beauty for one

Now Is the Time to Get to Know Your Natural Hair

Photo: Getty Images

Getting laid off in 2017 was a terrible experience, but it did have one upside: I finally got to wear my hair in a full Afro for the first time in 20 years.

I was laying in my childhood bed in Georgia when I got a text from my editor at Condé Nast asking if I could talk. I already knew what the call would be about. There’d been rumors about cutbacks swirling, and the night before, I’d had a dream that I was being laid off. My instinct was right: I was being let go, along with a few dozen other employees.

I didn’t cry when I found out, but I sobbed for the entire first leg of my flight back to New York. The next day, I cried as I packed up my things at One World Trade Center. Then I went home and took out my waist-length Senegalese twists. I never cried about it again.

Before then, I hadn’t spent much quality time with my hair. Maintaining natural hair takes a lot of work — wash-and-go is not really an option, especially with tight coils like mine. I’d stopped chemically straightening my hair in 2013 and gotten braids in 2014. I rarely took them out except to wash my hair before getting my next set. Working on a team that was almost entirely composed of white people didn’t just mean code-switching my personality, but code-switching my hair as well. Braids were easy, they looked good, and in a post-Brandy world, everyone could appreciate a braided style on a black woman.

But now I had nowhere to be for at least two months. I was laid off a few weeks before Thanksgiving and I knew there was little to no chance of me being interviewed, much less hired, until the new year. Going without braids for the first time in three years came with a sort of lightness — both literally and figuratively. Braids are heavy; when you take a good pound or two of synthetic hair off your head, there’s a notable difference. With braids, the only time you can touch your real hair is at the root. Getting to feel every strand from root to tip was like reconnecting with a friend I haven’t seen in years.

Beneath the weaves and braids, my 4C hair doesn’t fall to my shoulders; its natural state is an Afro. The tight, structured curls grow up and out. And the length of it is a best guess until it’s straightened, which is damaging to all hair, but especially black hair.

Going natural means paying more in either time (often your own) or money, if you can afford regular visits to a stylist who understands black hair. Plus you need to try a ton of products to troubleshoot what works for you.

But none of the above seems nearly as daunting when you have all the time in the world. And I had what can only be described as a fucking ball figuring out my 4C hair as fall faded into a stunningly cold winter.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for how to take care of black hair. Everyone has a million tips, tricks, and methods for treating their hair, and what works for one black woman may not work for another. It takes a lot of trial and error to create your own user manual, and when you have a full-time job, it’s difficult to find the time.

I tried different kinds of twist outs, learned how to do French braids, turned a gigantic scarf I bought in Israel into a perfect head wrap, and learned how to give myself some rudimentary braids. I hit up beauty-supply shops on Fulton Street in Brooklyn on a biweekly basis to buy hair products and different tools, like flexi-rods and big metal clips. I watched and rewatched dozens of videos by YouTuber Whitney White, better known as Naptural85, about twist and curls, wash-day routines, homemade shampoos, leave-in conditioners, and ten chic ways to tie a headscarf. I fell down the rabbit hole of Instagram hairstyling videos, which I’d sometimes watch until midnight.

Four hairstyles that I tried in the first week of going natural. Photo: Nikita Richardson

Over four months, I learned that maintaining length meant giving myself regular trims. That for maintenance, co-washing is more important than using shampoo. I learned that oil-intensive Garnier Fructis products were a better fit for me than Shea Moisture products and eventually took a liking to Trader Joe’s tea tree products. (Really for all hair types!) I learned that natural hair is most pliable when it’s wet. I learned that oil should go on top of moisturizer.

Without any expectations about how my hair should look, I was changing it on a weekly basis. (In the first week, I tried four different styles.) For the first time, I felt like I was actually connecting with the thick forest of hair on my head, which I’ve always loved but couldn’t manage. I think for a lot of people who’d only ever seen me with braids or relaxed hair, including myself, it was surprising to see my real hair, which I was never hiding, but wasn’t exactly showcasing either.

When I got my job at Grub Street in March 2018, I had my braids redone. Not because I was ashamed of my hair, but because it was easier to keep it in a protective style. But I held on to the sense of ease I’d gained from my time as an unemployed amateur hairstylist. I no longer felt so hung up about making sure my hair looked “acceptable.” When I wanted to take my braids out and let my hair breathe for a few days between braiding appointments, I’d just wear a headscarf to work or put it in two buns on my head. Sure, my co-workers didn’t immediately recognize me, but I recognized myself.

My sister and I openly fantasize about going full-on natural one day when we have the money and the time to do it right. She took out her own braids a few weeks ago and is wearing a twist out for the foreseeable future. Every time we video-chat, I tell her how great she looks.

And with my current braids set to expire in the next week or two, I’m actively looking forward to meeting up with my old friend.

Now Is the Time to Get to Know Your Natural Hair