Soft n’ Sheepish: No-More-Lyes Conditioning Crème Relaxer System
Welcome back! If you're reading this, you've caved, and are once again about to embark on chemically relaxing your hair even though you promised yourself you were finally going natural.
* Okay, at this point tell yourself again that this isn't just about internalized racism and upholding white standards of beauty (at least not anymore, you remind yourself, because after forty-odd years on this earth, you're telling it like it is). No, this is more about convenience and ease of styling. Okay, ease of maintenance. Face it, your hair is so thick, you're not looking at hair care, you're looking at hair management, and some days it takes a goddamn village. Because your hair is thick. Like, so thick you've never felt an actual raindrop on your scalp. So thick you have to plow finger-furrows through it to wash all the shampoo out. So thick that one kid at school always called you "Wiggy", and others laughed when it got frizzy in the rain. Remind yourself that the only reason you're relaxing your hair now is that it's gotten so thick that it takes forever to wash, and you do, in fact, have to wash it more often than that one incredulous black hairdresser thought you should. "Why do you wash your hair more than once a week?" she asked, and you considered the itch and smell when you waited too long for your particular head, and thought, "Because I want friends," but instead you said, "I play sports."
And now, even though you don't put your hair in curlers to straighten it (the paradox of your mother's time), or smooth it with a flat iron to straighten it (the idiocy of your time), there are still the matters of time and hair health. The thicker it gets, the more often you need to wash it; but the more often you wash it, the drier and more damaged it gets, so damaged, like, really damaged, according to that one incredulous white hairdresser you never went back to, because enough already about how "damaged" your hair is. You know, you know. You're here rummaging around in this box, aren't you?
**Think for a moment about the lengths to which you've gone to keep your hair "in shape" while working in professional settings. Think for a moment about the straight-laced and straight-haired image of "professional" you've been fed throughout school and work life. Think about all the time and money you've spent keeping your hair in line with these requirements (whose, exactly?) that you've internalized. Think about how even though you were smart and driven enough to study and secure employment in Europe, you still felt it necessary to chase down specialty products and salons to "manage" your hair throughout your time overseas. Think for a moment about how you only got the courage to abandon your flat iron and frequent relaxers after you quit your last office job. But don't think too hard about all that, because you still want to get this done because you're sick of how long it takes to wash your hair. Wonder if that's a good enough reason to break your promise to stop caving to Caucasian beauty standards. But don't get too distracted now, because you need to pay attention to this next part of the instructions.
Crossing the Rubicon, aka Application:
Non-relaxed (virgin) hair: Girl, it's too late. Your head was deflowered long before the rest of you. Skip to next section.
New growth: Some, but not enough to keep you from coming back to this box.
- Divide hair into small sections, using the sturdy bobby pins you had to search for amongst all the mere twists of wire that suffice for most (read: white) hair.
- Go old school and slather that Vaseline along your hairline, and extra thick on your ears. Think about what Vaseline is. Think about petroleum jelly. Think about smearing this petroleum byproduct on your skin to protect it from this acidic hair treatment. Think, This is beauty.
- Dig a divot with wooden spatula (D) into crème relaxer (B). Pour liquid activator (C) into crème relaxer and mix thoroughly. Allow yourself that little feeling of satisfaction that you can do this without spilling. Allow yourself that larger feeling of satisfaction that you're about to accomplish something, a task you've been putting off even though it will make life easier and save you time down the road. Tell yourself you'll have plenty of time for Black Pride once you get this relaxer done.
- "For best results ask a friend to help." Really? Even if you've chosen to disregard the relevant part of "Warning" (see above)—they're just telling you this now?
- Application Timing: Starting at the back, apply relaxer generously to new growth, then smooth relaxer into hair with back of wide-toothed comb. Follow timing chart:
To all of the above times add:
All the hours wasted at the salon that got you to the point of home relaxing, like when they started switching you out with other clients to let you "condition" under the dryer with a plastic cap covering some miracle solution in your hair. You knew something was off when they handed you a menu from the sandwich shop next door, as if to say, "You gon' be here a while." Still, admit that it was entertaining when folks came in and out of the shop peddling CDs and purses. Credit your stylist for staying at her chair with you while everyone else went to the window to gawk at the fight outside, even when one of the stylists' curling irons started to burn in its heating element, adding an exciting layer of smoke to the festive blue and red police lights flashing through the window. Make wide eyes when someone says it was two women fighting, one of them from the salon next door, who cops took away still wearing her plastic cap over a head full of red dye. Know you're going to miss this salon when you finally decide to leave. Even though you're pissed that each time you visit it takes longer to get through the process, only have the heart to break ties when you move to another country. Don't bat an eye when the salon owner wishes you well, saying "Imma miss de bush."
- Rinsing: Make sure to inquire whether the sinks in the salon actually have running water. Do not assume this will be the case, like you did with the West African stylist in Vienna, who you were confident would know her way around your head much better than the Hungarian, and actually had a legit-looking set-up in the front part of her apartment, as did many home-based practitioners. Feel comfortable with your decision, initially, while she manages the relaxing process with ease and skill. Then panic a bit when she sends her pre-teen daughter Drusilla into the bathroom to get a bucket of water to rinse your hair in one of the salon sinks that she explains can drain water perfectly well, just don't have water running to them. Lean back and wonder if there's any way she can pour those measly little measuring cups over your hair fast enough to rinse the thick helmet of skin-eating cream off your head. Think about the opening scene of Malcolm X, where Denzel runs all over the house trying to rinse his "conked" head after the police have had his house's water shut off. Feel somewhat relieved when the stylist makes headway, but then feel super-colonial when she sends her daughter back into the bathroom to fetch another heavy bucket of water for your thick-ass hair. Never return.
Okay, this is where you finally make your stand. No more curlers, to your momma's chagrin. No, not since that night in college when someone pulled a fire alarm at three in the morning and you ran down the stairs pulling rollers out of your head and stuffing them in your pockets because you didn't go to an HBCU. No curlers. Just a little Vitapointe, 'cause you rock it old school, plus a second product depending on your mood, because does any woman use just one? And no more blow dryer, even though you have to deal with a little drippage on your shoulders. And when it dries, no more hot iron, even though you used it one Halloween, when you did the little smooth-and-flip to look like Linda from Bob's Burgers, and were almost seduced by how shiny and soft your hair could still get with heat. But no, that's a thing of the past, because even if you still enlist chemical assistance for the volume, you're finding your way with the kink. Relaxers don't make your hair straight on their own. They help by breaking down the structure, but you still had to put in the effort to iron out the rest of the curl—effort you can now put into seeing its beauty.
The most important part of the instructions—the part you wrote in yourself: Once in a while, fluff it up instead of patting it down before you go out. Post selfies with it sticking up at gravity-defying angles. Go ahead and rock it at a meeting, paired with a blazer and confidence. Start to think people might be sincere when they say they like it. Begin not just to manage it, but to like it yourself.
And, maybe, to love it.
This essay previously appeared in The Fiddlehead, Issue 277