I recently posted about natural grey hair, and my own decision to stop bleaching and colouring my hair. I got a great reaction from my friend Michala who tweeted that like grey hair, “Afro hair just needs to be embraced for its own beauty”. Funnily enough it was Maame-Yaa Bempah, who first got me thinking about natural hair. Over a nice lunch in the Notting Hill Housing canteen she mentioned that she had once attended a lecture about natural African hair and had been letting her hair be itself ever since. I asked her write a guest blog and she sent me some lovely photos and personal reflections.
I can only give my own perspective. I am a black woman, part of a family that originates in Ghana, West Africa. Obviously my natural hair type is Afro, although it hasn’t always appeared that way at first glance. Here I am in the traditional Kente woven cloth from Ghana, with my hair in curly twists.
I have worn my hair in a wide range of styles. Below is a style known as “relaxed” which sounds kind of gentle and laid back, but it is a sort of reverse perm. The hair is permanently straightened using harsh chemicals, and the resulting de kinked hair doesn’t really swish like naturally straight hair, and has a tendency to frizz when it meets water.
In the next photograph I have straight styled twists. This hair style took about five hours to create, and involves integrating artificial kinky Afro-style hair to increase the length and volume. This is my favourite and style of the moment, although I am always mindful to take care of my edges (i.e. my hairline)!
And here I am with straight plaits, or braids as they are known in the USA. Both the twists and the braids are developments of traditional African styles but commonly include additional artificial hair, in this case in a different, lighter brown, colour. Both the plaited and twisted styles here display versatile African inspired designs without doing any fundamental damage.
One style I have never wanted to countenance is a straight weave. This is where straight hair (actually taken from a lady who looks nothing like me) is attached to chemically straightened Afro hair. The additional hair is attached with glue, heat or weaving giving an effect of long, straight hair. For me personally, the idea of projecting a style which would never naturally grow from my own head, seems bizarre and to my mind produces an unnatural look. Many Black women do enjoy having straight hair through weaves, and straightened hair is ubiquitous. Michelle Obama, for example, sports straightened hair. She looks glossy and well turned out but conforms to the American norm.
By the time I was 27 I had been bending, twisting, heating, shaping, and treating my hair with powerful chemicals for at least a decade, and had had enough. I eventually went for the Big Chop, vowing never to use anything unnatural on my hair ever again. One day I had limp, straight, relaxed shoulder length hair. The next I had a glorious, bouncy and short teeny-weeny afro (colloquially known as a TWA). It was probably the most liberating decision I had ever taken in my life!
Over the last five years I have studied how to nurture my natural Afro hair.
I enjoy my hair most when it looks naturally African. Dark, proud and unique. In Ghana, plaiting and cornrows are one of the traditional ways we style our hair, although the Western influence has meant that large numbers of women also straighten and weave their hair. Consciously deciding to wear my hair as nature intended gives me a great sense of confidence, inner joy and I feel at ease with myself. I no longer worry about what will happen when my hair is exposed to the many elements the British weather throws at us. Nowadays going for a swim or a work out is just something I do when I fancy it. It is no longer something of a military operation!
I watched an interview some time ago in which Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie mentioned that, unintentionally, black women’s hair is always political. I agree. The way an individual Black woman wears her hair generates a perception and/or discussion in a way that no other women’s hair does. When I had my TWA, I used to receive almost daily comments (mostly positive) on some aspect of it, both from friends and strangers, black and white, which was an interesting experience.
I find that the best way to keep Afro hair strong and healthy is to shy away from any kind of chemical products, and to focus on natural products like shea butter, coconut oil and everyday items such as egg or avocado to create a deep conditioner at home. As Afro hair is quite brittle, applying any kind of laboratory generated emollient, and/or direct heat such as straighteners or blowdrying, is a fast route to breakage (similar to split ends, only worse as the hair often breaks off completely).
Wishing everybody the best of luck on their hair journeys, I’m enjoying the calm that is now mine.
MYB has glorious glossy hair that is soft and pliable to touch. Thank you for sharing this personal story Maame-Yaa.