This post started out as a list of reasons why I’m not a product junkie anymore. But it changed when I realized I was writing more about the joy of being a product junkie than the reasons I left it behind. I have a lot of love for those years of ‘PJism’, because the represent some of the best of my 11-year natural hair journey.
Like many black girls, my mom washed my and my sister’s hair about once a week with whatever she found in the beauty aisle. We’d sit in the tub, playing quietly and bracing for what came next. She would sit us between her legs and tug at our naked, wet coils with a fine-tooth comb, nothing used to ease our scalps, melt our tangles or soften our strands.
My mother kept her hair pressed but my father had hair like mine — soft, short and tight. He kept it in a small afro and when he combed it, small c-shaped broken pieces would fly away, fluttering in beams of light before settling on the bedroom tile. Every day he sprayed it with StaySofFro. It smelled sweet and medicinal, and left a slight film on my fingers when I ran my hands through his hair.
I know now that my father was using a water-based spritz to soften his strands and, had the same been done for me, I would have experienced much less pain during combing. But this was back in the early 90s, before natural hair blogging and vlogging would educate a generation of kinky-haired women.
In college the black girls huddled around their hair rituals. We would go to each other’s dorms to watch Love and Basketball and Brown Sugar while doing at-home relaxers, press and curls or wet sets with perm rods. We used Pink Lotion, Blue Magic Grease, box perms and edge gels. Meanwhile our white classmates used shampoos and conditioners that smelled like passion fruit and lavender, the scent clinging to them for hours.
The rule, though unspoken, was deeply felt — black girls with hair like mine didn’t get the beautiful products that smelled good. The stuff we used was joyless and unforgiving, meant to stifle and tame the strands we’d been repeatedly told were unacceptable.
When I did the big chop after college I had no clue what to use on the soft fuzzy patch of hair that now covered my scalp. The next day at work a slender black co-worker, who wore her straightened natural hair down her back took pity on me. “Go to the beauty supply store and get this,” she said, scribbling on a piece of paper. I emerged from my local BSS with Cantu Shea Butter Leave-in Conditioner Repair Cream and African Royale Hot 6 Oil.
The Cantu was sticky, almost like a pudding, with an overbearingly fruity scent. The Hot 6 oil was syrupy and saccharine. No matter, I was over the moon. Nauseating as they were, they were the best-smelling and most absorbent products I’d ever used on my hair up to that point.
As I discovered the ‘shea butter internet’ my product junkyism took off. Naturals were sharing information at a frenzied pace about what products made your hair stronger, more moisturized and properly PH balanced, what enriched it with protein and gave coils and curls definition, what increased bounce and improved tensile strength. Every month I headed to Sally Beauty or the gilded Target hair aisle, filling my arms with bottles designed in cool pastels, bright yellows and hot pinks.
I spent hours in the bathroom trying shampoos, conditioners and hair creams, rubbing the translucent product between my fingers, then raking it through my coils and watching as it melted in. I could barely suppress my elation the first time a guy told me, “You smell really good,” after I’d used a floral-scented shampoo. It was the most beautiful I’d felt in months.
My discovery of natural hair products coincided with my early years as a natural hair blogger. I attended events for Dark and Lovely in New York, shot an ad for Creme of Nature and put on massive Chicago events for Miss Jessie’s and Taliah Waajid. I was young, and natural hair felt like an unexplored continent. The promise of what a new product could do filled me with euphoria.
As time went by I figured out the products that worked best for my hair, and the stash of partially used test products under my bathroom sink started to dwindle. Today I find myself on the other side of the fence, as a creator of natural hair products.
My years of being a product junkie are behind me, but I will never forget the way they made me feel. That, for the first time in my life, I had a true seat at the table when it came to my hair care, that my hair was beautiful, that it was feminine and worthy of care.