Black Hair Talk: My First Perm, My Last Perm
Editors Note: The flashbacks are funny so feel free to bust on me for being such a corn, but the point is just to share my journey.
The Naïve Years. Left to right, me in second and third grades. Those two cornrows were go-to style #1 and the sassy pigtails were #2.
The first time I chemically straightened my hair it was because I really really wanted a perm – in fact I’d wanted one for over a year. I’d had childlike cornrows, a braid bang that needed to be curled with a sponge roller at night, and a press n’ curl that caused other girls at school to call me “a bushwacker.”
Vanessa Huxtable. That’s me in 1990 on the far left with an Easter press n’ curl. It only ever lasted one day. By seventh grade, my attempt at “bangs.” No wonder I was such a moody tween.
I wanted the bone straight look that all of the other girls in my seventh grade class had. My hair is very thick, never did take a press very well, and my hairline is…shall we say…distinctive. I wanted to pass through the hallways unnoticed and be done with the controversy. After some begging, my mother (the pragmatist) scheduled an appointment for me at her salon and my father (the free spirit) was supposed to pick me up from school as he usually did and take me straight there. When I got into his car I reminded him about the appointment and he said flatly, “Oh, I know all about it. I’m not taking you to that,” and took me home. I was only a little disappointed because if you know my dad his protest was no surprise, and if you know my mom she efficiently rescheduled and took me to the salon that following Saturday instead – she spent way too much time doing my hair and, as you can see above, when I was left to my own devices the results were rather Vanessa Huxtable-esque.
The early perm days. My 7th grade class photo (I blinked). All of that fuss just to be…regular.
Come Monday, all of the girls who’d already had perms for a while oooh’d and ahh’d at what I’d “finally” accomplished. “It’s about time!” one particularly hoodrattish girl announced in the cafeteria (she now has the gall to friend request me on Facebook, by the way). It was an achievement similar to my first successful Double Dutch turn and other “black stuff,” that I had to learn quickly after leaving private school for public school; most of the other black girls at my new school pretty much considered me the whitest black thing they’d ever seen and they had no problem reminding me of that on at least a weekly basis. So, to be less white, I finally got a perm. This is where black hair gets complicated, because literally the last thing I wanted to do with a permanent relaxer was be white or appeal to a European beauty ideal – in fact at private school I’d had a few run-ins with white people over hair issues¹ but back then I didn’t even know or care what a perm was. At my new school I just wanted to fit in, and my father’s Afrocentrism, a bit of him not wanting his daughter to grow up, and perhaps his very fuzzy idea of what it’s like to be an eleven year-old-girl, would only allow him to see that a perm in any context had to be a bad thing. From then on, Hyacinth at “Vincent’s Creations” nipped awkwardness in the bud with a bi-monthly dose of Bantu No-Lye Relaxer. I permed my hair – just like almost everybody else – all throughout middle and high school and aside from a few sets of box braids I never considered otherwise. Thanks to my last, and best, hairdresser Carla, I even dabbled in ponytail pieces for my junior and senior proms. That woman’s accuracy in creating a curl of the right size and in the right spot rivaled the marksmanship of a paid assassin, but I always preferred the plainest styles possible.
Peek-a-boo, I see you. I was growing out that late 1990’s black lady mullet in my senior class photo. Not a word about my eyebrows, please.
Fast-forward to college and imagine me on a student budget with no Carla nearby, and the strand-snapping cold of Cambridge, Massachusetts combined with dormitory hard water creating the worst haircare environment ever. Plenty of women maintain relaxed hair up there but it just wasn’t the same for me. Shoot, Carla did hair in her basement and I was more comfortable there than I was at the super bougie salon favored by my Harvard peers. Not only did they all return with poufy roller sets instead of the sleek urban look I favored, but judging by who was giving it rave reviews I sensed that there was a “good hair,” culture brewing at that salon and I didn’t want any part of it. You see, although I was no longer familiar with my natural hair I knew that not everyone needed a strong and serious relaxer every six weeks like clockwork to keep their hair straight (ie. they had ‘good hair’). I did (ie. I had ‘bad hair’), and I certainly was not in the mood to be looked down upon for that fact.
Never trust a big butt and a smile. By my college years, I was addicted to Isoplus Oil Sheen in the blue spray can.
Thanks to my penny pinching and lack of a good salon, by sophomore year the health of my hair had seriously declined. Every time I went home I’d prioritize squeezing in an appointment with Carla, but it was a losing battle. The death blow on my almost-shoulder-length swoop bang look was dyeing my hair, a choice that, although she was willing, even Carla was worried about. The color was an amazing reddish-sunset-brown and I was really impressed with myself – that is, until it really started falling out. I was developing a bald spot in the back of my head that even creative styling wasn’t helping much to cover. By the next time I saw Carla she broke the news: I had no choice. I had to cut it off.
I’d never had hair past my shoulders and I was grown now so a short cut could be cute, right? Yeah, except for the fact that I’ve never had any dexterity whatsoever with a curling iron, so the tiny rows of curls in varying sizes never looked anywhere near as sharp when I did them at home as they did when I left the salon – I was always strugglin’. I also felt a little bit too bald-headed with the back of my head exposed like that. My Halle Berry phase lasted two short months and I moved on to simple and elegant human-hair braids. Although the Senegalese lady who braided my hair would fuss about how much ‘Nègre’ hair I had and threaten to upcharge me for daring to put her through a twelve hour braiding ordeal, I refused her nasty little perm kits repeatedly. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d had my last perm.
Wet N’ Wavy #33. The human hair braid debacle of 1999-2000 included being mistaken for my roommate, also pictured. I didn’t appreciate that.
After braiding and un-braiding my hair so many times I started to really notice my new growth in bulk – it was kind of fun so I chopped of the now sorrowfully dead permed ends but kept on braiding. But there were problems: I was growing tired of being mistaken for my fellow brown and thick friend who also had a head of (homegrown) human hair braids, and I was too old for the dynamic duo nonsense. Meanwhile the Philadelphia Neo-soul movement was growing so I had natural hair role-models. I put clippings of Jill Scott, Kina (who had THE hair I wanted), and random bushy-headed chicks from Essence on the walls of my junior year dorm room as I plotted the big change. The mean girls from seventh grade were long gone, and I was a confident twenty-one year old woman who did spoken word poetry and had just gotten her first tattoo. Carol’s Daughter products were the hot new thing and smelled soooo much better than the Wet N’ Wavy leave in conditioner I’d been constantly spraying on my braids, and I was finally open to having short hair. I’d always been proud of my heritage but I was even prouder that I had so much hair after a year of not perming – it wasn’t at all the coarse texture I expected and was so healthy. I’d also gotten pretty good at tying up a headwrap so I had no fear of bad hair days. Blending in started to sound like a bad idea. I came home from a summer away in 2000 and took out my braids to reveal a head of coils that I sometimes blew out or twisted but usually dyed a brownish-reddish color.
Fisher Price My First Afro. Harvard yearbook photo from when my naps were still new, me at a Studio 54 party with a mini-blowout.
Nine years later I’ve done a bunch of other things too, but chemically straightening my hair happens to not be one of them.
Do you remember your first, and if there was one, last perm? Please share stories in the comments.
 A little off-topic, but for most of elementary school I wore my hair in two cornrows like in the photo above. One day everyone was playing in each other’s hair and one of the bossier girls convinced me to let her undo my braids, which of course she was unable to put back, so my hair was everywhichaway for the rest of the afternoon. I was crying so hard when my dad came to get me that day, but it was a good lesson.
Also check out Aliya S. King’s hair journey.