I felt my scalp starting to burn, but I said nothing because it hadn’t been long enough. If I said something now, she would be forced to wash my hair, and then it might not work. I had been told repeatedly that this took patience, that beauty equaled some pain and sacrifice, that it was normal to experience the burn, as long as it was bearable. I wouldn’t say anything now; I hadn’t sat through 40 minutes of my hairdresser tearing apart the knots in my hair and painting on the chemicals to then find that my roots still had texture. But what was really “bearable?” And for what purpose? Over and over, I was told that relaxing, or chemically straightening my hair, would make it “easier” to handle. Only now do I even notice the language of it all. It is called a relaxer because it removes the tensed structure that creates a curl. It is relaxed from its uptight state, as if to be medicated for anxiety. Curls were difficult, so I was told.
I was 10 years old the first time I got my hair relaxed. No one ever forced the fifth grade me to straighten or relax my hair. Not my hairdresser, not my mother. It was suggested and offered, not forced. The concept that we as a society and the Church often fail to realize is that culture doesn’t force anything upon us—it just makes the popular opinion irresistible. We make the choice to conform and submit to the ideals around us when our identity foundation is unstable. It didn’t have to be suggested that straight hair was considered more beautiful—it was obvious to me by the fact that no one I knew wore curls. If they did, they were brushed out to shockingly voluminous proportions in the ponytail, and smoothed against our heads in the front with layers of product. My friend’s hair started to thin and recede at the hairline prematurely as an adolescent due to the intensity of effort to pull and flatten her hair against her head.
Our mothers taught us what they knew. Though immigrants from Egypt (a country where most people carry dominant-gene curls), they were not immune in their younger years to the fluctuations of fashion trends abroad: flat and straight 70s hair, and Farrah Fawcett volume of the 80s. And despite the fact that curls and waves still dominate genetically over all natural hair textures and among ethnicities, confusion for how to “handle” them reigns king. I heard subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at curly hair. When hair was worn curly or allowed to frizz (as if it had a choice), we Egyptian girls were called “cambousha,” or very loosely translated as “messy girl.” It was considered unprofessional to leave hair unstraightened. These messages (straight hair is “easier,” curls are “messy”) came from people I loved, from strangers, and from the spoken and unspoken rules of beauty in our culture. As well-intentioned as the commenters sometimes were, they perpetuated inaccurate beliefs about worthiness. The beauty standards we ascribe to chain our identities to the opinions of the world, not the truth of our creative Maker.
After I moved away from home and got married, my hair care was up to me. No longer were my parents paying for my visits to the salon, and I certainly was not planning to pay to spend hundreds of dollars every several months to relax the roots of my hair. Not to mention, I grew tired of the process and the grey scabs that appeared on my head as the chemicals bore through my skin to alter protein growing from my scalp. For some time, I attempted a few more hair smoothing options that were more “natural” compared to the chemical relaxer – all which made me increasingly frustrated and exhausted with the effort I was going through to change my hair to fit what I thought was most beautiful. I began to question why I had gone through it all to begin with. Was it truly easier? Not when I still straightened my hair daily. Who was I doing it for? On many days, it was clear I was not doing it for myself, it was to make sure I was presentable for others. Out of convenience, I made a decision that I would “go natural.” What began as a decision of convenience became an opportunity for Jesus to reveal matters of my heart far beyond scalp deep—matters of vanity, pride, idolatry, and identity.
Once I decided to “go natural,” I noticed an avalanche of overwhelm overcome me. There were thousands of products to try. Facebook groups were established to compare products, hair application techniques, the history and evolution of American beauty standards, and discuss the chemistry of hair. Who knew that curl patterns had numbers, categorizations, porosity levels, risk of protein overload and hydral fatigue (what!?). I bought dozens of products to test. I felt like a pubescent girl again, trying to establish a hygiene routine when in fact, here I was, a grown woman in her late 20s attempting an image change after a decade and a half of mastery with chemicals and a flat iron. Yet, with research and dedication, I persisted through, completely simplified my routine, and felt a freedom in embracing myself as God had created me. On one hand, it was only just hair—a physical part of me—but what I was committing to in my heart was a freedom from conforming to what the world deemed worthy. Choosing my natural hair was first an attempt for convenience, but became an experiment in self-image, and eventually became an act of surrender.
