Why I'm Glad My Mother Didn't Relax My Hair

A blogger for cafemom.com recently sounded off on black moms who chemically straighten their daughters' hair before they're even old enough for pre-school. I'm so glad my mother didn't do that to me -- if she had, I doubt I would have as much hair confidence as I do today.

It's not like my mom left my hair texture alone to make a statement -- relaxing it probably just didn't occur to her. My parents were young African immigrants who were only beginning to get accustomed to the United States when I was born. The ideas my mother had about how my hair should look came from what she knew from back home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she was raised, not from American TV shows or magazines.

But whether her decision was conscious or not, my various childhood hairstyles shaped me. I didn't know it at the time, but I was learning how to be comfortable with being different. The neighborhoods we lived in when I was young weren't very diverse. I stood out, and so did my hair.

I rocked classic afro puffs or twists secured with colorful barrettes until I was in first or second grade. By then my hair was long enough for my mom to style it with thread, as is done in several African countries. She would make little sections all over my head and tightly wrap black thread around each chunk of hair, causing it to stretch out so it looked like a long, skinny drinking straw.

When all of the pieces were done, she would connect them in groups with more thread, until I had a style that resembled something like pigtails. My exotic 'do intrigued my grade school teachers, who were constantly examining my head and touching my hair. As for my fellow students, who throughout my life were mostly white, many of them made fun of me. And I definitely didn't get chased by boys at recess, like the girls with long, straight hair did.

As I got older, I outgrew the threaded hairstyle and experimented with a bunch of other looks. Some of them were good (braids) and some were not so cute (Jehri curls, Wave Nouveau). I didn't get my first relaxer until I was 16 years old. It was my choice, based simply on what I wanted at that time, not because my mother suggested that I do it. Six years later, I cut off my hair and went natural. Seven years after that, I relaxed it again, which is how I wear it now. Who knows -- maybe one day I'll even try locs.

Of course, I'm aware of the fact that as an African-American woman, how I wear my hair affects people's perception of me, especially because I've lived with it both natural and straight. And my mom hasn't loved everything I've done with my hair (she hated when it was cropped super short). But I'm glad she worked with my natural texture when I was a child, and she never labeled it good or bad. I've flip-flopped between processing my hair and letting it be because I've never viewed one style as being better than the other -- they're just different. And if I ever have a daughter of my own someday, that's exactly what I'll teach her.