In the words of India Arie "I am not my hair, I am not my skin, I am the voice that is within." Hair is just hair. In the grand scheme of things it's not all that important and yet somehow it is.
My hair journey has nearly always been complicated. I was born bald and when my hair finally started to grow in it only grew round the edges leaving me with the Franciscan Monk look. My mum kept shaving my hair to encourage growth so I was bald up until I was about four-years-old. When my hair did finally begin to grow it was a given that it would be relaxed. My mum's hair was relaxed and my sisters' hair was relaxed. It's far easier to comb the knots out of straight hair than curly and my mum had four heads of hair to care for including her own. Even with the relaxer detangling almost always brought tears and threats of our heads being shaved ( hashtag Nigerian mothers). And my hair was always in braids/plaits/box braids (whatever you chose to call them). Again, it was more manageable, it's also pretty and neat and having braids allowed me to wear a ponytail that swung from side to side like the ponytails my friends had.
I never liked my own hair growing up. I liked my braids but I wore braids to hide the hair underneath, not as a protective style like I do now. When my hair was out of braids and relaxed it still didn't lay like european hair does. If it was windy my relaxed hair would blow up and stay up. It didn't have enough weight to fall back down thanks to all the chemical damage. And I hated the process of relaxing my hair because it hurt when the chemicals would burn my scalp, but I thought it was necessary.
I started contemplating going natural in dance college when in my second year a black girl with a larger-than-life afro joined the college. She was mixed race with a Nigerian father and had never relaxed her hair. That was the first time I saw beautiful, unprocessed, healthy black hair in person. I think I always had a love for the Afro but I never thought I could grow one. I used to look at old pictures of my mum from the seventies rocking her massive Fro and wished I could start again with my own hair but was never brave enough to take the plunge.
Throughout dance college I wore my hair in braids. I experimented with weaves a few times but weaves aren't practical for a girl who needs to put her hair in a ballet bun everyday. Braids worked. Every semester I went home and my mum redid my hair. My mum is a superwoman btw, she used to do four sets of single braids back in the day. I remember one time, it was show term, I had my hair braided with one kind of extensions and my contemporary teacher wanted my hair done the way I had it the previous semester in a different style. In front of the whole class she told me that my hair was ugly and I had to redo it. I explained to her that I couldn't redo it because my mum did my hair and she lived in Norwich and I lived in London but, unsatisfied, she demanded I find a way to get my hair redone. I was a poor college student so there was nothing I could do about the problem except accept the humiliation and move on.
After college my professional work and distance meant I was without my hair dresser. In theatre you are required to wear wigs and hair pieces for many shows so I could no longer fall back on box-braids. It was then that I figured out I had to find a way to work with my own hair. My decision at first was to cut it short and relax it, with varying degrees of success. But I didn't love it. Everything was conspiring to set me on the natural hair course.
At twenty-three I met a Ghanaian woman with a beautiful Afro and had my first real, honest conversation about my hair, my insecurities surrounding my hair and my ideal hair. Her hair was beautiful and I confessed to her that I wanted my hair to look like that but didn't know how. She was patient and kind and talked me through her own hair journey and slowly things began to slot into place.
I wasn't brave enough for the big chop. I gradually grew the damaged, chemically processed hair out (much to the chagrin of the wigs mistress when my thicker roots meant we had to find new ways to make my wigs fit) cutting away at the damaged hair as the new, healthy hair grew. I've been natural now for three years and for the first time in my life, I love my hair. Not my braided hair or my hair in a weave but my own, natural hair.
But why does it even matter when it's only hair?
It matters because for too long we've been told our hair is ugly. For too long we've been told that there is only one form of beauty and it is European. For too long our hair has been described as coarse and difficult and wiry. We have been told that in order to be accepted we have to change.
It's only hair and it shouldn't be such a big deal but when young children are made to feel ashamed of the hair that grows out of their head then it is a big deal. Black people naturally grown Afro hair in varying degrees of textures. To managed this hair we have invented (yes, black people invented these styles) certain styles like braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, twists etc to maintain health in our hair and to save time. Just this morning I woke up to yet another report of another school (this one is Kentucky, USA) that has banned these hairstyles and mandated that Afro's been no longer than two-inches. The school says they want to be these mandates in place to increase diversity. So they're increasing diversity by alienating the every black student in the place, or at least by alienating their culture.
Afro hair becomes a big deal when it is used as yet another tool for discrimination. When young men and women are told that the hair that God gave them is unprofessional for school and the work place it's a big deal. When people are unable to appreciate my hair from afar but feel the need to touch it and pet me and count the number of braids and study my hair like it's going to be on quiz, all without asking me first but as if I'm there to be examined like a specimen on the laboratory table, it's a big deal.
Not every black person you meet is going to have an Afro. We live in a world where you can however you want to look, regardless of your genetic makeup. You can make your curly hair straight and your straight hair curly and your crooked nose straight and your saggy boobs perky and you know what, if that's what you need to make yourself feel beautiful then go ahead. Some girls like a weave and some girls like relaxer and every now and again a wig is just easier and that is fine. I'm not here to shame anyone's game. Beauty has many different faces. But the world needs to realise that Afro hair comes naturally to black people and so the world needs to stop being surprised by it.
It's only hair. It shouldn't be a big deal but I felt compelled enough to write a blog post on it so obviously I think it is. But here's the thing, when we can finally stop judging people and discriminating against people for such frivolities as hair, especially the natural hair that grows out of their heads, then maybe we can start focusing on the more important things like the voice that is within the person.