I can still remember when my aunt gave me my first ceramic flat iron. I was in eighth grade and had been struggling to fit in—puberty wasn’t helping, nor was my thick, curly mane. A flat iron couldn’t help me with pimples or a swiftly changing body shape, but it could tame my curls, so I immediately asked my mom to straighten my hair for school. The next morning, I was so excited to show the world my new look that my heart was beating out of my chest. Lo and behold, I received more compliments than I ever had before, and that was it: Straight hair suddenly became my new super-power.
Now, after over a decade of carpal tunnel-inducing heat styling, I’m embarking on what may be every curly-haired woman’s rite of passage: returning to my natural locks. In western society particularly, I’ve witnessed many women of colour, from close friends to the women I follow on social media, go from years of relaxing and straightening to quitting cold turkey and embracing their natural hair. This movement has flourished over the last few years, and recently encouraged me to make the change, too.
But even if you’re really, really ready to stop getting your hair relaxed, embracing your curls is neither quick nor easy. So, here are five women at various stages in the process with real talk on curl patterns, ill-fated cuts and finally feeling like themselves.
“When I was little, I hated my tight curls. I grew up in Bangladesh, where it was so humid and hot, and I just didn’t know how to manage them. I ruined my hair by straightening it over the years; I [didn’t know] what products to use and got overwhelmed. I liked my straight look, but I also felt bad because everybody would ask, ‘Why don’t you embrace your natural hair?’ But I just didn’t know what to do [with it].
Now, my number one reason [for keeping it natural] is that I have two daughters. When I had my first child, I started thinking, ‘If I don’t start embracing myself, how am I going to teach them?’ My hair has thinned out a lot over the years, so it’s much more manageable—but there’s also a lot more help around, so I think I’ve learned how to do it. I love my hair, but it’s still a slow process for me, too.”
“Since puberty I’ve always had a lot of hair and a lot of thick hair. Everyone in my family does. My mom would take me to the hairdresser and I’d want it to be long and one length and just normal. I tried everything: cutting it off, growing it long—but it never really did what I wanted it to do. I did flirt with regularly ironing it in my early 20s, but whenever I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the window or whatever and I wouldn’t recognize myself. It just didn’t work.
The issue is that hair products come and go, or my hair would go through some sort of weird phase and it would stop responding. But I finally got to the point where I was like, ‘Who cares?’ I’m done with straightening it and I’ve never coloured it either. I just don’t like doing anything to it because I don’t want it to get any drier than it already is.”
“Right now, my hair is the most natural it’s been in years. I was born in Newfoundland and when I was a kid, I never knew how to style it, nor did my family. So, from my early teens up until I was 23 or 24, I relaxed my hair. I never really knew what the curl pattern was.
I had it relaxed for about 10 or 11 years, and for a lot of high school and university I would flat iron it, too. I would still wear it ‘curly’ sometimes. But I say that with quotations around it, because it was pretty dead even though it still had some curl to it.
When I moved to Toronto, I finally found a good stylist and I started to grow out my relaxer. I wouldn’t have done it without her prompting because I had no idea what my curls looked like. After so much abuse, it’s going to take sometime for it to grow out and trust you again. And little things that I’ve learned, like putting product in when my hair is wet (like, excuse me?!), have made such a big difference.”
“I’ve always been a wash-and-go kind of girl. Growing up, I was into sports and would always stick it into a ponytail, and when I was 14, my mom started relaxing it. Initially, I would always feel more comfortable when my hair was relaxed, because I was always letting somebody else deal with it, but that was more money out of my pocket. Now, I just do it on my own and I’m learning to accept it.
Back in the ‘80s, a lot of hairdressers didn’t use timers, so often I’d sit there and it would burn and I’d have scabs on my scalp, but I liked the end result. So I used to go to the hairdresser every two weeks and I loved it because the relaxer made it straight and really nice and silky.
But as I began to get older, it started to thin in the top around my temples. It wasn’t until I was around 41 that I decided I was going to go natural. My hairdresser suggested that I put in braids to help the natural [sections] grow out. So that’s what I did for a couple of years. After that, my hair had grown out quite a bit so my curls were there.”
“My natural hair is a medley of about 4 different curl patterns, ranging from 2b to 3c. As a kid, when we went to formal affairs, whether it was a wedding or Easter mass, I distinctly remember the smell of burnt hair from all of the other girls with coarse, curly hair. I knew that hours before that event, these girls were sitting on the floor, like I was, and their mothers were flat ironing their hair, like mine did. So, my relationship with my hair was complicated; I continued straightening it quite a bit throughout my late teens/early 20s.
At one point, I chopped off 14 inches of my hair and ended up with a pixie cut that I had to straighten every day, which did some serious damage to my hair. That’s when I began to try to understand my hair a little more versus try to make it do something it just couldn’t. Now I’m in a place where I’m understanding what my hair needs and what it doesn’t like—I feel like myself when it’s curly and a little wild.”