04/13/2012 09:15 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2012

Going Back To My Roots

A child is sat down. She is screaming. Why is she being forced to do this? It burns her scalp. It really burns her scalp. After this procedure, she is inserted into a high-temperature contraption. It is hot. She is crying. After being removed from the contraption, more heat is applied to her scalp. An irritated individual assures her that sobbing will only drag out the process. Finally, after many tears and many burns, the procedure is done. Look in the mirror, little girl. You are not hideous anymore. Smile -- your hair is now straight.

You might have thought the introduction was something borrowed from a horrendous child abuse case. Or you're more informed than I thought -- you might have recognized that the matter surrounding my description was a simple one: hair. We all know that individuals in our society take extreme measures to fit the mold of beauty. Teenage girls do not, after all, become bulimic or anorexic because it is fun. But this goes beyond fitting the mold of beauty. This is about racial perception and I am, by a long shot, not the first person to be discussing this issue.

If you know anything about the hair of people of African descent, you know that its texture is variably rough. Let's take a look at the history of black hair, dating back to the days of American slavery. In the 1700s, the white superiors of African slaves began referring to black hair as "wool," not as real hair. After slavery ended, black women wished to be taken seriously.

Natural hair was regarded as primitive and sloppy. According to, which provides an excellent outline of the history of black hair, "good hair" or straightened hair became a must for entering certain schools, churches, social groups, and business networks in the late 1960s and beyond. From then on, the business surrounding straighteners for ethnic hair boomed. Black women or women of mixed descent, their insecurities about their hair at quite a high level, flocked to salons to be transformed into beautiful, straight-haired amazons. Society established a mandate: straight hair is accepted hair.

Straight hair is deemed more professional, more sophisticated. It is, after all, "good hair." This phenomenon of the "right hair" stemmed from insecurities based on racist perceptions of beauty and has grown into a less serious but nevertheless disturbing entity in our modern-day society. Young girls, like the one described in the introduction, are brought to salons to make their hair pretty. After all, straight and pretty are interchangeable words.

Why do I feel so passionate about this topic? I am as apathetic to the world of fashion and appearance as a teenage boy. But, like anyone, I like feeling good about how I look and what I wear. I love to look my best. After all, who doesn't? There is a popular saying that everyone has heard: "Beauty is pain." Pain? No thanks, I like to avoid that. Having ethnic hair myself, I know about the effects of the perming process firsthand. It is no trip to the candy shop -- at all.
The FDA states that hair straighteners and hair dyes are one of its top consumer complaint factions. This is no surprise. The effects of perming ethnic hair include hair breakage, hair thinning, scalp irritation, and lack of hair growth. These symptoms sound like those of a disease. Go figure.

What makes perming you hair so hazardous? Sodium hydroxide, the same strong chemical used to clean drain pipes, is a dominant substance in hair relaxers. According to, the strength of this substance varies from a pH of 10 to 14; the higher the pH, the stronger the relaxer and the more damage it does. Certain relaxers proudly wear the "no-lye" label. This simply means that guanidine hydroxide is the principle ingredient, as opposed to sodium hydroxide. Although the former is less damaging then its colleague, it still contains potentially damaging chemicals.

The ways in which the relaxer "relaxes" the hair is both fascinating and disturbing, the same mixed reaction elicited from a good horror movie. The relaxer, whether "no-lye" or otherwise, changes the structure of the hair shaft by piercing the cortical layer and altering the natural curl pattern. This layer is not only responsible for giving the hair its curl pattern, but also for providing it with the elasticity and strength it requires to be healthy. Thus, in the process of making it straighter, the hair is left weaker and more liable to damage.

But, now, let's get personal.

I had been chemically straightening my hair from a young age -- six years old. My hair was unruly, wild, and thus, hideous. All through those years, my hair thinned excessively. In eighth grade, I let my mother know enough was enough. My hair was extremely thin and I did not feel comfortable dipping my hair into chemicals any more. After an interim of no relaxing, I finally broke down and wanted to relax my hair again. It was not straight, and so, it was not pretty. I wanted to feel pretty again. I was, after all, a 14-year-old girl.

Finally, last August, I began toying with the idea of growing out my natural hair and ditching the chemicals again. I extensively researched on the topic. What were the pros and cons of "going natural"? How would I look without my straight hair? How would I style my hair if it was not straight? After persuading my mother, who has naturally straight hair and did not understand my desire to stop perming, I cut my hair. I stopped perming it. My father was immediately displeased. He said I did not look presentable, put-together, or professional. "You should straighten your hair," he said, "You just do not look right." My father voiced the very words that prompted former female slaves in the 1700s and 1800s to straighten their hair. When I went to school with my hair in its natural form, for the first time, I was met with mixed reactions. There were those who praised my hair and said they loved it. But, there were those who laughed and taunted me. I had a friend who stated, matter of factly, that people with my hair texture should not wear it naturally because it was "ugly" and "looked wrong."

Today, I am proud to wear my hair naturally, regardless of the sneers I get from people who first see it. I no longer wanted to hide my hair under a shroud of chemicals that were damaging it. The media and society in general should stop portraying the image that straight hair is the right hair. Women of mixed or African descent should not be ashamed to wear their hair in its natural state. They should be proud of what was given to them. The societal pressure to have straight hair should not shape our idea of beauty. The hair-care industry makes billions by taking advantage of this insecurity, and thus, damaging the hair of women and girls everywhere. As individuals, we need to shape our own personal idea of beauty. Bruno Mars wasn't lying -- you are beautiful just the way you are. Let the world see that.