My Afro Hair Journey

culture, think pieces

When I went natural last year we had just entered into a lockdown that I’m sure many of us thought would have ended after a couple of months. Going natural was something I had both wanted and not wanted to do for many years. I was in a peculiar in-between state where I so desperately wanted to embrace my natural hair, and I was also terrified at the thought. The first lockdown was almost a blessing in disguise in the sense that I don’t think I would have gone natural if there wasn’t one.

Something you’re not 100% sure about can be scary right up until you do it. The day I went natural and cut off all my damaged hair (so all of my hair), I felt fear up until the moment I did it. Then, the emotion that consumed me was nothing short of utter liberation. Being natural has helped me to shape a new identity for myself. Or perhaps to embrace the identity that was always there, deep down. It was like I was learning, for the first time, what it meant to have afro hair. What it meant to fully accept who I was. Looking back at pictures when I covered my afro hair up whether it was with weaves, braids, or wigs (all great protective styles I’d like to return to once in a while in the future), I realised that I never truly looked like myself.

Something I want to outline first of all is that I’m not saying that wearing weaves, braids, or wigs is a bad thing. We can love our natural hair as well as those protective styles (protective styles are hairstyles that tuck the hair away and shields it from harsh elements in the environment such as the sun and cold weather that may have the potential to damage your hair.) These forms of styles also make up what it means to be a Black woman. The ability to be versatile. To not be bound to just one style because we were not created to fit a mould. But for me personally, it started to become a problem when I only saw myself as somewhat beautiful when I hid my afro away.

The first few months

The initial feeling of hope I had quickly turned into worry as I soon realised that this was real now. No hair, nothing to hide behind. I remember not wanting to leave the house because I thought people would stare and make all kinds of assumptions. For the first roughly 2 months, I wore a hat every time I left the house. At first I didn’t know what to do with it and it almost felt like a hinderance. It felt like taking two steps forward and one step back every single day. I was progressing, but boy was it slow. It wasn’t until recently that I finally accepted that slow progress is still progress, and that what we go through in life comes and goes like seasons. Only here for a moment in the grand scheme of things. I can now say that the perseverance was definitely worth it.

Crown? How could I perceive my hair as a crown when everything around me said it was unprofessional, difficult, too political?

The back story

Hair always played a huge role in my life. I loved being able to have long braids one day, and short twists the next. Each hairstyle gave me the opportunity to rebrand myself and embody a whole new look but, as I continued to adopt all these different styles, I neglected my hair underneath. It all went downhill when I tried out a relaxer (a cream which chemically straightens hair. Typically used by people with tight curly hair), and this time it damaged my hair to the core. My hair hasn’t been the same since although it’s slowly recovering as time goes on. The last time I had my hair relaxed wasn’t because I just wanted my hair to be straight, but because I had a genuine hate for the way my hair looked. What makes things worse was the reactions I received the odd few times I actually wore my afro hair out.

Beauty ideals

The colonial era introduced a sort of “West is best” attitude that now seems to be deeply ingrained in our society, causing those of us who don’t display Western attributes to feel less than. Slavery fed into the dehumanisation of afro hair. White skin and straight hair (with loose curls passing the criteria) caused a segregation to occur, with the only way afro hair getting close to fitting the mould being if our hair were to resemble that of the West. There’s a deeply entrenched notion that afro hair is something to be “managed,” a term I find deeply discomforting. It implies that in its natural form it’s not suitable.

The set backs

Afro hair discrimination

Along with the above, hair discrimination has and is still a thing I’ve had to navigate. What a lot of people don’t realise is that afro/natural hair discrimination is deeply intertwined with racism as a whole. 52% of Black people with Afro hair say discrimination against their hair has negatively affected their self-esteem or mental health. It’s not just about skin colour, afro hair is equally seen as undesirable in a lot of places. I’ve found that in witnessing how other people with afro hair have been treated in the past and how it was portrayed online, I still carry those opinions around with me wherever I go. Wherever I go, I am always aware of the fact that I have an afro and that this may catch someone’s attention, whether in a good or bad way. It’s the same thing as being Black and being forcefully reminded of that whenever you enter a white space. Studies show that uninvited hair touching was reported as one of the most common types of microaggressions, experienced by 46%. Unless someone with an afro tells you it’s ok to touch their hair, I suggest just don’t.

