Black hair is finally fashionable. But on whose terms?
If wed spoken frankly about my inherent urge to eradicate every trace of blackness from my scalp, we would have had to address the fact that I probably wasnt related to one, or both, of my parents. And so despite my questions, any discussion that related to this including that of my hair was largely left alone.
By the time I got to 18, I was tired of
hiding my natural identity. I was sick of being unable to exercise or go swimming without worrying about my fake hair. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her novel (and my favourite book), Americanah: Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. Youre caged in. Your hair rules you.
A black friend at university had informed me that Instagram and YouTube would provide the hair-education tools Id been lacking. A lot of the afro salons wont even have the information youll find on there, she said. I soon found that social media hosted a booming natural hair movement, dominated by girls who looked just like me. Elated, I dived into a world of online tutorials, product reviews and celebratory forums where women spoke of being curly and conscious.
Although not without its flaws (darker-skinned women with tighter hair coils are overlooked),the natural hair movement encouraged me to start probing my family for answers related to my identity. With each deep conditiontreatment and curly tutorial, the internal battle I fought with myself over my appearance cooled down until I finally discovered I wasnt related to the amazing father who had raised me. Utterly distraught, I continued educating myself on black beauty culture, but soon found afro hair salons to be confusing spaces.
Although cheap and very accessible, independent black hairdressers often lack the kind of professionalism found in mainstream salons (although Id argue that this adds to their charm). The south London ones were a frenetic kaleidoscope of activity; stylists and customers swapped stories in different languages, somebodys baby would always find its way on to my lap, and navigating all the phones on charge, stray bundles of hair floating around and hot takeaway lunches meant the experience was often far from relaxing. I enjoyed inhabiting this new world, but sometimes felt like an outsider. I didnt know the right names for things, I didnt know what country to say I was from, I didnt know prices. I also noticed a differences in technique between how the stylists wanted to do my hair and what Id learned online. Large combs tugged at my curls completely dry, which encourages breakage. Eyes narrowed when I asked to see shampoo-bottle labels or if I protested at having all my hair straightened before braiding to make it easier for them. I felt awkward; there was an invisible sheath between who I was and how I was perceived .
Months of travel last year also exposed me to some frustrating hair-care customs and anti-black sentiment I had expected to feel more at home with my natural hair in Central America and the Caribbean than I did.
A global cultural hegemony that reflects Eurocentric beauty ideals means straight hair is the default the world over. In 18th-century Louisiana, the so-called tignon law demanded black women hide their hair in public. British colonialists classified afro-textured hair as closer to sheeps wool than anything else. Fast forward to the 21st century and many black women know that sporting a style that more closely resembles that of their white-looking counterparts grants access to better social and professional opportunities. Failure to conform can result in sacking, bullying and overt discrimination.
I recently called seven high-street salons to compare telephone quotes for a cut and blowdry and highlights with the in-person price. In all but one of the hairdressers, the cost increased once stylists saw me. One demanded an outrageous 31 extra for the cut and blowdry and 46 more for highlights. The reason? I was told that my shoulder-length curls were really hard to manage, too thick and a lot more work. This, despite the fact that none of these salons asked me to disclose my hair texture on the phone or warned about extra charges for various hair types on their websites.
Afro hair is fantastically diverse and more visible in fashion and advertising than ever. For me, insecurities about my race manifested themselves in the way I fought against my voluminous frizz for years and, like many black and mixed-race women, Ive learned to embrace my curls through self-education and social media. Thankfully, I can say that nurturing a healthier head of curls has resulted in a far happier mindset, too.
Georgina Lawton starts a new column in Family next week. She blogs at girlunfurled.com