Photo courtesy of Javacia Harris Bowser.
It was the summer of 2002, and I was probably on hour three of the tedious process of attempting to straighten my hair with all the heat my scalp could stand. This, of course, was in addition to the chemical hair relaxer occasionally applied to my tresses. While I wrestled with my hair, my roommate turned to me and said, "Maybe your hair doesn't want to be straight. Why don't you just wear it curly?"
Those words changed everything.
I was 21 at the time, and in my two decades of living no one had ever suggested that wearing my hair in its naturally curly state was OK. Many black girls grow up with everyone from the media to their mommas telling them that pretty hair is straight hair. So when an African American woman decides - as I did that summer - to forego straightening her hair with chemical relaxers, it can feel like a revolutionary act. Or even a spiritual experience.
"It's not just a hairstyle, it's a lifestyle," says Victor Simmons. Simmons and his brother, Jeffrey Simmons, started the Visions Natural Hair & Health Expo in Birmingham three years ago. This year's expo is Saturday, March 29 at the BJCC North Exhibition Hall.
The expo provides women with information on transitioning from chemically relaxed to natural hair, and on choosing the right hair care products for their hair texture. Women can also learn various ways to style natural hair, even how their hair can be straightened without chemicals or a damaging amount of heat.
I certainly could have used this information when I started wearing my hair in its naturally curly state 12 years ago. Back then, events like the Visions Natural Hair & Health Expo didn't exist, at least not in the Deep South. There were no natural hair blogs, websites or instructional YouTube channels to guide me.
Despite the frequent frustrations I faced while struggling to care for my curly hair, I never regretted my decision to ditch chemical relaxers. Once I started to embrace my thick, curly mane, I started to embrace my quirky, offbeat personality too.
I gained the confidence to create a new beauty standard. Not only did I learn to shrug off negative comments about my curly coif, but I also stopped listening to people - people of my own race - who told me my skin was too dark or my nose was too wide. I began to define beauty for myself.
Dealing with negative reactions to natural hair is one of the many topics the expo explores. The "Curls & Conversations" panel discussion (hosted by Tasha Simone of Hot 107.7 FM, and presented by Design Essentials Natural and NaturallyCurly.com) will cover practical tips for managing naturally curly hair. It'll also examine images of natural hair in the media.
Another panel discussion will offer attendees tips on how to cope when the transition from relaxed to natural hair puts a strain on their relationships. I married a man who loves my natural hair. In fact, the few times a year I flat iron my hair straight for a temporary new look my husband misses my curls. Other women aren't so lucky. The panel will feature author and reality TV star Demetria Lucas of Bravo's "Blood, Sweat and Heels," actor Lamman Rucker of Tyler Perry's "Meet the Browns" and "Why Did I Get Married" and Jessica Bailey of the popular natural hair video blog MahoganyCurls. Essence Magazine relationship editor Charreah Jackson will moderate the discussion.
But hair is only half the story. The Simmons brothers believe that natural hair is more than a hairstyle choice, it's also a lifestyle change because it can urge many women to start living healthier lives.
Jeffrey Simmons says that many women who embrace natural hair are often "getting away from the things she normally does. She's more conscious. She's more aware about what's going on in her life. She might be looking for a change."
This change may start with her hair, but it eventually moves to her health. According to Simmons, this can spark a desire to exercise and make better food choices.
To that end, the expo also seeks to raise awareness about a number of health and wellness issues. Attendees will have access to information on AIDS testing, have their blood pressure checked, and sign up for health care.
The expo's focus on health is an important reminder. It's great that I feel empowered to wear my hair in its naturally curly state but my life shouldn't be defined by the cuteness of my coif. How I feel on the inside is much more important than how I look on the outside.
The third annual Visions Natural Hair and Health Expo will be held 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 29 at the BJCC the North Exhibition Hall. More information is at naturalhairandhealthexpo.com.
Javacia Harris Bowser is an educator and freelance writer in Birmingham. Javacia is the founder of See Jane Write, an organization for local women writers, and she blogs about her life as a "southern fried feminist" at The Writeous Babe Project.
~ March 27, 2014