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What it takes to transition from relaxed to natural hair

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

So now that we've heard what the science suggests about the risk of hair relaxers, maybe you've decided to stop using them. To help us figure out how to do that, we're joined now by April Kayganich. She's a hair stylist and texture expert in Austin, Texas. Welcome to the show.

APRIL KAYGANICH: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: First, like, what kind of conversations do you have with someone when they are saying they want to stop using relaxers? I imagine that it can get emotional, so can you talk about those conversations?

KAYGANICH: The first thing I like to ask is, what is your goal? And that kind of helps me get an idea of how comfortable the client may be about taking a more aggressive approach. And when I say that, I mean big chops. And when I say big chop, that is referring to someone specifically cutting off their hair to get rid of any kind of chemical relaxer. Usually, the big chop can be a little aggressive for some people because it is emotional, and so many people tie things into their hair as far as, like, trauma, history - you know, going to the salon is already an anxiety-inducing experience for a lot of people and in particular Black people because you walk into spaces and you're not sure if someone is trained to do your hair or knows how to talk to you with a verbiage that's not going to make you feel a certain way.

RASCOE: Can you talk to me about what it means to transition away from a relaxer? I've done that, I mean, for the past three years. Stopping getting your hair relaxed doesn't change your hair overnight, which is why you talked about cutting off all your relaxed hair which is really - I mean, you going to very, very, very short hair to chop off all your relaxed hair, right?

KAYGANICH: It depends on how far along someone is in their journey as far as transitioning. So when you transition away from relaxer, that means you are going cold turkey. You are not going in for that retouch, and you're learning how to embrace your hair in the state it's in. And a lot of times, when people do have a lot of that difference where half of their head is natural and the other half isn't, that's when I'll start to talk about doing protective style so you can feel more, like, cohesive, you know, instead of having - feeling like you have two heads of hair. But I essentially make a plan, and I teach them how to style their hair, what products to use and what's going to work best for them because a two-strand twist might not work for somebody. Maybe a braid-out does, or maybe they use a little bit of heat. They find, like, a curling wand, and we can curl the ends of the hair to match as closely as possible to the hair they have or just showing different styles, you know, for people to wear instead of just wearing it out and natural and feeling more exposed that way.

RASCOE: Are there things that you recommend that people avoid when they're making the transition?

KAYGANICH: I tell people just to avoid as much heat as possible because when you do get a relaxer, what it's doing is it's - there's these bonds in the hair called disulfide bonds, and relaxers break those bonds. That bond gives your hair its integrity. That's why your hair is wavy, curly, coily. And so adding heat to hair that has broken bonds, aka damaged, you're damaging it even more.

RASCOE: At your salon, you don't use relaxers. There are a lot of salons going in that direction. Why did you make that decision?

KAYGANICH: That decision was a very personal decision to me. It all kind of just ties into my journey, like, why I did hair and what I saw happening in salons as far as people being treated certain ways because of melanin, you know, or because of hair type. And to me, like, knowing the history of Black hair and just why people relax their hair in general - and everyone has their own reasons, but it was all for assimilation for your hair to look like it's not, you know, air quotes, "kept." And I want people to embrace themselves and understand that your hair doesn't have to be what you think is difficult. I hate when people say that their hair is hard or difficult because it's not. It just - you haven't met the right stylist yet, or you haven't found the right tool to care for your hair because we've been told the opposite for so long. And just wear that crown proud. Like, I am a big believer in just taking up that space. Wear your hair. Don't shrink for anyone. Like, this is how we're meant to be in the world.

RASCOE: April Kayganich is a hair stylist and texture expert. Thank you so much for being with us.

KAYGANICH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP MY HAIR")

WILLOW SMITH: ...Your hair, your hair. I whip my hair back and forth, I whip my hair back and forth... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.