By: Jessi Hughes
I got tired of running from the rain. At the beginning of my natural hair journey, this was one of my favorite ways to answer people who asked me why I decided to go “natural.” In my early twenties, I dated someone who would tease me every time I would run to take cover from the rain just to keep my shoulder length straight hair from getting wet. I would laugh and shrug off his jokes, but perhaps without him realizing it, my sense of normalcy was challenged. And I started to wonder – when did it ever become normal for someone to run from the rain?
Back then I would check the weather forecast religiously first thing in the morning and before I went to bed. If there was even a 40% chance of rain, I would pack my foldable umbrella into my purse to make sure that there was a 0% chance that my hair would get wet. Something inside of me was stirred up though, and I began to crave what it would feel like to let the raindrops fall on my uncovered head. So in the middle of a busy work and grad school schedule, I began using my spare time to research how to transition from permed hair to natural hair.
I won’t assume that everyone reading this knows about perms, so here’s a short lesson. I am by no means a hair expert, but like many naturalistas, I’ve acquired more hours of “hair research” than I would ever like to admit. There are basically two categories of hair perms – one that straightens hair and one that makes hair curly. Within these two categories, there are various ways that the perm can be applied in order to create certain results that produce bone straight hair or even spiral curls so perfect that they would make you look like Shirley Temple. Whether curly or straight, these hairstyles are obtained by putting chemicals on the hair that break down the natural hair’s texture. The results grow out eventually, so to maintain the permed hairstyle, the perm must be applied to the hair’s “new growth” (i.e. the roots). This means you must either learn to apply the perm yourself or make a trip to the salon every 6 to 8 weeks.
“Ahhh, yes – I miss those trips to the hair salon to get a perm,” is something that you will never hear me say! In fact, I try not to think about all the time and money that I spent at salons. I’ve also blocked out the countless times when I ended up with painful sores on my scalp (ouch!) as a result of the chemicals reacting to places where I had absentmindedly scratched before getting a perm, or from the perm being on my hair too long to guarantee that my hair was “straight enough.” I find it sad now when I think about what I put myself through in the name of “beauty.”
My “hair awakening” coincided with me wanting to view myself with natural hair as beautiful since that is how God intentionally made me. At the root of it all, I wanted to truly love myself, so in 2006, I began the transition from permed to natural hair. I began to understand that perms represented more than just a styling option for me. My self-worth had somehow become intertwined with looking like the unrealistic images of women of color that I saw on TV and as I flipped through magazines.
Unlike today, ten years ago there were not as many natural hair websites, blogs, videos, and products that empower and teach women to manage their own hair. So I made the transition with the help of a hairdresser located near my South Loop apartment in Chicago. He put rod sets in my hair to give me a spiral curled look that I loved. Each month he would cut off a little more of my permed hair as I would nervously watch the black trimmings accumulate on the white tiles of the salon floor. I was not completely sold out on having natural hair though, and I figured that if I didn’t like the texture of my hair than I could go back to getting perms. I was secretly wishing that my hair texture would be fine, defined and loose curls. I probably would not have admitted it, but a part of me had the mentality that many people have that is rooted in self-hate and racism – the mindset that there is “good hair” and “bad hair.” I was hoping that team “good hair” had picked me.
When I did the “big chop” in 2007, the decision to cut off the 8 inches of natural hair that had grown out coincided with the decision to let go of toxic relationships and things in my life that I had let rob me of my self-esteem, peace, and joy. My one-inch hair stood out in a time when short natural hair was not as fashionable as it is today. I noticed that compliments about my hair decreased, the type of men who approached me changed, and it was not uncommon for strangers to assume that I led a certain lifestyle or held certain views about politics or religion. I am amused by all of this now, but at the time, I hated the attention that I got as well as the attention that I did NOT get.
This also happened to be the time when I started to go back to church. I struggled to not roll my eyes and to not sit there with arms folded across my chest while the reverend preached. If you could have listened to the commentary in my head during those sermons, you would have known that I had grown cynical and cold to the things of God. The messages seemed to ricochet off of me like rubber bullets, and like a tennis pro, I had a mental rebuttal for every positive thing that the preacher said about God’s faithfulness even if it was simply a skeptical “Oh yeah?” My confidence was shattered, and I was extremely broken and angry with God. To make matters worse, I was jobless after graduating from grad school, and I was facing the fact that I may need to leave Chicago to move back in with my parents in Massachusetts.
With a depleted bank account and a trail of fruitless job interviews behind me, I packed up and went back home like a prodigal child. I was in the last place that I wanted to be, but home was exactly where I needed to be. God began to work on me and restore my confidence in Him, myself, and people again. I was able to start healing and face the main reason why I had left Massachusetts. It turns out that I was running from more than just the rain.
I’ve come a long way since my TWA (teeny weeny afro) days. As a creative person and an artist, I see my hair as an outlet and a way to express myself, so I love the versatility of being able to change up my look. My hair is now past my shoulders thanks to a healthy lifestyle and from rocking protective styles like two-strand twists, micro-braids, crochet braids, and weaves. My hair has grown a lot, but most importantly, I have grown spiritually and emotionally. I still have more growing to do, but I’m learning to bloom where I am planted. On some rainy days, I walk slowly, with hands in my pockets, and a folded umbrella by my side. Finally I’ve stopped running…
Jessi Hughes is a singer/songwriter who serves as one of the praise & worship leaders at a church in New England. Deeply influenced by her rich cultural heritage, Jessi draws from the soulful, blues of the South as well as the colorful, joyful praise and rhythms of Ghana, West Africa. She is excited about the upcoming release of her praise & worship EP. When she is not in the recording studio, you may find her practicing the guitar, enjoying the beach (when it’s summer), counting down the days until summer (when it’s winter), or spending time with family and friends. Jessi loves to travel and is passionate about healthy living, writing, and encouraging others to use their gifts for the glory of God and to spread the Gospel. To continue on the journey with Jessi, you can follow her on Instagram (@JessiHughesMusic), Facebook (@JessiHughesMusic), Twitter @JessiHughes), or by subscribing to her quarterly newsletter on her website (www.JessiHughesMusic.com).