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Youth Voices: Rohjanae Mathis

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Rohjanae Mathis is a rising senior at D.C.'s Coolidge High School.
Rohjanae Mathis is a rising senior at D.C.'s Coolidge High School.

No matter whether it's feathered, permed or stick-straight, hair is an important element when it comes to style. But for commentator Rohjanae Mathis, her new "do" means so much more. Rohjanae talks about how she learned to embrace her natural beauty, and in turn gain a new found freedom.

I used to walk out of the house most days wearing just sweats and a tee. I didn't care about my clothes, as long as my hair was perfect. And to me, "perfect" was nothing like the thick, stringy, coiled bush that you'll see me sporting in my childhood pictures. "Perfect" meant straight and shiny.

So every morning, I'd sit in front of the mirror for 20 minutes, flat ironing my hair and jamming my edges, not caring about the damage I was causing. As long as my hair looked right, I was right.

But even as I remained loyal to my straight locks, the rest of my style slowly evolved. I was growing up and starting to take more of an interest in my African heritage.

This Afro-centric phase affected everything I did. I no longer listened to music just for the beat. I preferred the powerful lyrics of neo-soul artists such as Ledisi and Lauryn Hill.

Everything I wore became a symbol -- my jewelry adorned with an Ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life and fertility. My head wrapped in beige, green and burgundy cloth. The only thing about me that remained the same – not yet transformed – was my relaxed hair.

I was determined to go "natural," and I thought about growing an Afro or dread locks, but when I removed my weave and looked in the mirror, I was horrified by what I saw. My roots were smooth and healthy, but the relaxed hair was fuzzy and dry. It looked almost burned out.

So, I handed my sister a pair of scissors and gave her the go-ahead… "Cut it all off!"

As I watched the damaged strands hit the bathroom floor, I began to smile. And when she finished, I washed my new curly -- and very short -- bush. It even felt like a fresh start.

I'm part of a new wave of women who have done the "big chop." But this wave is not just about shedding treated, processed and damaged hair. It’s about embracing who we are and how we look naturally, as African-American women.

I don’t need to spend 20 minutes flat-ironing my hair anymore, or paying hundreds of dollars a month on treatments either. I can wake up, brush my hair, and go.

Someone asked me why I made the transition. My response was, "I didn't cut my hair for beauty. I cut my hair for freedom."

Rohjanae Mathis participates in WAMU’s Youth Voices program in partnership with Youth Radio and D.C.’s Latin American Youth Center. She is a senior at Coolidge High School in the district.

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