For years, the mainstream beauty industry has traded on the perfect ideal of long, smooth, flowing locks. But thanks to the catwalk, red carpet and Beyoncé’s latest video, Afro hair is finally back in the spotlight. So why has it taken so long, asks Reni Eddo-Lodge
Tightly coiled, springy, short and soft: it was in the middle of 2012 when I looked in the mirror and came face to face with my natural hair texture for the first time in my adult life. Since I was very small, I’d been having my hair relaxed. Every eight weeks or so, I would have the roots ironed out with a cream that chemically changed its texture to achieve a sleek, straight look.
Relaxing was just a thing that people did to their hair, to make it manageable and easy to style – but the subtext was always that my natural hair texture was neither of those things. It was so normal that little relaxer kits, decorated with adorable kids with long, straight hair, were sold in black hair shops. Looking back, I now know that choosing to permanently alter your hair is a grown-up decision that should be made by adults about their own bodies. But I don’t hold any resentment towards my mother for doing it to me. ‘You used to cry a lot when I combed your hair,’ she told me. ‘It was difficult. I did it to make it softer, but it did lead to breakage. Your hair is so much healthier now.’
Long, straight, healthy hair – that was always the aim. But it was an inescapably white goal, a task not feasible for black women without a great deal of effort that often goes unacknowledged by the mainstream beauty industry. This was something I was aware of each time I accidentally burnt my scalp when I left the relaxer on too long. Afro hair wasn’t a hot topic, or even discussed, back then – it was a time when loose, big curly hair in white women raised eyebrows – Carrie Bradshaw’s hair in Sex And The City spawned multiple features asking whether even those loose curls were appropriate for professional environments.
And, yes, I was scared to stop the pursuit of straight hair partly for fear of looking masculine. As a kid, I used to put trousers and towels on my head so I could pretend to have the long locks of a Disney princess. With long hair so tied to ideals of femininity, I felt I couldn’t back down from the pursuit of it.
Along with the relaxing, I had also, like an idiot, been pressing my hair with ceramic straighteners every morning in a bid to make it bone straight. On special occasions as a teenager, I’d save up money and devote a lot of time to finding the perfect weaves, too. And while they looked great and I was complimented when I wore them, there was also an element of shaming that came from people who knew it wasn’t my real hair. My brief time wearing weaves taught me that black women just can’t win when it comes to our hair – and that the only way to wear my hair authentically was to think less about what other people thought, and more about what I was happy with.
I spent 16 years chemically relaxing my hair into a heat-damaged mess, until one day, after observing a couple of months of unrelaxed new growth, I grabbed the kitchen scissors and cut off the straggly, straight ends. I looked a mess, but I felt euphoric. My friends and family were confused, until I took myself down to the local barbers for a shape-up. I’ve never looked back, and my hair has done nothing but thank me for it. I’m still getting to know it, and I love what I see so far.
Now, tightly coiled Afro hair and all the hairstyles that come with it are undeniably on trend. This has been coming for a while now – from actress Lupita Nyong’o pairing her red-carpet dresses with her elfin Afro back in 2014, through to previously unknown model Lineisy Montero from the Dominican Republic becoming the name on everyone’s lips after she walked for Prada with a short Afro in September. And then, just a couple of weeks ago, Beyoncé astounded the Super Bowl audience with her Afro-haired dancers as she sang, ‘I like my baby hair, with baby hair and Afros.’ Black girls everywhere can rejoice. What was once destined to be ironed out is now being worn with pride. For black women who have straightened their hair for as long as they can remember, the move towards natural hair is a move towards authenticity and loving your hair as it is.
However, when Kylie Jenner displayed her new ‘black’ hairstyle – cornrows – on her Instagram in July, her followers were right to ask her if, while she was enjoying the spoils of black culture, she was actually doing anything for the Black Lives Matter movement.
This is less about harmless cultural exchange and more about power. In America – a country where the average white household has 16 times the wealth of a black household – we need to ask why some of the richest pop stars, reality TV stars and big brands capitalise on the affectations of some of the nation’s poorest, without even the courtesy of a kick-back for those that they’re taking from. Once that’s acknowledged, everyone can wear whatever hairstyle they want.
Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg asked the same questions in 2015 when she made a video on ‘cultural appropriation’ for her history class that ended up going viral. Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows was a simple walk through the worst pop-culture examples in the last few years. ‘Pop stars and icons adopted black culture as a way of being edgy and gaining attention,’ she said. ‘But, at the same time, police brutality against black people came to the forefront.’
For me, this form of cultural cherry picking is difficult because, throughout life, black people are often teased for these attributes. For too long, black folks’ Afros in their natural state have been derided as ‘nappy’ or ‘picky’ – basically ugly or messy – while cornrows are ‘ghetto’. Yet as soon as they’re on a white body, they become desirable. One US magazine recently published a piece telling readers ‘they too could have an Afro’ – as if it were a trend up for grabs. Yet, I hear of stories of black girls going against the grain – by wearing their hair out – being called ‘Sideshow Bob’ (referencing the Simpsons character) by ignorant colleagues, and recalling childhood memories of their hair being spat at because their peers thought it looked ugly.
Trendifying the Afro is talked about with no nod to its history, how it was a symbol of black liberation in the ’60s, or how it moved from political groups (Black Panthers) to mainstream adulation (actress Pam Grier and actress and model Marsha Hunt) in the ’70s, and was reduced to comedy prop wigs in the ’90s. Thankfully, in recent years, there’s been a broadening of beauty ideals, but it hasn’t always been the case that the attributes of blackness – dark skin, Afro hair, wide noses – have been celebrated by beauty magazines. Socially embraced Afros are undeniably positive for black women who want to get to grips with a hair texture they’ve never taken the time to get to know. I encourage black girls to embrace themselves in a world that encourages us to change ourselves.
Being unapologetically black still takes guts. There isn’t a week that goes by where I’m not stopped on the street by another black woman my mum’s age and up who tells me that they think I’m brave and bold for wearing my natural hair. I’d love for us to get past the point where just having Afro hair and not wanting to change it is somehow a political statement. And as we come to the understanding that black is also beautiful in the spheres of fashion, hair and beauty, perhaps we can take the sentiment to the rest of the world.
For me, cutting my hair off and starting again was a reality check. I was never going to have long, straight hair because those weren’t the cards I was dealt in life. And that was in no way a tragedy. It sounds trite, but after I had come to the realisation that black is beautiful, life became a lot easier. It was still countercurrent to the images of beauty I was used to, but I was happy.