I got my first relaxer when I was 14. Before that, I had a big afro that I wore out or in cornrows. At school, people always made fun of my hair and called me names. These comments did not really bother me, in fact, I wholly embraced some of the names that I had been given such as Mama Miria (Miria Obote was a candidate in the 2006 Uganda Presidential election).
But one Thursday afternoon during the lunch break, one of my teachers jokingly asked me how much it would cost for me to get my hair relaxed and offered to foot the bill. As I laughed off his suggestion, deep down I knew that what he really meant was my natural hair was unsightly and needed to be “fixed.”
Prior to this incident, I had contemplated getting my hair chemically straightened. I really wanted my hair to sway like Beyonce in the Check On It video and do fancy bridal pin-up hairstyles (as if I could not do them with my natural hair smh). The teacher’s comment was all that I needed to move from contemplation to action. I returned to school the following week with bone straight hair and in Drake’s words, Nothing Was The Same…
My relaxed hair brought me endless compliments and popularity. I became one of the girls with the “best hair” at school. For a teenage girl filled with insecurities and low self-esteem, this was a confidence booster. Suddenly, I got some of the attention and desirability that I had always yearned for. My hair became a core part of my identity that I deeply cherished and devoted fortnightly salon visits to.
In September 2008, I moved to the UK. I had to learn how to style and look after my hair. In the beginning, I opted for braids as they were low maintenance. However, I did not realise that I could not keep them in for more than 6 weeks or risked hair breakage. I eventually abandoned braids and started to wear my hair out. I washed, deep conditioned and blow dried my hair twice a month. In between washes, I moisturised my hair with a Motions (oba where did they go? ) leave-in conditioner, olive oil, coconut oil and black castor oil. Despite maintaining this regimen, my hair started to lose its thickness.
I believe that England’s hard water and constant exposure to blow drier heat (I used to do roller sets when I lived in Uganda) were to blame. That, ba dia, is when I became a product junkie and spent most of my spare time on Black hair blogs. Biotin pills, magic hair growth oils, thickening shampoos, inversion method… I.Tried. It. All.
By the end of 2013, my hair was so limp and thin that you could see right through it. I decided that I would not relax my hair again. Instead, I would grow out my chemically straightened hair and cut it off once I had a significant amount of growth. Certainly, this was a difficult decision to make as I had spent several years telling myself that I could not manage looking after natural hair and that it would look ugly on me. I was terrified of the physical and mental changes that I had to undergo as part of my hair journey. Would I look beautiful with natural hair? Where would I get the time to look after my hair? What would I do with the Siima that derived so much pride and self-confidence from her hair, how would I nurture her? Thankfully, these fears did not deter me from transitioning to natural hair.
I had my last relaxer in December 2013 and then cut my hair into a bob in June 2014. After that, I began wearing my hair in havana twists or corkscrew braids. I ensured that my hair was trimmed once every two months. In June 2016, I finally cut the remaining relaxed strands that were hanging on for dear life. That (western hemisphere) summer was also when I fully embraced my afro and had it out more often. There are so many things that I have learned on my hair journey. Below are some of them:
1. Internalised oppression is real.
Internalised oppression: “An involuntary reaction to oppression which originates outside one’s group, and which results in group members loathing themselves, disliking others in their group, and blaming themselves for the oppression – rather than realizing that these beliefs are constructed in them by oppressive socio-economic political systems.” (Rosenwasser 2006) and this ted talk.
My decision to chemically straighten my hair was influenced by my (Black) teacher’s comments. All the negative comments that I’ve ever received about my natural hair have come from Black people (someone once told me that I looked like Satan because of my afro). It was not until 2019 that I wore my hair in its shrunken state outside my place of abode.
2. What works for someone else might not work for you.
Just because all the Youtubers and hair bloggers use a certain product or styling method, it does not mean it will work for you. Learn what ingredients, products and styling methods work best for YOUR hair.
3. If you are using a product for the first time, test it on a small section before applying it all over your hair.
Trust me. This has saved me so many bad hair days.
4. Health over length.
Need I say more?
Being consistent with my hair routine has enabled me to achieve long, healthy hair.
6. It is not just how you manage your hair that determines its state. There are several other factors.
Genes, stress, environmental factors (weather) are some of the things that affect our hair.
Now, I want to be very clear. I have nothing against anyone who gets their hair chemically straightened and neither am I saying that relaxed hair is a symbol of oppression. The way that you wear your mane is your choice. However, if you are looking to transition to natural hair but are afraid, there are countless natural hair bloggers, Youtubers, stylists and products that can ease your journey.
Siima Itabaaza is a social justice activist, writer, art connoisseur and chairwoman of the Liverpool FC fan club.
Twitter – ChildOfTheeSun
Instagram – @simsiimaa