Letting loose: our relationship to “natural hair”

"Women shouldn’t be hailed as ‘courageous’ or ‘quirky’ for wearing their hair as it grows from their scalp; these are the same sentiments that exotify and alienate people of colour." Kanengo Diallo examines the narrative of natural locks.

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It’s been about three months since the start of what we now know to be a worldwide shutdown. Like many other students, I’ve been forced to settle into a work-life routine at home, and things, whether reassuring or not, have started to feel very normal. A lot of my habits have shifted to accommodate this new life. I no longer wear the clothes that I used to; it seems that the rejected, private, and comfortable part of my wardrobe (i.e. a mishmash of hole-y pyjama bottoms and worn t-shirts), has become what I usually reach for in the morning. I have left a lot of myself alone; I am no longer particularly bothered by the parts of my appearance that I used to regulate. The patch of acne that occasionally pops up on my chin remains untouched, and I don’t care about the leg/armpit/pubic hair that’s grown past the limits of what I would typically sanction. What I can’t seem to leave alone is the hair on my head. It’s big and complicated, its texture is dense. It takes up space, and on most days, I try to put it up and tuck it away. 

Black girls aren’t raised to know their hair. Not deeply, at least. On TV, afros and curls are obscured from the everyday, or worse, objectified and ridiculed into a sort of grotesque costume. Even in Tanzania, where we are an almost entirely Black nation, there remains a cultural apprehension around wearing ‘kinky’ hair. Most of the women I knew growing up would leave their houses with hair carefully packaged under straight wigs. 

Childhood memories surrounding my hair are tainted with physical pain. My mother would spend hours blow-drying it, sticking pomades and gels in it, manipulating it into something that was ‘manageable’. I would cry getting my braids done, fiercely wishing my hair would fall out of my head if it resisted falling flat against my back. It was a sort of coming of age–a symbol of westernised womanhood made attainable to me when I was allowed to chemically straighten my hair at ten. 

Black girls are taught to keep our hair neat, and palatable, but ultimately external from ourselves. Over the years, it evolves and takes on a personage of its own – constantly morphing shapes, lengths, and styles. After I stopped chemically straightening my hair at 15, I was confronted with a stranger when I looked in the mirror. I spent months going through dozens of oils and creams, trying to learn and ‘tame’ a thing that I wasn’t taught to understand. I grew exhausted. For a year, my hair was a bizarre half-straight, half-coily mess before I chopped it all off on a whim, and decided to start again from scratch. 

Lockdown has invited a wave of similar, boredom-induced experimentations. E-girl-inspired bleached bangs, cheek-grazing bob, and the classic bald head are some of my favourites. But there is a lot to be said about the implications of this on hair that society already condemns as experimental, and unusual. 

Self-isolation has changed a lot about our routines and ideas concerning beauty and vanity. Surely, if no one sees your hair, there’s no need to do it in elaborate and performative ways? This presents an obstacle for Black women. A large part of our hair care involves communal, hours-long sessions at the salon, to choose from a variety of braids, weaves, cornrows, twists, etc. as a means of managing our hair on a day-to-day basis. But with the closure of non-essential businesses such as the hairdresser’s, women of colour have chosen to handle their hair care at home. Whether born out of a lack of choice or inspiration, many girls with afro-textured hair are using time under lockdown to transition from their chemically straightened strands to their natural texture. 

This is both scary and liberating. Somewhere along the way, Black hair has unintentionally taken on a political overtone. As Adichie articulates, hair is the ‘perfect metaphor for race’. It signifies how race pervades every aspect of our lives, even the mundane and private. The ones who are ‘brave’ enough to wear it out are first forced to sort through complicated feelings that they may have around conceptions of manageability and belonging. Natural hair, in all its bouncy and shrunken glory, is cast to the shadows of Eurocentric standards that uphold its long, straight counterpart. At-home relaxers promise their users the attractive and nebulous prospect of ‘professionality’ (at the potential risk of scalp burn). They bottle and sell respect. Straight hair grants a sturdy platform to stand on and be listened to; it’s an outward sign of success, desirability, and femininity. As a result, kinky, coily, and ‘nappy’ hair is misunderstood and pushed to the margins. By existing at the intersections of sexism and racism, these ideas are at once appealing and comforting to women of colour. 

I’m self-conscious about this turning into a political, didactic rant – that’s not what I want it to be. Obviously, women should feel empowered to wear their hair as they please. Perhaps at the risk of hedging my own argument, I should say that not every Black woman needs to let her natural hair grow to feel authentically like herself – to feel authentically Black. And I am not blind to the caveats that the ‘natural hair’ and ‘Black is beautiful’ movements impose on women. Loosely-curled hair and lighter skin seem to be placed at the forefront of these movements, at the expense of tightly-coiled hair and dark skin. But I am also aware of the mental break that isolation can afford from the need to adhere to cultural beauty norms. I look on social media, and I’m captivated by the women reshaping and owning the narratives around their hair. Women shouldn’t be hailed as ‘courageous’ or ‘quirky’ for wearing their hair as it grows from their scalp; these are the same sentiments that exotify and alienate people of colour.

In its hiddenness, it’s both enigmatic and fitting to refer to afro-textured hair as natural. Like all things ‘untamable’, it can be restrained, but will always assert its presence. Maybe a lockdown can help to unleash it.