My hair is something that has shaped my identity from a very young age, and I know a lot of other afro-haired girls (and boys even) would identify with this. Whether I liked it or not, it quickly became an indicator of how I was different from most of my school friends and peers, how I wasn’t like them. I remember being frustrated that my tight curls (usually in two puffed bunches during primary school) wouldn’t ‘hang down’ in nice swinging pigtails like the other girls in my class. I remember feeling restless if my thick unruly hair wasn’t neat enough when I was dropped off to school in the morning; that I would stand out and draw attention to myself too much. Other kids would often ask to touch it, it was novel and unusual (Newcastle isn’t exactly the most thriving multi-cultural city in the UK) and while at such a young age I definitely wasn’t aware of the racial significance of this, it did always make me aware that I was the odd one out and that my hair was one of the main defining factors in that.
So I began a very unhealthy relationship with my natural hair…feeling ashamed of its thickness, the texture and the inability to easily achieve the styles that I so desperately wanted, the styles that I became to believe were better and more beautiful. I became very aware that natural afro hair textures weren’t widely celebrated in the media; most of the images I was surrounded with were of black women with perfectly long, glossy weaves or relaxed hair. Don’t get me wrong, of course there were still black women with their natural afro curls displayed, but they were never at the fore-front, never represented enough. And I’m keen to note, my frustration with my hair doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of my heritage at all, I’m very much proud of my mixed- half Ghanaian, half British background. However, living in a predominantly white society, I don’t always feel I ‘fit’ into the aesthetic of what is desired and what is celebrated by Western culture.
I recently watched a TEDx Talk by Cheyenne Cochrane called A celebration of natural hair and it’s given me a lot of food for thought, a deeper understanding to why I feel the way I do about my hair. In her talk she speaks about the origins of why black women have come to believe that long, straight hair is better, more beautiful and more acceptable in Western society. She references African-American women, but of course this has greatly shaped the societal beauty ideals for black British women too… She explains how in Post-Civil War America, hair was the most ‘telling’ feature of negro status. Basically, the more typically ‘negro’ you looked, i.e small, tight, afro curls, the more you drew attention to your race- which of course in these times was a bad thing. Society decided that Black, in its natural state, did not equal beautiful. It formed a basic rule that the looser the curl pattern, the better the hair, and to put it simply, the less in-your-face–black you looked. Dependence on hair-presses and relaxers became a necessity in order to fit in with white society and in turn, survive. These institutionalised ideals have infiltrated into modern society and continue to define our cultural identity and the way we view ourselves.
As black and mixed-race women, its just a given we spend a LOT of time, money and effort on achieving and maintaining our hairstyles. Partly, because our hair textures require a lot more maintenance to be kept healthy and manageable (our hair generally tends to be drier, retain less moisture and more prone to breakage) but also because of the societal pressures to have ‘good hair‘. We’ve allowed society to dictate to us how we can and can’t look, and more frustratingly, we go to extreme lengths in order to achieve these constructed ideals. There are many things that black women feel they have to do to their natural hair in order to fit in with western beauty ideals that frankly, our white girl-friends don’t have to do. It’s just how it tends to go, no blame or criticism intended (maybe just more than an ounce of envy though on my part, if I’m being truthful).
Staying over at friends’ houses during school days, they’d often remark on how long it took me to get ready in the mornings, not understanding the level of TLC that my unruly tresses demand. I envied the fact that their morning regimes didn’t require that same amount of effort. That they could slide a brush through it fairly easily and not think much of wearing it down, free, out of the constraints of a hair ties and bands and scarves and clips if they chose to. Looking for salons that dealt with my kind of hair was a whole different ball game too. If I was to go to any regular hair-dresser they would look at my hair in bewilderment, I couldn’t expect them to know the protocol for my texture and would be putting them in an awkward position, so I needed to find an afro-hair specialist but also be willing to part with a hefty amount of cash (sometimes with extra added onto the standard price due to my hair being ‘so thick’ to quote one of the very few afro hair establishments in my area…fair, right?). So in turn, hair appointments became a thing of slight terror —-occasionally paired with the excitement of getting a new look— but mostly seen as a slightly unpleasant (sometimes physically painful!) experience.
Cheyenne notes how, from a young age, we subject our scalps to such harsh straightening chemicals, often resulting in bald spots, breakage, hair loss and even burns. We also fry our hair at unnervingly high temperatures in order to achieve a straight look, or alternatively we cover it with weaves and wigs in order to hide the natural texture beneath, as if shameful. This, I’ve become accustomed to, trying out most styles I could think of, intent on not having my natural hair on display at whatever cost.
I remember being about 16 or 17 on a school trip, standing at the toilet mirrors with a friend. During this particular hair phase, my hair was relaxed and I used a long clip-in pony-tail hair piece to get the length I wanted. Whilst un-clipping the ponytail in order to re-jig the placement, my friend stared at me as though I was casually taking out an eyeball instead of just a piece of synthetic hair, commenting ‘ugh.. that’s so weird!’ when I removed it from my shorter ponytail underneath. I felt really taken aback by her comment, and suddenly really self-conscious too, even though in reality, it’s something that most black women do with their hair, and no more unusual than white girls who wear extensions.
There is pressure to achieve these long, straight styles, yet the ways in which we achieve these (as afro hair does not naturally and easily adhere to these styles) seems to be looked down upon. It’s almost as though ‘you can have nice, straight hair, but we don’t want to see your weave tracks, or in fact any indication that your hair isn’t naturally like that’. And I don’t want to single out that school friend, thats just one small example, and I know she didn’t mean it with any malice. But I feel it highlights the difference between growing up with an aesthetic that mainly supports western beauty ideals, and one that doesn’t so much.
It’s not surprising that the majority of successful and iconic black women we see in the media- Beyonce, Rihanna, Kerry Washington, Michelle Obama to name just a few, seem to generally sport straight hair styles. Cheyenne remarks on this, explaining that maybe its simply just a preferred style, but that its also very possible that they feel that they had to present themselves this way in order reach the success status they are at today. It’s ridiculous that there is still such a shame stigma around natural hair, but so easy to see why.
There is a new revolution of women championing the Natural Hair Movement- celebrating their natural textures and ditching the trend of straightening and forcing harmful chemicals onto the hair. Cheyenne being one of these women, as she talks about at the end of her Ted talk. These women are stamping un-healthy pressures to straighten and tame on the head and instead embracing their curls proudly and bravely. Whilst I absolutely commend this movement and the brilliant women pioneering it, its still a process for me personally and I don’t know how long it will take for me to become fully confident with wearing my hair in its natural state, as it is as much an internal journey than anything, but it’s something I’m inspired by and work towards.
I’d be interested to hear from any other curly/coily/kinky girls who this resonates with, or alternatively those who have had much different experiences with their natural hair, I know theres no one-size-fits-all.
Click below to Cheyenne Cochrane’s brilliantly compassionate and inspiring TED talk:
and for my fellow curlies, follow her instagram @onmylevel_chey for helpful tips and advice for styling and caring for your hair
love, S x