India Arie sang “I am not my hair” but I have to admit we all kinda are, especially for women with textured hair. Your relationship with beauty and hair is really a conversation about identity and self esteem and how you see yourself and want the world to perceive you. The first thing they do when you join the army, a cult or are captured and sent to a death camp is take your clothes and cut your hair, as they are literally stripping your identity away.
Growing up I didn’t see many reflections of myself or my super tight coily, 4C, Grace Jones structural hair. I didn’t have Shirley Temple ringlets or curls like the little girls on the sides of Afro hair care products but my natural hair was incredible thick, dense and wool like and the soundtrack to my childhood was my screams as my Trinidadian mum who has a completely different texture to me soft, fine and long battled to get combs and brushes through my hair. It was a battle she often lost with relics of broken bits of afro pick teeth left in my hair.
The screams and tears were all too much and she gave in to the sweet siren call of the creamy crack or relaxer when she chemically straightened my hair at 8. Yes I lost my hair virginity at 8 and until January this year I have never seen or had any type of relationship with my natural hair. My youth was a whirl of 90s Jheri Curls (think Coming to America), relaxers, braids (Poetic Justice anyone) and All Saints, Eternal and Naomi Campbell glamazon weaves. When I was little I used to want my hair to blow in the wind like Scarlett O’Hara when she clutched that carrot and swore she would never go hungry again. I remember standing on a hill in the park and crying as my hair wouldn’t do that and not understanding what was wrong with my hair? Through films growing up I had lots of positive and powerful female role models but none of them looked like me and that does mess with your self esteem growing up. Bless my right on mother, seeing my identity issues around the age of 9/10 she asked my aunt in New York to send me a black Barbie with a huge 70s Pam Grier Afro and dark chocolate skin. It was amazing to see but she was dressed as a stripper with a disco era split leg red lace dress. That doll was a visual metaphor of how society perceives natural hair. This barbie wasn’t in an air hostess outfit, ball gown or power suit she was “street”. When people see natural hair I think a big fear is being perceived as being street, funky, unprofessional or a far left wing lecturer for political science. I’m a huge nerd, I am not street or funky and dreaded being put in a very little unglamorous box, I felt my natural hair would put me in.
When I was pregnant with my twin girls 4 years ago I stopped relaxing my hair in the bid to have all things natural and healthy for my bump. This was the first time I actually saw any regrowth and my naturally hair in over 25 years. Instead of embracing my hair I blanked it, I washed and let it do it’s thing scrapping it back and trying to ignore the 2 textured hot mess it had become with my regrowth and pin straight relaxed hair. I counted the days until my ladies would be born and I could whack a relaxer back on my head. To say I had a relationship with my hair seems remiss, as it wasn’t a relationship at all. When it came to my hair It was estrangement, abandonment and shame.
So what changed? Years of breakage, burns (anyone who has had relaxers applied even by the very best in the business has experienced burns and sometimes scabs from putting the equivalent of paint stripper on your head, hadn’t made me to embrace my natural hair. Ironically it was dem babies, coupled with the Lupita effect. My daughters Ola and Adanna are mixed. My husband is blonde with blue eyes and I was suddenly presented with 2 ladies with 2 different hair types. One of my daughters has Shirley temple textured curls and the other has a coarse more textured tighter curl. Karma wise, I was thrown into the same situation as my mum. Kids who had completely different hair to myself. I was determined to help learn how to care for and therefore help my girls love their hair in the way I never had. I had the world of social media and am a beauty journalist my mum had old back issues of Essence magazine. No judgement. As I surfed the internet learning tricks and techniques from women in their bathrooms in Atlanta and around the world, like how coconut oil was put on this earth for anyone with afro, textured, wavy and thick hair as a deep conditioner and daily moisturiser. I learnt to look at my hair and question what’s so wrong with it.
In the past when I saw people embracing their hair it was normally because 9 times out of 10 they going through some sort of emotional breakdown, for example one woman I knew stopped colouring her hair and it turned out her husband had left her, another took out all her hair extensions and cut all her hair off into a chic bob after a bad break up, only to spend hundreds of pounds putting the extensions back in a few days later when she came to her “senses”. What was I experiencing? I guess it was a sense of peace, self love and acceptance through trying to teach my kids to love and accept themselves. I’m not saying colouring your hair, weaves, relaxers, extensions and everything in between is a form of self loathing or not embracing yourself. For me, it’s the like the woman who wouldn’t be caught dead outside her house without make up compared to the woman who will pop out barefaced and uses make up to express herself and have fun rather than use it as an emotional crutch. I never loved my hair, so all the things I did were crutches and not expressions of joy and fun in the same way the woman who is comfortable in her own skin loves make up.
When Lupita N’yongo took her first step onto the red carpet on her march to Oscar glory I literally gasped and thought how brave. It seems ridiculous now to think she was brave to rock her own beautiful hair at a red carpet event but before Lupita who had done that without it being, a retro throw back Beyonce style Austin Powers esque, nod to the 70s? In 2012 when Viola Davis attended the Oscars with natural hair, it was seen as a huge political and social statement rather than just being glam. Lupita gave me and many women with afro textured hair permission to embrace and love their natural hair. She was a beautiful black women with her natural hair on the red carpet saying here I am and this is chic, glamourous and that’s that. The day going to a red carpet event like the Oscars with natural hair, isn’t seen as a political, social statement or a reason to spark controversy like when E! News co-host Guilana Rancid said a young starlet called Zendaya who turned up to this year’s Oscars with dreadlocks said, “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil…. or maybe weed” comes I’ll be happy and it’s coming.
Since going natural it has been strangely liberating. I no longer fear the rain like some feral animal scrambling for an umbrella or running to seek shelter, so my blow-dry I spent hours achieving doesn’t revert back. It rained the other day and my lovely husband thrust an umbrella in my face with desperate urgency and we both laughed as we realised those days are gone. The fear I felt before going completely natural (it took ten months of growing out my hair and resting it with braids before I felt comfortable to reveal my natural TWA or teeny weenie afro ) and pain filled flashbacks of the past were redundant as new hydrating shampoo and conditioner formulas and information has made maintenance super easy. I have learnt how to twist out my hair but I’m also loving wash and go styling where you wash your hair load it up with some product and let it air dry. It’s scary how easy it is now and how soft and manageable my hair is. I use jumbo hair combs and afro picks and instead of fighting my hair, I’m letting it do it’s thing and it’s rewarding me with thickness, health and no breakage. I’ve surrendered to who I am, my hair and embraced it and ironically as life and nature has a sense of humour, it has been easy and a joy and not the knotted nightmare I was expecting.
I will write more about my hair journey, as it has been full of ups and downs. The downs being the way people perceive me, the terrible service in shops, causal or not so causal racism, how it has effected me professionally and how I occasionally do miss a good Beyonce style hair whip when I’m dancing to 7/11 in my bedroom. Stay tuned for my Natural Hair Journey Dairies……