“Is it burning?”
It’s a question most black women are familiar with. The answer depends less on how much time has passed since the chemical relaxer was applied to your hair as on how much pain you’re willing to endure to get your hair as straight as possible.
Most white people I’ve talked to are unfamiliar with the process of “perming” for black people, which straightens our hair rather than makes it curly. Chemicals are applied to the hair that has grown in since the last perm to make it less curly. The chemicals can damage the scalp, which is why they have to be washed out after a certain amount of time. If they aren’t left in long enough, however, the new growth won’t be straight enough. Hence the delicate balance between straightness and pain.
I was so used to the pain associated with getting a perm that when a hairdresser offered a “sensitive scalp” formula that didn’t burn, I was surprised. My mom, when I told her I’d gotten it, asked, “But is your hair straight enough?” Yes, I replied, it was. And even though the sensitive scalp formula was only five dollars more expensive, the next time I opted for the regular strength and the old familiar stinging. It’s not a severe amount of pain, just enough to make one wonder, “Why do I have to risk second degree burns just to do my hair?”
White people recognize the existence of Afros and weaves but seem to assume that black women’s hair, like their own, grows straight naturally. I don’t blame them. But what can you say to people whose own culture is so invisible to them they can hardly believe the lengths others will go to be like them?
Perms are expensive, usually about $50 if a stylist puts it in, and they have to be put in about every 6 weeks. If you fail to get them with enough regularity, your hair starts to break off. It becomes like a drug, then. Once you start getting perms, your hair actually becomes unhealthy if you stop. That’s why you have to shave your head when you want to start a ‘fro. Relaxed and natural don’t go well together. Yet we go through the trouble because beautiful women have long, straight hair. Just look at famous black celebrities. Beyoncé is even blond.
Some proof of racism in today’s society is that few black women, especially in the professional world, wear their hair natural. If they felt free to be however they were, they wouldn’t perm their hair because, believe me, it’s a lot of trouble to go through. As much as I want perming my hair to be a consequences-free choice, I realize that it’s not. If I wear my hair natural, I become in other people’s eyes the black equivalent of a woman who doesn’t shave her legs. Outside the mainstream.
Yes, I’m a coward. I’m not willing to go natural because I know that, though I’ve already worked hard to prove myself, I will have to work even harder to battle people’s assumptions that I am one of those blacks. I refuse risk non-acceptance by the dominant society based on the way I look. They can reject me after talking to me, but for now, I will hide behind a façade of social acceptability and bide my time.
You can call me a coward, but I’ve made my choice. It’s an informed choice rather than one dictated to me by the dominant culture. In my mind, there are other ways for me to battle the system that still treats black as ugly. I silently admire the women who wear their hair natural and wait for the day when I can shave off my chemically treated strands and be as beautiful as my long-forgotten ancestors.