‘“Don’t touch my hair” … no seriously’: Tales from the natural hair movement

To Kick off an exciting Thursday of hybrid-Human Interest/ Culture stories, one of the team thought they’d shed light on a topic many remain largely ignorant of…

HERE’S A FEW POINTS OF CLARIFICATION FOR THE UNSUSPECTING READER

I know what you must be wondering: is this really newsworthy?  For some, maybe not. But for the legions of girls familiar confronting the daily grind of having to bat, pleasantly smile and conjure expressions of masked anguish the second you are approached by some who just wants to touch your “cool” hair. This article is an ode to you.

Before I begin this, article isn’t about race.  It isn’t a suggestion that the people I speak of are racial bigots perpetuating an ingrained subconscious distaste towards all those who do not conform to a Western standard of beauty (isn’t that a mouthful)- it’s simply an article from the perspective of the “other side”. The testimonies of those who have to endure a greater struggle of having to champion…

In all honesty, I’m not quite sure where to begin. It’s a difficult topic. Its difficulty lies not in the fact that it is uncouth for one to even express an opinion from this point of view, but more that this topic it is multifaceted and quite frankly difficult to synthesis down to a few hundred words.

I am not a spokesperson for girls with afros, or hypertextualised curly hair. And yet, the moment I am asked about my hair regime, I feel as though I must convey this sense of know-it-all-itis… some sort of divinely inspired wisdom, that has moulded me into a natural hair expert overnight. Quite frankly, it’s infuriating!

It’s not something I want to explain. Not because I believe in the “great conspiracy” that divulging the intricacies of caring for my curly hair will somehow lead to a magnanimous victory of the malignant “cultural appropriation” forces. That’s arguably a non-issue. It’s simply because I do not feel that I should. Why must I explain something that is has taken so long for me to see as naturalised?

A SNAPSHOT INTO A NATURAL-HAIRED GIRL’S NIGHTMARISH CHILDHOOD

Formerly, I hated my curls. I grew up in a household, where “the perm” was a natural initiation into womanhood. I remember as a child, I would on the living room floor, quashed between my mother’s thighs as she applied the dread chemicals into my hair. I remember convulsing and squirming on the floor if the perm was left in too long, and my scalp was burnt because of it. But, when I’d look in the mirror and see my smooth streamlined hair (habitually dry and heat damaged), I would always feel marginally more beautiful, and as I grew older, learnt to accept that the perm would be an invariable part of my hair journey.

 

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A struggle every black girl knows all too well growing up (Source: Black girl with Long hair)

 

But when my mother was gone, and the task of caring for my hair fell into the hands of the “dreaded hairdresser”, my perception of this process changed. It no longer became a cause for celebration, it became a burden: a laborious chore, in which I endured hours in an uncomfortable chair, charged extortionate rates, all for the momentary satisfaction of looking in the mirror and seeing smooth, silky hair.

 

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Yes it is as toxic and as painful as it looks… i guess that’s what happens when you apply chemicals to your hair

 

Then at the ages of 14 and 12 respectively my sister and I made an informed choice: we would do our hair ourselves. Granted the first few years lead to disastrous results, in which our half straight, half afro hair would burst through the seams of our poorly tied hairbands. Our scalps would burn or we just gave up on decent hairstyles altogether. But it was a decision I cherish, because we grew to learn and care for our own hair.

THE HAIR BETRAYAL (OR SO WE THOUGHT)

Years of trying eventually resulted in us our success. That is until aged 16, my sister announced that she would no longer be participating in the “perm”. Instead, she would stop the process all together in favour of ‘going natural’. As you can imagine, the imagery conjured up with that expression was not entirely pleasant. At our daily family rendezvous in the living room, my father and I sat in stunned silence, failing to grasp the gravity of her words. Neither of us what ‘going natural’ truly entailed. All the women around us were slaves to “the perm”; resigned to a fate of processed hair until their dying breath.

My father’s first reaction: “your hair will look messy”, mine: “That is dumbest thing I’ve heard in my entire life! I hate how its look, the hair always looks wild and untamed- I definitely won’t be joining you, because my career at the Bar will be over before it even starts”. Suffice to say, our initial response wasn’t entirely encouraging.

 

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Messy?  What we smoking? All I see is glorious 4C=4b wonderfulness..;

 

Yet my sister preserved, and I watched in aghast awe as she mused about discovering her curl pattern and enjoyed the natural remedies of applying the various oils into her hair. Mystified, she would spend hours dazed by the expediency of her hair growth, now that it was no longer inhibited by the dread “perm”. I shan’t lie- I gradually became won over, it wouldn’t be a hair choice for myself: but on my sister it did look beautiful. That was until the day she unexpectedly called me into her room. I remember walking in and bursting into tears: she’d embarked on the next stage of her natural hair journey. Gone was the transition period, she’d now completed the ‘Big Chop’. I know I said, I didn’t feel the need to explain how I care for my natural hair, but for purpose of this article, I think I’ll make an exception.

