I begged my mother for a relaxer and at the age of 12 she finally agreed. My argument: I just want it to swing, and I’m too “adult” to wear multi-colored barrettes and rubber bands. Afterwards, my hair changed dramatically. Yes, it swung from left to right and eventually swung its way to the bathroom floor in broken strands and pieces. I had no idea how to care for chemically treated hair. I was always baffled to see the inches of new growth, yet my hair remained at shoulder length.
In 2010, I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic and the blow out and I became great friends. I almost broke my neck a few times swinging my strands from left to right. I dodged the rain, planned beach trips weeks in advance and had a long-term appointment at my favorite salon. It was extremely constraining maintaining straight hair in an island paradise. When I returned home, my stylist gave me the bad news: my hair needed to be trimmed drastically due to heat damage.
It was also around that time that I made the decision to move to Spain after graduation. I made a promise to myself: no more relaxers. My transition started in March of 2011 and although my college graduation pictures weren’t the cutest, I knew I made the right decision.
Why go natural in Spain? Well, I don’t know how to put in my own relaxers and the stylist I had since I was a child wouldn’t be there, so it seemed like the perfect time to turn a new page. Upon my arrival to Madrid, I felt self-conscious. There were only two extremes here at the time, long, straight hair or big, curly hair Mecca that I was nowhere near to achieving. I invested in scarves, headbands, bows, and alcohol free gel to tame the bun. I really didn’t have any role models at the time, nor did I have enough grasp on my surroundings to find substitutes for the products I used back home. It seemed like everyone I reached out to, the Dominicans at the salon, and the Africans at the beauty supply store I frequented, encouraged me to just turn back and relax my hair. When I saw my ringlets coming in, I knew for sure that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
I transitioned for two full years and when I started wearing my hair full and out I wasn’t at all prepared for the attention it received. I promise that I asked my friends and myself several times, “Do I have something on my face? Why is everyone staring at me?” Madrid, although relatively diverse, has had one standard of beauty for a long time. Well, I am here to throw a wrench in the system.
Human beings are curious by nature. Madrileños are curious and emboldened by delicious, red (or white) liquid confidence. I’ve had club bouncers strike deals with me: I let them touch my hair, they let me in for free. I’ve had older women look at me like the Boogey Monster. I’ve had more variations of morena, guapa, negra whispered at me than I care to count. I’ve also met individuals who take it upon themselves to reach for my scalp and ask if it’s real or one of those (obnoxious) wigs people wear here during bachelorette parties and Carnaval. One night, I was called a “Chocolate Queen” and greeted by a strange hand reaching toward my hair as I crossed the street. Overall, it’s a healthy, if not a bit intrusive, curiosity.
I’m not sure, however, why the African women I encounter in Madrid look at me with disdain. It feels as though there are teams, and I chose the wrong one in their eyes. I’ve never been into extensions or wigs and those are extremely common here in Madrid among women of color. Long, straight, and swinging. I can support that! Nevertheless, it’s a tense 5 minutes I spend in the African beauty supply stores when I push the skin lightening creams, packs of hair and relaxers aside to grab my favorite brands of natural hair products.
I’ve been natural for three and a half years now and since I did it all in Madrid, I’ve found my groove. I know what to buy and where to buy it. I do my own hair now, but when I do want to mix it up and get a blow out, I have one Dominican salon I go to. Within the first 10 minutes of arrival, after already explaining I just want to wash and blow-dry my hair, I’m accosted with suggestions of relaxers, texturizers, keratin treatments, etc. They fawn over the finished product and ask, out of relief, isn’t that better? Well, it’s not a matter of better or worse, but preference. I prefer healthy hair.
Madrid is changing for the better. Big, natural, curly/kinky/wavy hair is celebrated like never before. More importantly, it’s accepted and not treated as a reason for exclusion. Look at the models for clothing stores here, or on television. It’s an exciting change to see someone I can relate to being shown positively in mainstream media in a city where not too long ago, that was unheard of. We do have a community and it’s constantly growing. We have a voice. And most of all, we have the right to individualized care for our unique and varied kinks, curls and waves. Swing on, beauties.
Danni is a Chicago native by birth, resident of Madrid by choice. She likes her avocados big, and her hair even bigger.