyone. I was not created to fit into a space but rather to create those spaces for others that look like me.
Sierra Britt is PATTERN’s Associate Manager of Product Development based in Los Angeles.
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