Trails for everyone, forever
By Chelsea Murphy
Growing up, my outdoor adventures came at a cost that my White friends didn’t have to deal with — and didn’t understand. They could hike, camp and swim without worry, but for me, water meant wild, frizzy hair and hours of work later. It took time, but I’ve now come to love my own natural hair — and learned how to balance my beautiful natural hair and my outdoor adventures.
I have come to an amazing place in my life where I love everything about myself and the woman I have become. My favorite features are now my hair and my full lips — the two things I most struggled to love while growing up in a White-centered world. Most of my role models — Aaliyah, Brandy and the ladies of Destiny’s Child — relaxed their hair, and I wanted that versatility, too, even with harsh, dangerous chemicals. European beauty standards made many African American women and children think that they weren’t beautiful if their hair wasn’t straight like White women’s.
I first started relaxing my hair, with my mom’s help, when I began playing competitive sports in middle school. It seemed to make my hair more manageable. Now, I realize I didn’t have a good representation of Black women with natural hair. In my mind, a relaxer was the only way to play sports and still look decent the next day. Over time, the chemicals in the relaxer damaged my hair, flared my eczema and created limits on outdoor adventures.
As I began enjoying more outdoorsy activities, I soon realized my hair was holding me back. My White friends went adventuring with ease. For me, going camping, swimming and sweating all came at a price, because water brought back the natural frizz to my hair.
Water and hair relaxers do not mix.
I didn’t want to jump into the river for fear of the grueling hair day that would follow so I could be cute for school by Monday. A spontaneous 5 minutes in the water was not worth the 5 hours it took from wash to being style-ready. I wasn’t afraid of the water; I was afraid of what my hair would look like exiting the water. What would people think of my natural hair when it wasn’t prim and proper?
Eventually, some friends just stopped asking me to join them in the water, or made fun because they didn’t understand. I lived in an area with little diversity and most of my friends were White. I tried, but they never understood why I skipped adventures. Having hair that requires little maintenance is a privilege, and they never understood my reservations.
After moving to Central Washington about 7 years ago, I decided to change my story. Would I continue to say no to adventure and the things I loved most? Would I risk showing my daughters that beauty is determined by a lack of curl patterns? Hell no. I cut off a lot of my hair, eventually stopped using relaxers and started my natural hair journey in 2015. I did not anticipate how hard it would be to find someone on this side of the mountains comfortable enough to tackle my natural hair with me. I found no one in Central Washington who could do hair like the Black women in Tacoma. I kept hearing, “I’ve never done hair like yours” and “I don’t know if the product I use will work on your kind of hair.” Again, I saw that beauty standards and products were not created with me in mind. White women have privileges I don’t.
Eventually I did find someone who was comfortable with putting her hands through my thick, beautiful hair and that satisfied me for a while. I brought my oldest daughter to her for haircuts. My daughter’s hair is closer to what many stylists are used to because she is biracial. My daughter loved that the stylist would give her temporary hair color, like a rock star. But the thrill was short-lived for me. The stylists missed that my hair needed a different process and different products. I felt like I was wasting my time and money. The last visit, I left with an Afro as big as the moon, which I didn’t ask for. I’d simply wanted the stylist to wash and dry my hair and even offered advice. I felt defeated. No one heard my requests for the types of products I needed — they were focused on what they usually sold. They’d been trained to style White hair.
I realized I needed to do my own hair — but my mom had always done it. I didn’t even know how to braid my hair, and I couldn’t find the products I needed in my rural town. I had so many fears. But, one YouTube video at a time — and with some trial-and-error online orders — I began my natural hair journey.
I bought oils, creams and detangling spray. I tried different styles of braids and twists — protective styles that nourished my hair and allowed it to grow. With no chemicals, less heat and prenatal vitamins — in preparation for daughter number two — my hair grew! The longer it got, the easier it was to style. As I worked at it with some of my favorite YouTubers, my hair stresses began to melt away. As my hair grew, so did my love for the mountains and forests that surround me. My hair would not continue to hold me back from an outdoorsy life the way I had allowed it to as a teenager.
As a proud African American woman who has joined the natural hair movement, I now choose not to relax my hair. The movement allows Black women to be their most authentic self. For 5 years, I’ve been free of that awful chemical and a routine that skewed my idea of beauty.
My daughters and I love the mountains around us and we hike weekly. Their father is White and their hair is more reasonable than mine on most days. I love doing my girls’ hair each week. If there are new styles I want to try, I can use their hair to practice. I started young with them, so we all know the routine. After baths, I style and wrap their hair with a silk scarf, which protects their hair so they can get up the next morning and be ready to go. I alternate a few different styles on our hair, ones that last longer for our adventurous lives; I lean on protective styles like braids and twists. My favorite twist style is a three-strand twist. It can last 2 weeks in between wash days and it helps keep twigs, dirt and rocks out of my hair. These days, I worry less about what I look like, because as an adult I know beauty is measured from the inside, out. Nature has taught me a lot, and confidence is one of those things.
Now, I can paddleboard, float or swim down the local river without hesitation. And my natural hair dries fast! Last summer I hiked to Colchuck Lake and jumped in almost immediately. After getting out, I put my cap on and started descending. My hair was dry and ready for more by the time we got to the car.
My hair was made for wild adventures; I simply needed to start my journey. I love my hair. I am so thankful for the natural hair movement for encouraging Black girls to let their hair go. My hair no longer defines me or dictates my adventure for the day. My hair is natural. It’s original, versatile, and it’s everything I could ask for in a crown.