There’s a picture that sits on the mantle at my parents’ home that attracts my grandmother’s attention every time she passes it.“Now THAT’S how I like your hair,” she’d tell me during every single visit. “You look so pretty that way.”

I don’t recognize the person looking back. She has my face, but her straight, silky and swinging locks in no way resemble the tight, kinky coils that are a distinct part of my current look.

The photo was taken in 2002, a year or so before I decided to start wearing my hair natural nearly all of the time. But to my grandmother, it represents a period in which I looked more “refined” and “beautiful.”

I’m not surprised. My grandmother was born in 1922 and grew up in the 1930s and 40s -- a time when no woman would dare consider wearing her hair in its natural state. They might have been “natural” in the sense that they didn’t use chemicals to change their hair’s texture, but some kind of manipulation with a hot comb or styling with braids was always done to prevent any sign of kinky texture from making an unwanted appearance.

I’m more surprised at my mother’s reaction to my hair. At one time, she also preferred straight styles on me. But in the last few years, she’s not only come around to the “natural” look but even prefers it for me. Maybe that’s a result of her coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s and seeing many black men and women choosing natural styles, even if they didn’t maintain them into the last few decades.

My situation is hardly unique. Many of my black female colleagues in their 20s and 30s have found that members of their family have presented the greatest resistance to their choice to go natural, with grandparents often being the most vocal critics.

The grandparents’ issues usually stem from growing up in an era in which the idea of “natural hair” as we know it today simply didn’t exist. Parents are often more concerned about natural hair preventing their children from getting jobs in corporate America or how the outside world would perceive them, regardless of numerous experiences that have shown me that many outside the black community don’t have any strongreactions to black hair, natural or not.

One common theme, however, seems to spread across generations, including my own. There’s an understandable desire for a woman to look presentable, professional and “neat” – and for many, it’s been ingrained that natural hair makes that an impossibility.

"I don't like that."

“She’s still not really sold on your hair,” my mother said of my grandmother, her mother-in-law. “I bet she’ll say that she likes it better straight.”

So I decided to ask her to see if she’d changed her mind – not only about my hair, but natural hair in general.

My 84-year-old grandmother looks back fondly on the curls that she said she wore to school everyday. Her mother would get up every morning to help shape my grandmother’s hair into Shirley Temple-style curls without using heat, but with some rollers and a light setting product.

As much as she gushed about the curls she sported as a young girl, I knew these were not the types of curls that formed naturally after getting her hair wet.

“People’s hair was ‘nappy’ back in those days,” Grandma said. “If you had ‘good hair,’ you knew how to handle it. The ones who didn’t, their parents took them to the hairdresser or they wore it in braids. But it was ‘bad hair.’ ”

Ah, good hair and bad hair -- terms that have, unfortunately, withstood the test of time.

Grandma said today that she’s not a fan of the many wigs and weaves that women wear on a regular basis, and prefers that they simply worked with their own hair to create beautiful styles. She told me now that she’s learned not to care about that, and accepts that people have to do “what makes them happy.”

That being said, I decided to ask her what she thought of my natural hair, since I was obviously happy with it.

“I don’t like that,” she answered. “Remember when I saw that picture? You looked so beautiful. I like that on you.”

So much for my happiness.

Mental transition

“If your hair was straight, you were more appealing,” Mom said. “If you didn’t have straight hair, your hair was nappy and that was not considered appealing.”

My mother, who turned 63 last month, was born in the 1940s. But her words didn’t sound much different from what black folks were told in the '70s, '80s, '90s, and sadly, today.

She said the general negative attitudes about natural hair came from viewing pictures of blacks during and immediately after slavery, and seeing the poor condition in which their hair was kept. Then came the early television depictions of blacks in the 1950s—and one character specifically stuck out.

“Ignorant, barefoot, like Buckwheat,” she said. “They were all negative connotations and stereotypical.”

As a teacher and later a principal, my mother has seen all types of hairstyles since she took her first job in the late ''60s. She went from embracing the Afro (although she didn’t wear one herself) in the '70s, to preferring straightened hair in the '80s and '90s, to now accepting the wide range of styles that can be seen today.

“I’ve changed how I feel,” she said. “I don’t care how a person’s hair looks—I just don’t like it unkempt.”

Mom said that my choice to go natural helped change her own perceptions. After initially being resistant, she grew to tolerate it about two to three years ago, and has reached a point of actually liking it today.

“Your hairstyle had a lot to do with it,” she said. “I started seeing more people with hair like that and thought, ‘It looks okay.’”

She’s gone as far as considering going natural herself – not as a permanent change, but as a styling option. With her retirement approaching next year, perhaps she doesn’t feel as beholden to the idea of having to keep it in a way that might be more “professional,” and not “unkempt.”

Or maybe she’s just ready to join the growing army of women in their 50s and 60s who have decided they've had enough of a lifetime of altering their hair.

But old thoughts about the suitability of natural hair still crop up from time to time.

“I’ve been trying to figure out how it would work for me,” Mom said. “I’d want mine to be longer, but not round.”

Embracing my hair

As much as I want to be stunned by what my mother and grandmother told me, I realize that the messages I received about the acceptability of natural hair growing up in the 80s and '90s weren’t much different. My family didn’t express them so bluntly, but it was clear what was okay and what wasn’t – and I know the message being given to young black girls and women today isn’t all that different.

Perhaps the biggest boon to natural hair acceptance has been the Internet. I know I went straight to my computer when I was looking for tips and advice in the early 2000s, and I have recommended numerous websites to people who ask me how I do my hair.

While those women who choose to wear their hair in its natural state might be in the minority, there are enough out there now to provide inspiration for others considering the transition. That’s something my mother and my grandmother definitely never had.

So the picture of my former self will remain on the mantle, next to others showing how I look today. I’ll expect my grandmother to ooh and aaah over my straight hair, while my mom and dad tell her that my hair looks fine just the way it is now.

I understand her feelings, because of the time in which she grew up. And I know she means well. Plus, I don’t have the heart to tell her that all that beautiful straight hair is just a w