Untangling the politics of black hair is tough – and trying to explain it to those who have never experienced the intrigue, the questioning, the barrage of unwanted comments, the weird looks and the uninvited hands being plunged into their own hair…is even tougher.
As my acceptance of my own curls has grown over the years, naturally so has my understanding of how to take care of them as well as my knowledge of black hair. I owe a significant amount of credit to one of my best friends who I met at University; a British-Nigerian girl who got me started on the path to really understanding my hair, aged 20. (Thanks Abi!). Because it’s only now I realise four years later as I’m on a quest to find out my own roots, (literally), that I realise all that time spent disparaging my hair was probably down to the fact that I was trying desperately to fit in with what surrounded me and denying my own self in the process.
At 14 black hairdresser agreed to use relaxer on me after I begged my Mum to help me achieve naturally straight hair. My hair snapped and broke and never reached past my shoulders again as the death-by-relaxer phase lasted around two years. I also inflicted further hair-horror on my curls by regular singeing them, courtesy of my beloved GHD straighteners. I also sported a heinous block fringe during my emo days, had several dye-disasters whilst trying to lighten it at home and later, a Beyonce-inspired-but-highly-orange weave. When I look back at my younger self, all I can see is utter confusion.
Hair and identity
For me, it’s clear to see today that my insecurities about my race and my position within a white community manifested themselves in the way I FOUGHT against my natural curls and frizzy hair for YEARS. Growing up every teenage girl will likely experience social pressures to alter their appearance as womanhood rears its soft, pink head and starkly reminds you that yes, now, you need to waste time worrying about looking good, fitting in, staying thin, attracting a partner etc.
But as an ethnic minority in a white world, there’s an added layer of difficulty to deal with; Eurocentric beauty ideals are everywhere and mirror images of people like you are not. And as an ethnic minority in a white family and community, within a white world, having no visual role models as a teenager was sometimes really hard.
Teenage me was aspiring to have a media career, so I was acutely aware of the lack of black and brown faces that reflected my own appearance on television. I acknowledged the beauty hegemony that dominated my favourite magazines. And I lamented the fact I would never look like those people. But even though I had incredibly loving having friends and family, because no-one looked an inch like me, I didn’t feel as if I could voice my concerns over my appearance — and my hair. So I tried to fit in by changing it.
Braids and other “black” hairstyles were out of the question; I was never able to align myself with black culture after being raised white and I didn’t want to either. However, I remember my parents helped me deal with my curls as a child; combing it out, brushing it through and taking me to a black hair salon in Croydon for advice on how to deal with it. I had a special, white, wide-toothed comb and my parents used it on my hair religiously, every week. My Mum styled it in plaits and pigtails as a kid and I continued to sport this style up until I was about thirteen when I started abusing it on my own terms. But one thing we never spoke about was why my hair was different, who I’d inherited it from and why I was so desperate to to change it. Those topics were off limits.
As I’ve slowly accepted my natural self and uncovered that yes, I am mixed-race for a reason, I’ve started to get to grips with my hair, too. (Although when I started out experimenting all I did was slather coconut oil on it and it looked like I’d bathed in Vaseline). Braids and twists and other protective styles have become a part of my routine and I’ve finally learned how to retain length!
Taking care of my hair in the past five years or so has inspired me to dig into my own background and start asking questions about my identity that should have been answered years ago. And I’m finally getting answers.
Hair and identity are inexplicably linked for me and so many others. And while I wish I realised it a little sooner, continuing to care for my hair and explore different black hairstyles is one way that I’ll begin to accept who I actually am.
I’m lucky that a black hair renaissance is taking place on social media that’s helping me make serious progress and which has also inspired me to write about hair trends in mainstream media outlets. But for anyone else struggling with any component of their identity (whether it be related to hair, skin colour or family problems) try and surround yourself with the change you want to see in yourself. Whether that means finding role models, occupying new spaces, or having difficult conversations; self-acceptance doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a gradual process and you have to work hard at it.
However once you move into a space in which you start embracing your natural self – I promise you won’t look back.