The growth of afro hair isn’t linear, literally.

As I slowly learned to love my afro hair, I encountered a major setback. I experienced traumatic hair loss due to having an allergic reaction to a new hair product. Even writing this I feel both embarrassed and vulnerable, but this part of the natural hair process isn’t often talked about. I’m writing this for anyone who has experienced something similar and has felt alone. There’s a perception that afro hair is wild, unruly, and strong, but it in reality it requires so much love and attention. At this point in time I had been taking a photo of my hair every single day for over a year to track progress and…I eventually decided that I wanted to speed things up. Patches of my hair suddenly disappeared and it looked like I was balding. This immediately caused me to retreat back to where I was when I went natural back in 2020. I put my hat back on. Back to square one. The recovery process felt long, but it taught me some good lessons. It was through this negative experience that I learned that it’s not actually just about the length of my hair, but more importantly about the health. Not just on the outside, but on the inside too. The journey has been rocky with the media and even people I know talking down on my afro, but each day my love for my hair and how I see myself has become more and more positive. What made it easier was having friends (and even strangers! – social media is a very interesting place) around me to encourage and support me along the way. From recommending hair products, to just being a listening ear. I think it’s vital to have a community around you because, in reality, we’re all experiencing similar things.

Companies and projects supporting afro hair

Online I’ve watched as the natural hair movement has grown and gained traction as time has gone on. We’re seeing more and more influencers, celebrities and ordinary people like me rock our fros and tell our stories. To think that a couple of years ago I hardly saw any Black women with their afro out now seems so crazy to me. It truly is an exciting time.

Below I’ve listed postive things that are going on:

Dove launched the The Crown UK Fund to work to eradicate race-based hair discrimination. This year, The Crown UK Fund is investing £170,000 in Black-led grassroots organisations with the aim to: eliminate barriers to progress for women and girls in the Black community, empower the next generation, and drive long-term systemic change. They have since also launched the My Hair, My Crown project, a tool for educators, parents and mentors to boost hair confidence in kids with coils, curls, waves and protective styles – to build allyship in others to create a respectable and open world for natural hair.

Pantene launched the Gold Series and partnered with Black Minds Matter and Project Embrace to highlight the power of hair on mental well-being and self-esteem, and help end discrimination against afro hair in the UK. They have a goal of increasing the positive representation and understanding of afro hair through advertising and education to help reduce micro aggressions.

You can sign this petition to Protect afro textured hair! Amend the UK Equality Act to include hair.

Let’s educate ourselves!It’s time we changed the way we talk about afro hair

As much as I think it’s important that those without afro hair educate themselves, I too have been reading, listening, and learning more about my hair and the history it holds. This process has actually contributed to my overall love for my afro. I’ve learned to appreciate my hair and all it can do. Despite it all, it’s given me a confidence I have never had before. A book that I came across this year was Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri. This book delves deep into the rich history behind afro hair unearthing facts about the uses to which Black hair has been put over the centuries. I highly recommend! There are also so many other books, TV shows, movies, podcasts etc. out there for you to engage with and learn from too.

My hair is a crown

I appreciate the way my hair twists and turns, reaching up and out towards the sky, teaching me, too, to aim higher.

I’ve learned that my hair will look different every single day, and that’s ok.

I want to end this post on a positive note. I’m grateful for all the lessons I’ve learned in my afro hair journey and moving forward, I’m hopeful for the future. The world is moving in the right direction. Online, the natural hair movement is getting stronger. Offline, I hope the same is happening, because the real change happens offline, when you don’t have an audience. It’s in the little conversations, in the workplace, in schools etc. Those “little” moments shape the big ones. If I’m very honest, I’m looking forwarding to residing in a world where bone straight hair isn’t the norm or the ideal hair type. A world where afro hair isn’t seen as “other”. An equal world.

My hair is a crown, and I’ll wear it with pride. It tells the story of my ancestors.  Afro hair IS professional, IS acceptable for school and the workplace, and SHOULD be celebrated. Always.