I Can't Get My Hair Wet
“I can’t get my hair wet” did not exist in my repertoire until I learned that my hair was something that needed to be fixed. For the first 12 years of my life, I was a textbook tomboy, and hair was the last thing on my mind. I could run and sweat without fear of my curls showing their true nature. I swam on a team and never shied away from the meanest rain cloud. There were no shower caps, special combs, or silk pillow cases. The most I did to manage my crown was to put it in a bun or a braid before heading out to play.
I was bold, and I let my hair be what it was meant to be. I liked it the way it was, and as one of the few black students in my school, I liked being different. I could easily ignore the looks—the pressure of being a constant outlier had yet to wear me down.
In sixth grade, when we received our yearbooks, it was brought to my attention by just about everyone that my “fro” didn’t fit in the photo; my hair was “too big.” That was the first time I felt like I had to change myself. It was the beginning of a long war I would wage against my hair; one where I felt I would never be the victor, despite spending exorbitant amounts of time and money.
With no idea of what to do with my “bird’s nest,” I flipped through magazines to find styles I liked. I showed my mom, and she explained to me that the black women I was looking at, with perfectly straight, silky hair, were wearing weaves. I was pissed. I didn’t want one. As a child it seemed ridiculous. I remember wondering why so many people wanted hair that wasn’t theirs; hair that was expensive, and time consuming, and that erased their heritage. I wondered why so many people opposed the way their hair naturally grew, and then I asked myself the same question. I felt crushed under the weight of being the only one who looked like me all the time. I was tired of the comments and the jokes, so I shrank myself, and I picked a style.
At my request, my mother took me to the beauty salon to get my first relaxer. I remember trying to explain my hair texture to the stylist—words which I would repeat over and over for many years:
“Yeah, it’s curly, but not like CURLY curly. It’s actually not that thick, so you have to be careful. It will burn easily.”
She seared it, and my scalp in the process, but I loved it. I remember staring in the mirror as I ran my fingers through my hair for the first time in my life. Seeing my hair submit to the chemicals it was doused in was the dawn of a new era—of a season of my life where my main concern became not getting my hair wet. Shower caps were purchased, umbrellas were of utmost importance, and my stash of hair products increased exponentially. I felt free at first, but I then realized that like the North, I didn’t actually win. Things didn’t really change; I just gave it all a new title. While my hair looked different, it still ruled my life.
Every morning before school, I’d wake up early to straighten my hair. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I lost so much sleep and spent so many hours maintaining something that made me so miserable. My hair became a ball and chain, and I its prisoner. I loved sports, but I couldn’t risk sweating my relaxer out, so I gave gym class as little effort as possible. In high school I considered joining the swim team, but then I remembered my hair. I couldn’t get it wet. I still loved sports, and thankfully I kickboxed throughout most of high school because I felt secure in my ability to fix my hair at night after practice before too many people saw it “lookin’ crazy.”
On days it rained, I wished I were one of the kids who could run fearlessly outside to catch the bus. Instead I held notebooks over my head, more worried about protecting my hair than the words I had just written down. While no one was overly malicious, the comments about my “lion’s mane” lingered—making sure my hair didn’t sink lower on my list of priorities. Frizz became a sin and the only remedy was heat and product.
Whenever I grew fatigued, the backhanded compliments kept me going. “You look so much better with straight hair!” and “when your hair is straight, you look so exotic!” were the most common. There was no way I could go back to feeling ugly, “too black” or less than.
I had a few teachers at that time who would occasionally ask me why I never wore it curly. “I just hate it,” was my usual reply. They reassured me that I would look beautiful, and with that, the seed of truth was planted. It just needed time to grow. By my senior year of high school, the exhaustion was catching up to me. I didn’t want to get up an extra hour early anymore. I didn’t want to miss out on moments in the rain or swimming with friends. Mostly, I really didn’t want to keep burning my scalp with caustic relaxers and flat irons.
My hair was tired too. I had by now spent years hating and resenting it. I had focused all of my energy on viewing my curly hair as the oppressor, without realizing that it was actually the victim. My hair didn’t want to be subjected to the torture anymore. It didn’t want its heritage scorched out of it in order to lay still and lifeless until the humidity woke it up again. My hair was more honest about itself than I was. No matter what I did, the water would lessen the effects of the heat and chemicals. For a few moments, it would rise up free of my abuse and whitewashed expectations. I was always one rainstorm away from liberated curls which is why not even the greatest mathematician can calculate how many times I have uttered the words, “I can’t get my hair wet.”
Despite going natural before living in Hawaii, Hawaii is the place where I learned to love and accept my natural hair. There were too many adventures to be had to spend any significant part of my day trying to break my hair’s spirit. I let the salt water have its way with my curls, and when I came out of the ocean I felt truly free. On hikes, my baby hairs stood tall, framing my forehead, finally able to twist and spiral in the breeze as they pleased. I lived on an island in the middle of the Pacific for three years, and not once did “I can’t get my hair wet” pass my lips.
Despite finally falling back in love with my hair, I am still very much a tomboy. To me, my hair is still A LOT of work. Almost two years ago I made the decision to do the big chop. Initially I thought it would just be to let my hair heal from the years of damage in order to grow back strong. Two years later, I still haven’t let that happen. I was pretty apprehensive about cutting it, but I feel the most beautiful with short, curly hair. As someone who loves the outdoors, it has been especially great for long days spent on the trail or in the ocean.
While I honestly do love my hair, I occasionally regress. Sometimes, passing by a mirror, I will see some extra frizz and tell myself “You really need to do something about that.” When we are going somewhere, I feel pressure to make sure my hair looks presentable. I know that despite loving my crown, frizz is still considered unruly and undesirable. I also use oils and pomades to make it look shinier than it really is. I know that I am not perfect, and I am still working through cultural expectations, but I have grown so much.
Over my journey, I have learned that all hair is beautiful. It’s normal to embrace different styles at different periods in our lives. At the same time, a change made out of self-loathing should be addressed. Now that I’m older, I have a better understanding of the pressures I faced as a child; of what it means to try to live up to beauty standards set by the dominant culture by erasing one’s own culture. It’s important to ask ourselves tough questions and to learn to love ourselves even if society doesn’t. I didn’t find happiness until I came to accept myself. Luckily I had the ocean and the mountains to help me along my journey.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to chop off their hair, or even that everyone needs to wear their hair naturally. I’m saying that there’s a big difference between changing your hair because you like the new style, and changing your hair because you grew up in a culture that devalues your natural beauty and literally profits from the conditioned self-loathing of black and brown women.
If you are exhausted by maintaining your hair and routinely find yourself saying, “I can’t get my hair wet,” despite longing for the freedom the water brings, maybe this is your year to break free. Walk outside the next time it rains. Swim in the ocean. Jump in a pool. Ask yourself honestly if letting your hair get wet was as devastating as you feared, or if there’s beauty in the thing you have been taught to hate.