I was foolish enough at the beginning of the process to believe that I would be free of vanity after making the change. In theory, I no longer cared whether people thought my hair should be straight or not. We must remember that the Enemy is on the front lines ready to help us replace one idol or insecurity with another — in my case, replacing physical vanity and insecurity with a sense of pride and superiority for having “overcome” my vanity. Yet, there I sat at my computer on Black Friday, obsessing over deals for hair product bundles. I had made my hair my idol when I was straightening it, and I had made my hair my idol when I went curly. It had captured my attention, once again, but at the opposite extreme. I started feeling proud of the compliments I received. I felt like I was representing my Egyptian-ness with my curls, and grew in pride as I set myself apart physically from others while living in the not-so-diverse South. This was exchanging one flavor of pride for another, all to counteract the deep misunderstanding I had of my identity in Christ.
What I learned from all of this was that identity, idolatry, and pride are interconnected. Identity, defined on our own, will put us in a straightjacket. We begin to idolize the roles that we have placed on ourselves or have absorbed by the world. We become tied to these identities – mother, wife, teacher, architect, Egyptian girl with the curly hair. We become orphaned as we chase the leadership of the world and are left unfulfilled. Identity, defined by our Creator, gives us freedom. We are called chosen, royal, holy (1 Peter 2:9). We are set apart (2 Timothy 2:21) not by our ethnicity, heritage, or job, but set apart through our holiness and usefulness to do the Master’s work. We have freedom because our identity is not in how we look, what we do, or how well we do it, but that we are allowed to be used as tools to reveal the creativity and diversity of God’s image through surrender to His plan for us.
The Bible tells us a few things about beauty:
“Your beauty should not come from an outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” – 1 Peter 3:3-4 (NIV)
“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” –1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV)
Note that neither of them says that physical beauty and self-care need be entirely rejected, nor inherently sinful. In fact—I am still proud of the fact that my hair represents some semblance of my Egyptian heritage and reflects the diversity of the Creator. Instead, the writers of these scriptures comment on our value: we are not beautiful or worthy because of our bodies and how we decorate them (though God desires for us to admire and care for His creations), but we are beautiful because of what God has planted within us. Being made in the image of God does not just literally mean physically reflecting the image of God with our diversity and expression. To me, it also means reflecting the image and person of God as “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8 NIV).
At the end of the day, my hair is just my hair. Liberating my outside through surrender means nothing if I do not also liberate my inside. Our pastor once said in a sermon that if God is not sovereign over everything in our lives, then He is sovereign over nothing. And though my hair is just my hair, I do believe that my willingness to surrender some of my hair worship, so-to-speak, allowed God to show me more about the other sins of my heart and to redirect and correct what I thought I knew about my identity.
Our God is a God of the biggest and smallest details. He could and did use my hair to teach me. In this case, God also used cultural beauty standards, even in its most imperfect form, to work on my heart. In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning recounts a story of a series of coincidences using thread, tie clips, and room keys, which opened his eyes to what he calls the “present risenness” of Jesus. He says, “If the Father of Jesus monitors every sparrow that drops from the sky and every hair that falls from our heads, perhaps it is not beneath His risen Son to dabble in room keys, monogrammed tie clips, and squibbles of thread (p. 84). What started with a burn of the scalp, and the relaxation of my hair, ultimately moved me on the progressive path to wholeness through better understanding of myself and of my Father. I’m so grateful that God dabbled in my hair experiments. And if you’re wondering, I still love my curly hair.