AN OVERSIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION OF THE ‘BC’ FOR DUMMIES

 

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Yes, these big chops can be dramatic, it was kind of difficult finding pictures that accurately reflect this, so enjoy a Buzzfeed compilation (Source: Buzzfeed)

 

You see, after years of process chemicals being applied onto our afro hair, the smooth silky layers we mused over, were in fact dead hair molecules. Our hair was never intended to be bone straight- so part of the natural hair journey involved the transition period, natural hair participants would undergo a period of complete withdrawal and allow their natural hair to grow a few inches in length, before taking the next step and completely removing the longer processed hair strands. This was dubbed ‘the big chop’, for the notable difference in hair length, as well as a symbolic testament of your complete loyalty and devotion to the natural hair movement.

It was the remnants of my sister’s big chop that brought me to tears. For years I mused over my sisters glorious midlength locks, and suddenly they were gone. In its place was a small afro no more than a few inches. I know what some of you must be thinking: melodramatic much? It’s only a bit of hair. Whilst I agree, the tears I shed can be attributed to reasons beyond the fact that she cut her hair. It symbolised the end of our intertwined hair experience. I could no longer count on my sister to share in my plight of having to perm my hair, she looked at her natural hair differently: For me it was a hindrance ;another reminder that I could never truly meet the standards of western beauty, and to her it had greater symbolic connotations: one of her heritage, her cultural identity, a vital component of our historic past and for that reason, her natural hair would always be cause for celebration. I wasn’t quite ready for that change.

 

I’d supported my sister through all her whacky hair changes. From purple to blue, red to green- my sister had attempted it all and yet this was different. At first my sister didn’t quite understand my tears, but once she realised that they were unrelenting, she couldn’t help but cry too.

THE UNEXPECTED (ALTHOUGH HIGHLY PREDICTABLE) PLOT TWIST

 

So for the next 14 months my sister remained natural, she carried on into university and I soon followed suit. Although I never attempted the big chop, the periods between my perms became longer, until one year I decided forego a perm altogether. In the end, I always reverted back to perm, until the eve of my 17th. My sister was gone and now there was no one to assist me in maintaining this traumatic process, so I simply had to make a decision- I chose to go natural. And then on September 1st 2015, on my 18th birthday, once I’d transitioned a reasonable amount: I cut my hair.

 

I marvelled at my curls, and I was excited, it was no longer an event warranting an emotive or regretful response: it was my first steps in redefining my identity. Over the course of that year, my hair continued to grow and I attempted a litany of bizarre hair remedies. From applying raw egg to different variations of hair oils, I revelled in the different experiences I had to learn more about my hair.

It’s almost a year to the day of my big chop and my natural hair has grown past my collarbone. In fact, before heading home for Christmas I looked at my natural hair in the mirror and couldn’t stop staring at it. My curl pattern varies from loose to deeply kinky hair and my afro can be stretched past collarbone length. My healthy hair growth can be attributed to my brief stint in vegetarianism. An onslaught of protective hair styles and an established regime of hot oil treatments. It’s been a process, and whilst my sister has since discontinued her natural hair journey, I honestly cannot foresee a scenario in which I’d ever want to revert back to processed hair.

 

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Look at this goddess… the natural hair movement is the new big cheese, there are a number of YouTubers and vlogs helping girls through the process, including the likes of this beauty (Source Credit: Chrissie Milan)

 

My natural hair means so much more to me than having a voluptuous or ‘sassy’ afro. It’s about me accepting that I can never really transcribe to the nationalistic prescription of beauty and that’s fine. I was never intended to. Whilst my nationality and personal identity may mean that I am inherently and fundamentally British, it doesn’t mean that I have to forego and completely disassociate myself with my African roots. When I am alone with my thoughts I want to look at myself in the mirror and realise that my beauty, my perception of self is the most important thing about me. It is why many who undertake the natural hair journey are so hesitant to divulge the origins of their journey to outsiders.

 

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Yes, another example of natural hair at its finest (one day that’ll be me, when you know… my hair grows past shoulder length and I can work out all these cool hair styles)

 

Please note- outsiders doesn’t simply mean those without afro-type hair. It’s people within our race who scornfully and distastefully mock women who decide to undertake this journey. Its those who embarked on this journey once and decided the commitment and pressures of standing out was just too much to bear and so, in acts of cowardice turned their backs and went back to processed hair. It’s not necessarily a scornful distaste of the curious by-stander completely unaware that things such as a ‘natural hair journey’ even exist.

Evidently, I’m an exception to the rule- my journey was a difficult and wild one, but one that I’m glad I was able to undertake and consciously maintain as a young adult. It fills me with so much pride to talk to my friends about it! To explain my decisions and rationale, although I’m still of the opinion that the ‘don’t touch my hair’ rule should stand.

IMPORTANCE OF UNDERSTANDING WHAT WE’RE REALLY TALKING ABOUT…

Solange’s song, what the title of this article is in reference to, spoke to so many young women undertaking a natural hair journey or not, because it reflected fundamental ideas about the trials and realities of being a young black woman. Our hair is as malleable as our moods and identity, and the moment we deem someone to be undermining that integral part of who we are, we feel under threat and are more inclined to shut down and go on the offensive, rather that open up a dialogue and frank discussion. It’s an inevitable side effect of growing up, constantly having to disprove stereotypes and having to present pseudo or watered down aspects of your personality in order to be excepted.

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It is part of our reality, but it is no longer a fact recognised in despair. It is now something many of us view with pride. It’s the next step in our important and ever changing journey.

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