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Shannon Shelton

Maybe it was the moment when I brushed my hair and the classmate sitting behind me yelled at me for shedding on her desk.

Or it could have been the time I noticed that my hair -- and the hair of many of my chemically relaxed friends -- had a noticeable orange-red tinge, a combination of damage from over-processing and the rusty water from our dorm showers.

Whatever it was that pushed me over the edge doesn't matter at this point -- I just know that in October 1998, I decided I was going to transition to wearing my hair in its natural state, as curly and nappy as that happened to be.

Transitioning is a term used among many women, particularly black women, to describe the process of converting one's hair from a usually straightened state to its original curly texture. The fact that there's a name for the process implies that transitioning is not as easy as it sounds -- a mental as well as physical change often has to take place before one is totally comfortable with her hair.

Ericka Guy, a 29-year-old Michigan native now living in the Orlando area, said she never knew what her real hair felt like since it had been heat-treated or chemically processed from the time she was a child. For her, going through the transition process meant she had to learn for the first time how to care for her own hair in its natural state. Her transition lasted less than a year, as she started with putting her hair in braids, moved to cutting her hair short and texturizing and finally growing out the texturizer.

"After the texturizer, I had no idea what to do with it," Guy said. "I asked around, tried to investigate different products. It was totally different from anything I had ever done."

Sometimes the physical process of returning to natural hair is the easiest part. For women who are used to hearing negative comments about nappy or curly hair all of their lives, deciding to transition to natural can be a game of mind over matter as they learn to deal with their own fears. Guy faced that issue as well, but was thrilled when she finally cut it all off.

"At first my reaction was 'oh my god,' since I had never had it that short before," she said. "But I couldn't believe how freeing and how easy it was. I got a lot of compliments."

For those of you considering transitioning, there are a variety of ways to complete the process. Most transitioners usually try at least one of four options.

There's the lengthy way of clipping off the chemically treated ends bit by bit until the natural hair grows to the desired length. That can take years -- in my case, it took about a year and a half to grow my desired 12 inches of hair. A drawback of this method is that you're often left dealing with two textures on one head and you have to find a way to make it look halfway decent.

Other women choose to texturize the new growth, which is a milder relaxing process. Guy said that helped her get used to what her natural hair might feel like and allowed her to learn new ways of taking care of her hair. Some natural hairstylists advise against texturizers, saying they still can cause damage because they are a chemical process, no matter how mild. Guy, in effect, did a double transition -- first from chin length and relaxed to short and texturized, then to completely chemical-free. If texturizing is used as an option, it should be remembered that processing damage can still occur.

Then there are alternate styling options that allow one to leave the chemically treated hair un-manipulated while the new hair grows in. Braids, weaves and wigs are popular choices since they hide or cover the relaxed hair while the new nappy or curly hair grows. Braids and hair weaves/extensions can be left in for a month or more and then redone later. Some women will keep braids for a year and cut off the chemically straightened ends once they get the length of natural hair they want. Like the other choices, there are drawbacks to this method as well -- the natural hair can become dry and brittle if braids and weaves are left in too long, or if the natural hair underneath the braids/wigs/weaves isn't rinsed and moisturized during the process. Ask your stylist for advice.

The most dramatic option -- but often the option that leaves women and men the most satisfied in the long run -- is simply cutting it all off one day and emerging with a short, curly afro style. Among many in the natural community, that style is affectionately known as the TWA, or teeny weeny Afro. As the shortest of the transition processes, chopping it off forces you to into a crash course of dealing with your new hair right then and there. And for others, cutting it all off can take a lot of courage for women living in a society where long hair often equals femininity.

Guy recommends going for the chop.

"Why not start completely fresh? You get to know yourself and your hair. And you can save yourself from that stage of embarrassment where you have part of your hair that's straight and part that's nappy."

My own transition took about two and a half years, likely because I didn't realize I was 'transitioning' at the time. I also had no idea how to go completely natural. The women I knew who grew out their relaxers usually returned to pressing their hair regularly, like the older women in my family.

It started when I went for a relaxer touch-up, a reapplication of the chemical straightener to the new growth, one day in October 1998. A month later, when it was time for me to go for my regular touch-up appointment, I just decided I wanted to grow the chemical out of my hair. However, I didn't plan to go completely natural -- I just planned to use a hot comb and flat iron to straighten it, like I did when I was a child.

By the summer, I realized it was too hot and humid to continue the heat process, so I started to put my hair in braids. After two months, that got too expensive and I began to slick it back into a bun. This was the beginning of my mental transition process -- I began to notice my cute little curls and naps and grew to like them. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if I wore them in their natural state.

However, as one of those women who always had long hair, I was scared of cutting it off. I had to problems with other women who did so, but oh no, I just couldn't do that. I was not one of those women who could 'do' short hair. So from June 1999 to March 2001, I went through the process of trimming the relaxed ends bit-by-bit while my natural hair grew out.

Looking back, I would have cut, or 'big chopped' my hair earlier -- it would have given me more time to learn about the texture of my naturally curly hair and enjoy a totally different look. Plus, when I see my old pictures of half-nappy, half stringy-straight relaxed hair near the beginning of my transition process, I realize how silly my attempts at a style probably looked. Another part of my mental transition was learning that short hair isn't a bad thing -- it's just as beautiful and feminine as long hair!

Once the transition is complete, it's time for a whole new step -- learning how to care for your naturally curly hair. Sometimes, frustration with this process can cause one to return to the old tried-and-true straightening method, which erases all the hard work done up to this point! And who wants that?

Corine Marie, the owner of Haircolorists.com, a salon in Winter Park, Fla., outside of Orlando, helped me with the final stages of my transition process in early 2001. My hair was about 80 percent natural then. I learned that the oil-laden products I had used on my straightened hair only dried out my naturally curly hair and I had to learn how to find and apply new treatment and styling products. When I moved from Michigan to Orlando, I searched NaturallyCurly.com's salon database and found quite a few positive recommendations for Corine.

"You have to make sure you go to a stylist that likes curly hair," said Marie, a 'straightie' who loves hair in all states. "You don't want to get a stylist who wants you to go back to straightening it."

Sounds obvious, but I do remember visiting a few stylists during my transition who heat-pressed my hair by my request and then said, "Why don't you just go back to the relaxer?" Glad I didn't listen -- I don't mind temporary heat straightening for an occasional style change, but I'm not going back to the relaxer!

Marie cut off the rest of my relaxed ends and then introduced me to a variety of conditioners that I learned were rich in glycerin and some silicones. She told me to condition every day even if I didn't shampoo daily. Soon my hair was incredibly soft and growing like a weed. We also tried styling products to make my hair look great from casual to glamorous occasions.

"It's all about product," she said. "And keep getting regular trims to keep it healthy."

I get my hair trimmed about four times a year now, and Marie trims it in its natural state. She's always trying out some new conditioners and styling products on my hair to see how they might work on the other curlyheads that come to the salon.

I think I finally got it right last summer, when my hair not only reached the length I wanted, but it was healthy and downright cute to boot. It may have taken five years to finally undo the negative physical and mental conditioning afflicted on my curly hair, but it was worth it. It may not take as long for some women to transition and for others, it might take longer. Just remember that transitioning is a process, and for the health and well-being of your hair, it pays to be patient.

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