This is the story of my exploration. An exploration that took me away from my roots, into foreign lands and right back to where I started. Where I should always have been. My name is Phoebe (aka Pheebey). I was born in Zambia, raised in Zimbabwe and have lived in Australia for the last 11 years.
For as long as I can remember, I have had relaxed (chemically straightened) hair. I think I was about 12 or 13 when I applied my first relaxer onto my hair. I was so excited. It felt like it was some rite of passage. I wanted to be like the older girls at school who had long (or what I considered to be long then) straight, silky hair that seemed to move with the wind. I certainly did not want to have my mfushwa hair. Mfushwa hair is a term, usually used in the negative, to describe natural hair in Zimbabwe. Mfushwa hair gave the impression to society that my family was too poor to get my hurr did and that I was unsophisticated! I certainly did not want people to think alI those things about me now did I? I loved my new silky straight hair. I was happy not to go through the Sunday sessions that involved a tug of war between my aunt and my hair as she tried to remove every kink, coil and knot, mould it into amabanzi (also known as uzi or threading) and present me back into “civilisation” for another week!
After my first relaxer, I was more confident. I felt more beautiful. I had my regular touch ups when needed and during the school holidays, I usually had braids. So life continued. I moved to Australia to study and had my first weave. I loved my weaves. I barely saw my head and hair. I had a different weave all the time, usually long, straight and silky of course. I could change up my look anytime. After a while I started realising that my hair was thinning and my hairline was not doing so well. It was receding and I was still in my early 20’s!
I initially brushed these concerns off because when I looked around in my family, most of the women had issues with their hairline and they were managing it by hiding under the weave so that’s what I was going to do. I thought it was genetic – if the majority of women in my family had the same issue, then of course it was inevitable that I had to inherit this issue right? Anyway I didn’t think much of it, I just kept on keeping on – one weave after the other. My routine was shocking and this had obviously contributed to the condition of my hair. I only washed my hair when I got my touch up for my relaxer. I would pretty much go to the hairdresser after removing my weave the night before, get her to relax it and put on the next weave. There were usually no breaks in between (unless said hairdresser forced me to have one). So the cycle continued. Sometimes I would have my hair out for a little while and it was all good. I noticed my hair thrived during these periods because i did moisturise it and try to look after it…but once it went under the weave – out of sight, out of mind baby!
Anyway let’s fast forward to the end of last year because this post is getting longer than i thought it would be! It was around October. I went to get my relaxer touch up and dutifully carried my next weave with me to get it sewn in straight after. My hair burnt…like it had never before. It had burnt before – a patch here and there and it usually recovered – but this was different. After my hair was relaxed, my hair was too damaged and the hairdresser just refused to install my weave that day! Darn – I was not happy, but me and my weave went on home and it wasn’t until the next morning that I realised how many burnt spots I had. It was bad. During that week, as the burnt spots turned into flakes and the usual white dandruffy type stuff I decided I could not go on like this. I had to start looking after my hair if I had any hope of salvaging the little that was left. At this stage, my hair was very thin – a bit lifeless really – and a significant chunk of my hairline had disappeared
The week following this incident, I felt very depressed about the condition of my hair. Maybe depressed is too strong a word to use. But the feelings I had that week made me to start to think about why my hair was causing such a reaction. I realised that my hair had become inextricably linked to my identity. I was so obsessed with having straight long hair and had come to hate the look and feel of my natural hair. Even when my hair started getting damaged, I ignored this because having my own hair out and tending to it meant that – having my natural hair out. The hair that I loathed and thought looked ugly.
At the time my husband and I were thinking of starting a family and I started thinking what kind of mother I wanted to be – especially if I had a daughter. How could I tell her and teach her to love herself when I didn’t even love the real version of me anymore? Living in the diaspora, away from my family and other influences I was going to be the main reference point for my children in relation to one half of their culture, heritage, ancestry. Yet I had spent so many years distancing myself from all these things – consciously and subconsciously. My obsession with my hair was just a metaphor of that. I decided that if ever I had children, and especially girls, I wanted to be the kind of mother they could look up to and feel proud. I did not want to be a walking contradiction that preached a message about being a beautiful and proud black woman when I was not. I had worked so hard to be a coconut that I had become like a tree without its roots. On the outside I was happy but inside I was in turmoil – something had always felt not quite right even when everything outside was going smoothly. I began to question a lot of things and to look inside and see what kind of person I was going to be going forward…(to continue reading Part 2, click here)