Transitioning from chemically straightened hair to a TWA, or teeny weenie afro, was more of a challenge than NPR.org editor Tanya Ballard Brown initially anticipated.
This photo from July 2011 shows the loveliness that was my chemically straightened hair before I decided to go natural again.
Mito Habe-Evans / NPR
I cut most of my hair off eight weeks ago. And yes, I meant to do it. I love my new kinky curliness and now, as I walk down the street, I feel like I see natural hair — twists, coils, dreadlocks, afros — everywhere.
Among the kinky curly community the "big chop" is when you cut off your relaxed hair and wear a TWA or teeny weenie afro. This is usually not a decision taken lightly. Cutting off all your hair and learning how to manage and style hair that is a different texture and has different needs than your chemically processed hair obviously requires some patience and adjustment.
And then there are other "issues."
"What people don't understand is that it's not just the physical transition, it's also a mental transition because from like childhood up we've learned that straight hair is beautiful and textured hair is not," says Alicia Nicole Walton, who founded the website CurlyNikki.com, one of many resources for people with natural hair.
"Having to retrain yourself is a very difficult process, especially when you have everybody around you reinforcing the standard, 'Why don't you press it out?' 'Ooo girl, you need a comb.' 'I don't think you're going to be able to get a job with that hair,'" she says.
Right, all that she said. It was a struggle and the biggest issue for me was feeling attractive with this new look. As I watched Zina Saro-Wiwa's recent New York Times opinion documentary about black women transitioning from relaxed hair to their natural hair, it brought up feelings I had faced before deciding to big chop for the second time on April 21.
The First Cut Is The Deepest
The first time I transitioned to my natural hair was right after I got married in September 2007. My husband asked me once in passing if I had ever thought about going natural and I said, no, but then had the grand idea that I would try it. I got a Jheri curl at 10 (shut up! I wanted to be like Michael Jackson!), and a relaxer at 16. I didn't really remember what my virgin hair felt or looked like so this would be a great experiment. I talked to my hair stylist, Phyllis Reed, and we stopped chemically straightening my hair. She blow-dried it straight for several months before cutting off the relaxed ends in early 2008.
I immediately hated it. When I looked in the mirror all I saw was FACE, and it was too fat and round like Charlie Brown's. My skin flaws were magnified a gabillion times. Without my straight hair to pull down over my face, you could really see that one of my eyes closes to a squint when I smile. And the crooked tooth on the right side of my mouth? Sigh.
Still, I pushed forward because my husband seemed to like it, it was easier to manage because I could wet it, condition it and go, and I got more and better sleep because I didn't have to perch my head on my hand to try and preserve my expensive relaxed hairstyle from being smushed by the pillow. No more weekly visits to the hair stylist, no more spending time with a flat iron trying to straighten my roots that had reverted thanks to my scalp sweating in the hot Washington, D.C., summers.
But despite all of that, in January 2009, I sat in the salon chair and told Phyllis to straighten my situation out. My husband was thrilled. He had never really liked it, he just wanted to be supportive. *Blink*
Still, a part of me felt like I didn't try hard enough, that I gave up on my hair too soon.
"There are ways to ease the transition from relaxed to natural hair — and with great style," says Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine and author of Commander in Chic: Every Woman's Guide to Managing Her Style Like a First Lady. "A TWA is not your first resort, you only need do that if you choose to, but if you choose to do that, know that feeling attractive is internal, as it has everything to do with how you feel about yourself. The beauty doesn't change."
The Second Slice
After I divorced in October 2011, I decided to do it again. This second time around I started with the Google. In the three years since my first chop, it seemed to me as if the Web had exploded with videos, blogs and other resources for kinky curlies, along with stores carrying more products geared to that market. That may be because last year, 36 percent of black women said they did not relax their hair and sales of relaxer kits dropped 17 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to market research firm Mintel.
CurlyNikki.com was one of the resources I discovered in my hunt for help.
"Go in armed with as much knowledge as you possibly can to prepare yourself on the front end so you won't be taken by surprise," says Walton, the site's owner, whose book Better Than Good Hair is expected out in January. "There are going to be days that you are going to want to go back to the relaxer. Give yourself six months, see how your hair responds to the new routine and the new products and take it from there. When people take advantage of all the research out there it does make the journey a little less treacherous."
And Taylor gave some tips for maximizing the cute with a TWA.
"Maybe it's a long pair of earrings, that call attention to your beautiful long neckline, or perhaps it's about experimenting with color," says the beauty expert, who is considering transitioning her own hair. "If you want to get to know your natural hair then explore it and have fun and be the woman that you are — then you'll be free to experiment with all kinds of looks and not be intimidated in the subtle shifts that occur during the growth phases of your natural hair."
So I am chopped again, and this time I aim to stay natural.
Vive la difference!
Tanya Ballard Brown is an editor for NPR.org. You can follow her natural hair journey on her Tumblr blog, *Taps Mic*, share natural hair care and styling tips with her on Twitter @TdoubleB and check out her hair dream board on Pinterest.