Behind The Kinks and Curls

By Cristal Maria Feb. 23, 2017

(L-R) Daisy, Jamin, Ashley, and Taina pose for the camera at Skidmore’s Intercultural Lounge.

Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — Hair care and maintenance for Taina Cotto ’20 isn’t any regular business. But then again, wash day is never regular business for anyone who has naturally curly or kinky hair. On wash day, Taina goes through a long process that begins the day before — with a pre-poo! A pre-poo is a treatment done on natural hair before wash day in order to help against shampoo’s tendency to strip hair of its natural oils. Taina’s wash day this semester is on Thursdays. She changes the day depending on her work schedule:

C.M.: Take me through the process of wash day.

T.C.: Oh my God! Okay. Wash day changes every semester because of my schedule. Last semester it was on Tuesdays. And I had to work it around my schedule, ’cause I really want to call out Skidmore Dining Services on the cultural insensitivity of these hats! My hair ain’t fitting in this! No, no.

C.M.: I’ve been saying this since the first day they gave us those damn hats!

T.C.: I was like excuse me, um, do you not see what’s growing out of my head right now? How is that gonna work? They’ll say “Well, just put it in a ponytail!” Well that just ruins my whole week! That’s not fair!

This is a sentiment shared among many naturals who work in the Skidmore Dining Services, but I digress.

When it comes to natural hair, there is an entire new world to navigate. The Natural Hair Movement dates back to the 1970s Black Power Movement, when it was seen as a political statement against assimilation to white U.S. culture. Then, it was a way for black folks in the U.S. to liberate themselves from the shackles of white supremacy by actually freeing their hair from the damaging chemicals and letting it be natural.

Today’s Natural Hair Movement is more centered on self-love and appreciation. Being natural today can still have political connotations, but it mostly echoes “I am me, and I am beautiful naturally.”

(L-R) Daisy, Jamin, Ashley, and Taina all reported to have 3B hair texture. Interestingly, their textures look quite different from each other.

Inspiration to go natural comes from different places. For Taina, the turning point came her junior year of high school. Taina went to a private boarding school with predominantly white students.

While getting ready to attend a formal event, she took a glance at her damaged hair in the mirror and broke down crying: “I called my mom, I was like ‘Mom, I can’t do this! I need to cut off all my hair! It’s so bad.’ Like I literally wanted grab some scissors and chop it all off myself.”

Since then, Taina has been transitioning her hair. Besides it being an act of self-care, being natural is also about claiming her black identity. Despite identifying as black, Taina has light skin and a freckled face. Her most salient display of blackness is her hair. Keeping it natural is her way of claiming her culture and feeling empowered by it.

For Ashley Polanco ’18, the inspiration to go natural came from self-reflection: seeing how damaged her hair had become after years of straightening it.

Ashley went natural during her sophomore year of high school. Although this was in 2012, well into the start of the Natural Hair Movement, many girls her age still weren’t natural and maintained their hair straight. Naturally, she stood out and received praise from her peers in school.

At home, however, her family was “very confused.” Her family soon took to calling her “pajonua,” a negative term used to describe women with big, curly or kinky hair in Dominican culture. Soon after, Ashley’s family confronted her: “You’re trying to be black.” The irony in this accusation is that Ashley does have African ancestry. The presence of her kinks and curls are a testament to that — but finally accepting her hair revealed a reality that is often neglected in Dominican culture: Dominicans are black. For Ashley, wearing her hair natural is not just an act of self-love, it’s an act of reclaiming roots that have been erased throughout history.

For Daisy Rodriguez ’20, however, it was about preserving her hair’s health. Daisy’s transition to natural hair was more recent. The last time she applied heat to her hair was this past June for her high school graduation.

She straightened her hair for the formal event and “saw just how dead it looked.” The visible damage she had caused to her hair was what triggered her transition. Aside from wanting to maintain her hair healthy, going natural was just more practical: “I didn’t wanna go through the work of having to flatten my hair while I’m in college.”

Daisy didn’t receive much backlash from her family for going natural; her family hardly noticed she made that decision. This is dramatically different from Jamin Garcia ’20, who received immediate criticism from her family.

Jamin went natural when she was a sophomore in high school. “I would get this notion that straight hair is better, easier to handle. So, like, my mom would always send me to the salon to do my hair.” But as Jamin grew older, she got busier; there was no time to go to the hair salon. She began using the Instyler, a rounded flat iron with bristles.

After years of straightening her hair, Jamin noticed her hair smelled “burnt” and was full of split ends. Her first year of high school she ended up cutting her hair and leaving it natural. She immediately stood out within her family: “My mom usually never leaves it natural, nobody in my family leaves it natural.”

At her last Thanksgiving dinner her cousin told her: “You need to straighten your hair. Your hair’s just too messy! It’s too puffy and big… un pajón!” Jamin was accustomed to this kind of shaming, but despite the negative reactions, her confidence couldn’t be shaken. To Jamin, being a natural is about appreciating her natural, healthy, bouncy curls.

Bree poses in Skidmore’s Murray Aikins Dining Hall. Photo by Cristal Maria

For some, going natural started during a rebellious phase in high school, as it did for Bree Hassell ’18. Bree self-identifies as a “cisgendered black female who is queer.” Bree classified her hair as a combination of 4b and 4c hair textures, meaning she has very kinky, thick hair.

When she was in her sophomore year of high school, Bree decided to stop straightening her hair. Initially, she was simply tired of “the burnt hair smell.” She grew tired of going to the salon and having people touch her hair and “scratch” and “burn” her scalp. Bree didn’t have the intention to “go natural” she simply got tired of the consequences of straightening her hair and let it “do its thing.”

Her family responded negatively, asking Bree “what are you going to do with that on your head?” Once her hair began transitioning, she even got questioned about her hygiene and self-care. As much negativity came her way, Bree never let it get to her; instead, it fueled her desire to remain natural and chemical-free.

Into the end of her junior year and the beginning of her senior year, Bree started noticing all the talk about “natural hair.” Once she figured out what it was, she “hopped on the bandwagon about research.” She familiarized herself with the terminologies and learned “what kind of conditioner a black girl is supposed to use.” Bree went through a journey with her hair: trying different hair styles, trying different products, and even making her own products!

To Bree, her hair is sacred. Her journey didn’t start with this thought in mind, it was born out of her transitioning process that started as an act of rebellion.

At the core of the Natural Hair Movement is the idea of self-love, self-care, and self-confidence in one’s most natural state. But, because curly and kinky hair are markers of blackness and African descent, the Natural Hair Movement will inevitably have political undertones.

Still, taking part in this movement is innately personal. The motivations behind the transition, the process itself, and what your natural hair means to you is all part of the movement; and it is completely different from one Curly Girl to the next.

(L-R) Daisy, Jamin, Ashley, and Taina pose one last time.