I want to start by saying that I do not presume to have insight into the experiences of African or African-American women with natural hair; I am what Ifemelu refers to as “the white kind of curly”. However, there are some parallels between my experience with curls and Ifemelu’s struggles with her natural hair.
My 3A curl pattern didn’t fully emerge until 3rd grade. Curly hair is a recessive gene in my family, so both of my parents have straight hair, and they were just as clueless as me when it came to caring for curls. For years, I put it in buns and ponytails and braids, tucked it away under headbands and hats, or brushed it out and let it puff into a frizzy mass. Before middle school, I got comments regularly from friends, relatives, and even a few strangers about how much prettier my hair would be if I straightened it. Those words, even when meant to be positive, can damage a young girl; embracing my hair when everyone around me wanted to change it seemed impossible. During middle school, I was obsessed with straight hair. Having unique hair was too much for a shy pre-teen to handle. But no matter how much I tried to burn the curl out with my mom’s straightening iron set to the highest temperature, it just didn’t look right. It was too thick to lay flat, and if I encountered humidity, my curls would quickly reappear. In eighth grade I Googled “how to make curly hair permanently straight”, and I discovered relaxers, like the ones Ifemelu uses. My mom refused to let me use the chemicals (which I am so grateful for today), so I resigned to straightening as often as I could. Like Ifemelu’s burn from the hot comb, I suffered many minor burns from my iron. By the time I started wearing my hair curly, it was so heat-damaged and brittle that I cut off almost 8 inches so it could grow back healthy.
It took me a long time to embrace and learn to care for my hair – I only started wearing it natural during sophomore year. I still get comments about how nice and “tame” my hair would look if I straightened it more often. When I do straighten my hair, I don’t feel like myself, and going back to curls the next day feels like coming home. My hair is a very distinctive and definitive part of who I am. Now, obviously, my struggle towards acceptance hasn’t been as trying as Ifemelu’s. People have far fewer conceptions about white women with curly hair than about African women – I cannot imagine straightening my hair for an interview out of fear of appearing unprofessional – but having finally embraced my hair, I truly appreciate Ifemelu’s hair journey and her decision to let it be natural.