How I Learned to Embrace Free-Form Hair -- and My True Self 

The author, above, found the courage to say no to "neat."

ANDY PAULISSEN

The author, above, found the courage to say no to "neat."

"Girl, why is your hair all over your head?"

I stood there for a moment, my mother's words sharp like a bee sting. I knew she meant no harm, but I had felt so proud of how I looked. I answered, "Mom, these are free-form locs." Earlier that day, I had found and allowed my spirit to shine in its truest form. But the journey to self-love is never an easy one.

Two hours prior to my mother's rather unwelcome, yet not entirely unexpected, response, I was sitting in a downtown St. Louis hair salon endearingly named Napps. Monique, the beautiful being whose chair I occupied, wore a colorful crop top with a piece of Kente cloth adorning her waist. Her grounding in her own spirit called me to crawl out from behind the world's standards and join hers.

We talked about spirituality, incense, alkaline and ancestors. Then she paused to ask how I wanted my hair done. I hesitated for a moment, the truth on my lips as if waiting on the pop of a starter's pistol to let it go. But her energy brought it out of me.

"I'm considering free form, but I don't know ..." The words lingered in the embarrassment I felt in not giving myself the love to be free.

Free-form locs are the father of traditional dreadlocks. Most people with locs go in and get their hair styled and roots re-twisted for a more "clean and neat" look. Free form is more organic. It's about letting your hair take the shape for which it was intended: no manipulation. It's allowing your spirit to manifest on the outside in its truest form.

Monique inquired as to why I wouldn't take the leap, rinsing what felt like every inhibition from my hair. Then she laid on my spirit the words that have stuck with me ever since: "If you can't be who you are in your own skin, then what you're doing isn't for you."

It was refreshing to find someone so grounded, but also saddened me that I'd been living in St. Louis my whole life and never received such bracing words. I was scared of how "untamed" my hair would look to others — the residual effects of the grooming I had received for decades.

Hair was a topic we seldom spoke about directly in my family, but it always tended to come up in conversation, verbal or not. Growing up, I was one of five and the only girl. I can still hear my mom telling me how she'd prayed for a full head of hair for me. She hadn't dealt with natural hair herself, because she had only had boys prior to me. And she herself had a low cut like them.

My whole life my mom has always been confident with her hair; I mean the woman literally said, "I'm done with my hair," and cut it at a time where women with short hair were looked at as masculine. Her routine was very simple: She would take the boys to get their hair cut, and have the barber cut her hair as well.

As a child, I would go with them to the barber shop. Her living in her truth was huge to me before I even knew it. I remember thinking "How cool is she?" as she sat among the men, there for the same thing. She could assert herself, cut out the nonsense and remain as delicate as a lotus. She was free and confident in her own skin as a black woman.

Like many children, Verna Daniels got her hair pressed growing up. Once she got older she decided to cut her hair, and has had a low cut for decades. - COURTESY OF VERNA DANIELS
  • COURTESY OF VERNA DANIELS
  • Like many children, Verna Daniels got her hair pressed growing up. Once she got older she decided to cut her hair, and has had a low cut for decades.

I've never seen my mother with hair, like ever. She first cut her hair in her late teens, in 1977. Keep in mind the era she was in. In the 1970s, natural hair exploded in the black community as a whole, and St. Louis was no exception. Afros adorned the heads of many, and black power ignited the black community like the Olympic torch. Black hair was being shown in a positive light. My mom was the image of that in her own way.

It was her own form of liberation. Growing up, my grandmother would keep Mom's hair pressed. Every couple of weeks, my mother would hesitantly walk into the loud bustle of the beauty salon: chairs filled with women talking about what they'd done that week, what was the new style, about "Jack" and his slick perm. Despite all of that, her eyes were dead-set on her seat amongst it all. She didn't want to battle against the familiar enemy of many black women: the hot comb.

Many black women can attest to their love-hate relationship with the hot comb. It was what you endured to be "beautiful," and my mother wasn't immune. She sat still as the comb heated up, staring in anticipation as her beautician pulled it from the stove, the smoke that wafted from it validating her fears. As the comb got closer, the fear of getting burned washed over her, forcing her into the darkness behind her eyelids. It wasn't pleasant. But society, family and that voice inside insisted your hair should look neat, neat was straight and straight hair meant an appointment with a hot comb.

But even after she resisted the hot comb, even as she got her hair cut so very short, my mother still signed on to the opinion that your hair should look neat. She wasn't alone in that. Even in the era of the afro, there was always this underlying distaste for styles that looked "unkempt." You can see it if you look back on pictures of how afros were styled. They were trimmed to the "T" and picked to perfection, not a hair out of place. This sort of unspoken rule of neatness often acted, and still acts, as a catalyst in the avoidance of hairstyles that show the true natural form of black hair. And this influenced my personal hair journey.

The author has worn braids, press and curl and pixie braids. - COURTESY OF VERNA DANIELS
  • COURTESY OF VERNA DANIELS
  • The author has worn braids, press and curl and pixie braids.

For years, I went to the hair salon and stared at the hot comb, just as my mother had before me. I straightened my hair, permed it, got sew-ins, dyed it. I overworked my hair and succumbed to what society and even my familial history told me was right.

