Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The politics of natural hair

It really shouldn’t be an issue how we wear our hair but for black women it has been since Madam C J Walker and her hair products and probably even before. Even now I can picture some poor child with a sore head sat on a stool in a Malian village having her hair braided and listening to complaints about her ‘tough’ it is. So why is our hair or choice of hairstyle still such a political matter?

Let me start by making a full disclosure - I have natural hair, it’s been that way since the 90s and back then it was definitely a political thing for me. I was heading to university and it was all about black consciousness; there was no way I was going to attend meetings on Ancient African civilizations, on Kemet, Osiris and Isis, rocking a weave or a perm. My perm which was my 16th birthday present – I had worn my mum out asking to be allowed to straighten my hair and she finally relented- was replaced with braids, twists, afros and eventually dreadlocks. Oddly enough I felt relieved though not for the obvious reasons, I suddenly realised that my hair was not that difficult to manage and surprisingly versatile. I could go from braid extensions, to twists which when I took out formed a cute curly fro that I’d pull back with a hair band. I loved my natural hair and it required less visits to the hairdressers than the relaxed hairstyles I had before. I could sit in front of the TV and do a two strand twist or single braids or get a friend to cornrow the front whilst I gel twisted the back. I could even when the mood caught me, blow dry it straight for a ‘relaxed’ look and although I didn’t judge my girlfriends who still straightened their hair with chemicals and the very few who wore weaves, I knew that there was no way I was going to go back to that rigorous and time consuming hair regimen, not to mention the effects of piling chemicals on my head at six-weekly intervals.

Hair like music and so many other things is about personal tastes - a case of different strokes for different folks; most of my close friends straightened their hair and I recognise that it’s not because of a desire to look European or White as some idle ‘slave-mentality theorists’ would have us believe but rather because having their hair straightened was and is convenient for them. I’m also deeply aware of the fact that natural black hair or nappy hair as it is sometimes called by African-Americans is not always welcome in certain milieus. I know for a fact that a lot of companies, especially the larger more conservative kind would be more inclined to give a job to a black girl with straight ‘non-controversial’ hair than to someone with twists. I have friends who ‘tone’ down their natural hair style for the ‘day’ job and let the ‘fro loose at the weekends. Call it our equivalent of letting your hair down. Admittedly, it’s unfortunate though that so many people, both Black and White can still not move past the hair thing. This may be reflective of people wanting everyone to look the same – less of the colourful African prints and ‘crazy’ hair and more of the tailored suits and straightened ‘tame’ hair. Whilst I’m not advocating wearing wild hairstyles to the office meeting and yellow and pink lace bubus, I don’t see why a well-kept natural hairstyle should cause any offence.

I was talking with a friend recently at a party about her newly adopted natural twists and she confessed that even though she loved them, three of her close White colleagues admitted that they preferred her with her hair straightened. They even went as far as to divulge that they found her natural twists made her look aggressive. She was shocked and as you can imagine a tad disillusioned. There was nothing different about her demeanour or behaviour when she wore her hair naturally; the issue was obviously with their perception. Faced with this kind of stereotyping, it’s no wonder some people opt for the safer route of straightened hair.

There may also be a larger issue of black women who have talked themselves into the notion that they could not possibly maintain their hair if it were natural. When I lived in East Africa, each time I went to the hairdressers, I would face a battle as they tried to convince me to straighten my hair because it would be 'soooo long' if I did. “Why don’t you just lerax [relax] it” was the chorus, as though these women, born and bred in Africa had never seen natural black hair in their lives. I don’t agree that this is a form of self-loathing but I do think that it’s a crying shame that we cannot accept what God has given us and make the most of it. Many of us would be pleasantly surprised to realise that the pain we endured as little black girls having our hair braided or chopped off completely because it was too ‘difficult’ need no longer exist thanks to the incredibly versatile Shea butter or the countless amazing and divine smelling oils and products on offer at The Hairoine and Carol’s daughter. If we ease up on petroleum based products, we may find that our hair has an incredibly versatile curl to it that can be teased out with a little water and natural oils. Although I don’t condition my hair as much as I should, I know that there are countless products out there now, some even in the mainstream black hair shops.

It’s important to not let others define who you are; when I started university, I had beautiful copper dreadlocks, years later I decided that if I wanted a job in the legal profession, I would have to cut them off, which I did. A year ago I decided to go back to my locks, not because I follow the Rastafarian religion but because I like the way they look on my head. I work for a company that is progressive and even if they did think it they would not dare express any disapproval of my hairstyle. My hair is clean and pulled back for meetings so that the focus is not on my head or my clothes but what I have to say. Nonetheless I want people to get used to the fact that I look different because I am different. This is what my hair looks like in its natural state, call it frizzy, call it nappy, call it bad hair, it is what it is and I wouldn’t have it any other way


Momma Iz said...

Three cheers for writing this. I’ve been nappy-headed for eight years now! (wow! I hadn’t realized how long it’s been) and although I do have moments when I wish I had my old perm back so that life would be so much easier I have no plans of ever going back to relaxed hair. For starters, my (Caucasian) husband loves loves loves my hair natural plus the idea of loading my mane with chemicals and wasting loads of time in a salon getting a perm just isn’t my cuppa tea. I have had the “you gotta be kidding me” looks and been told I was “brave” to wear my hair natural even heard the word “good hair” thrown around me (and not in reference to me) to non-natural-hair-wearing people. I guess that would mean I had ‘bad’ hair? Beg to differ. With all the awesome products and knowledge about how to make managing our hair easier, I find it hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t go natural. It’s really so much easier to maintain and like you said – so many options out there.

Anonymous said...

I didn’t go natural for ‘political’ reasons. Simply got tired of hours at the salons and chemical burns due to ultra thick kinky natural hair and tender scalp plus it was sorta the in thing then. What I find sad/ disturbing is that some women really believe their hair is what makes them and are horrified at the thought of having it natural thinking they’ll be considered “ugly” and that straight Caucasian looking hair makes them more attractive. I know a handful of people who think like that and while I disagree with them and believe they need to deal with the real issue and embrace who they are, I also know that what we do with our bodies, faces etc is an individual choice and I really shouldn’t judge them like they probably do me. Apparently on this side of the pond, probably in the South where people can be shawo (LOL) wearing your hair natural is a sign that you’re poor? So I’m a ‘poor’ au naturel momma who’ll keep rockin’ my ‘fro …. Forever!

JB said...

Pretty sad that some Employers find issue with black women wearing their hair natural at work. But, that’s the world we live in. I honestly don’t see how people get away with bad dye jobs yet I can’t wear dreads in some places. I look forward to the day someone ‘writes me up’ for my hairstyle. Did anyone say discrimination Law suit? Hello!