But something in me resisted. I began to read books about my history, and watched as many interviews and commentaries as I could on what it meant to be black. I watched hair tutorial after hair tutorial, looking up natural concoctions that I could make and use in my hair: coconut oil, grapeseed oil, flax seeds.

The more I dove into my culture, the more I wanted to be free within it. I saw photos of my ancestors wearing their hair in its natural state, and I learned the purpose of it. So, in response, I chose free-form locs as the truest expression of myself.

For Africans, I learned hair had always been a part of our spirituality, and always served a purpose. Often, it was looked upon as a direct line to our ancestors and the Most High. Our hair acts as an antenna that taps into a higher vibration, an idea inspired by how our follicles grow upward, towards the creator.

But through the transatlantic slave trade and colonization, the very fabric of our beliefs and what our ancestors held sacred were stripped away. Historically Africans were made to cut their hair, and were separated from the beliefs and spiritual systems that had been at the center of their communities. Their African features were looked down on, and Eurocentric features were prized. More than a century after slavery, the perm was introduced. Women and men moved away from natural hair, and placed harsh chemicals that often singed their hair to obtain the beauty standard.

We see now the residual effects in research that links hair chemicals used by black women to fibroids. Black women in the U.S. have a rate of these uterine tumors that's two to three times higher than white ones. For a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the authors interviewed more than 23,000 pre-menopausal black women from 1997 to 2009 and found higher fibroid rates among women who'd used relaxers in their hair. Relaxers often contain lye (sodium hydroxide), which can cause burns and lesions on the scalp. The authors linked these burns to the occurrences of fibroids.

I've long been intrigued by the link between our ancestors' first experiences with European culture and the imprints left on our society in the present day. We live in a society of social media, where influence can be magnified as it confronts us in image after image, on screen after screen.

As a black woman, it is a constant struggle dealing with beauty. We go to get makeup and can't find our shade; access to natural hair-care products that work with our hair is limited, often manufactured by individuals who don't look like us; and of course, natural hair is deemed "unprofessional." Your African hair is called "nappy" and your body "fat"; when you turn to social media, you get choked out by the cultural appropriation.

Even in 2018, we are still trying to find our place in society without having to compromise what we look like. But it has always been a struggle for us, especially when it comes to how we perceive ourselves, and how black men perceive us.

My oldest brother, Courtney, and I often talked about my hair — he was the one person who just got it. I remember one particular conversation. We sat at his kitchen table, a mix of old and modern rap music playing in the background. I listened intently, this short dark-skinned guy in his 40s (my other brothers and I, being younger, always gave him trouble about his age) telling me what it was like growing up for him.

We got on the topic of black women and their hair, and I asked, "How was hair perceived when you were growing up?" His answer surprised me. "Guys wanted girls with 'good hair,' and a weave was something that we looked down on."

That was such an interesting concept. These days, when the conversation surrounding "good hair" sways its ugly head in circles of black women, women with more kinky textures feel less beautiful than their counterparts because of what society has set forth as beautiful. In 2018, a lot of the black women we see on social media with "good hair" have weaves or wigs.

The author, far right, and her mother today. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • ANDY PAULISSEN
  • The author, far right, and her mother today.

But we are also just now moving into an era where our natural hair feels good to us. The huge response to the Nappily Ever After movie out now on Netflix, which portrayed a black woman going through her hair journey, shows the hunger for that.

What saddened me the most about my brother's response was the fact that, in response to what the black men around them found beautiful, black women with coarse hair sought long straight hair instead. They weren't part of a society that embraced their natural hair, and they couldn't even look to those within their own circles to encourage them to be natural.

As he described how hair was viewed when he was younger, I felt myself relating to what those women were going through. How do you feel beautiful in your own skin when everything around you is saying the opposite?

All these things influenced the path of my hair journey. Choosing to free-form my hair was my answer to noise I heard around me. Society's standards, familial history and perception, corporate America, they all faded to the background like the slow winding of the storm sirens on the first Monday of the month.

At one time in my life, I let everything around me essentially influence the love I had for myself. I chased off my thick coils with heat, I hid them behind sew-ins, I dreaded the way my hair would revert to its natural state at the smallest presence of moisture. But I knew I was more than that.

My ancestors forged a path that brought me here. I know that I am the descendant of those strong enough to withstand a long voyage across the sea after being ripped from their homeland, being forced to watch their loved ones brutalized, and humiliated as an example to the others. A life so far from the harmony, love and spiritual morals of the homeland.

I know my history. I know that it is a struggle to reconnect with who we are as black people; our very stories are marked out of history books, often written over or falsified. Our ancestors endured so much, and that is why I choose to live in my truth. I am natural, and I won't apologize for that — not even to those who find my hair outside of the standard of beauty.

My mother has learned to love my hair and what it stands for to me. I understand that traditions are hard to get past, but when one generation takes a step in a new direction, it beckons the older to see its possibilities. Ultimately, my mother wants me to be happy, to love myself as a black woman and to understand who I am. What's important to me is to continue to show other black women and girls that it is OK to love your hair as it grows from your head, no matter the texture. No one yields the beauty that you do, and you must believe that.

I don't care if it makes someone uncomfortable, if it prevents me from obtaining work, if I am any less beautiful to others. I owe it to myself and those before me to reconnect, to set my spirit free. To look a little less neat.

Stephanie Daniels is a freelance writer. She can be reached on Instagram @Mahoganyx_ or via her blog, sandethewriter.com

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