A Kinky Love Story… My Journey to Embracing my Natural Afro Hair

Every black girl has their journey to loving and accepting their hair as beautiful. This is my own.

Growing up, my biggest insecurity was my hair. I was raised in an environment where the natural kinky hair growing out of my head was not acceptable. It was too messy. Unprofessional. Difficult to style. Boyish.

It was far from the ideal long flowing Indian, Brazilian or European hair. I looked up to Beyoncé and Rihanna, their skin like mine, yet their hair flowing impeccably through the wind. 7-year-old me was oblivious to the fact that these were weaves or wigs. I simply despised the tufts of black cotton-like hair protruding from my head and all I wanted was to be like the women in magazines, the stars in music videos and the hosts on TV shows. All I wanted was anything but my own natural hair.

In this post, I’ll be going through the phases of natural hair acceptance that almost every black woman has faced. It took me nearly 20 years to accept my hair and embrace the beauty of the fro. And this is why.

Phase 1: The myth of untameable black hair

One of my earliest memories involves sitting in a salon in Côte d’Ivoir getting my hair combed, tears running down my face as the pain of every single brush stroke penetrated my scalp. Aged 4 or 5, hair stylists, aunties and my mother would always call my hair difficult. It was thick, tough to comb and shrunk to 50% of its actual length immediately after being washed. I used to literally run away and hide anytime someone wanted to do my hair. Doors were slammed, the phrase ‘I’m not your friend’ would echo through our corridors almost every day and trips to the salon filled me with intense dread.

I was the classic case of a black girl with ‘untameable’ hair. No one wanted to deal with it, and I internalised some of the negative comments that came along with people’s reactions to my tough hair. What I realise now is that no one had taken the time to understand what products work well in my hair and how it can be styled in a way that makes it more manageable on a daily basis. The default was to essentially give up when my hair got too hard to manage, and so then came along the hair relaxers…

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Phase 2: The Relaxer

Living in Côte d’Ivoire, the local kid’s channels plastered adverts of smiley little black girls with silky soft hair that bounced as they jumped. They weren’t advertising toys or clothes, or books.

No, they were ads for kid’s hair relaxers. A quick easy fix to untameable hair. A solution to unsightly afros. A way to look more like those little girls on American TV.

And so, began my desire to relax my hair. It was pretty easy to convince my mum; hair relaxing was, after all, the norm. Hardly anyone I knew didn’t relax their hair. And the first time I did it, aside for the horrible burning sensation of the chemicals in your scalp, I honestly felt like a princess. My hair was finally straight and flowy like the girls on TV. The minute I showed any undergrowth, I would beg to have my hair relaxed. I couldn’t stand the sight of kinks and curls. I wasn’t even seven years old and I had already learned to hate the natural hair that grew from my scalp.

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Moving across to England, to a small town where I would be the only black girl in my primary school made my relationship with my hair even more complex. I wanted to be like the other girls. I wanted to have coloured streaks, to use the cool hair twisting machines, to be ‘normal’. While in Côte d’Ivoire, I had always loved my relaxed hair, in England I began to despise it. It wasn’t quite as flowy as the other girls, it didn’t grow down to my back and I always had to add loads of oils in it, unlike the white girls. I dreaded swimming, I never wanted to get my hair wet for fear that it would be ruined and I wouldn’t be able to style it without the help of my mum.

The answer to these problems? Braids and cornrows.

Phase 3: The Cornrows and Braids

As I went through primary school, my mum would create some elaborate cornrow and braid styles. I now can’t get enough of these styles, but as a kid surround by Becky’s with the ‘good’ hair, I would get irrationally angry at her for making my hair look different. I thought I looked partially bald because you could see my scalp when I had cornrows. I thought that kids would laugh at me because my hair was in a ‘weird’ style instead of pig tails. As I got older, I asked for styles and braids that would mimic European hair, often spending hours and hours searching for the styles that would make me look more like my friends. I was ashamed that I had to use extensions to get these looks, and would often lie to everyone and say I ‘dyed’ my hair or that my hair had always been that long, it just shrinks if I don’t style it.

I still remember kids in my primary school laughing at my hair, thinking it looked strange and being asked why I didn’t just have normal hairstyles. It didn’t help that I had no books or TV programmes with people that looked like me, and I started to believe that I was weird, ugly and far from beautiful because of my hair. This was all before I had even started High School.

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Phase 4: The European W[e]aves
After experimenting with various braid styles, and as a result of my constant begging, my mum finally gave in and let me have my first weave when I was 14. Finally, I could have the long flowy hair I had always wanted. And finally, I would look like all my friends. Minus the black skin. I transformed from getting braids every 8 weeks, to rocking weaves that matched the current trends. With my weaves, I got to be part of the swooped fringe emo crew, I got to ‘dye’ my hair weird and wonderful colours (including ginger) and whip my hair back and forth at all the school discos. I finally felt like Rihanna.

But I also neglected my own natural hair. I continued with the lies, pretending the various weaves were my own hair, yet flinching any time someone tried to pat my head, or run their fingers through my hair. I would dread PE when I had to tie my hair up in a way that wouldn’t show the cornrows under my hair, or reveal the bits of string holding my hair in place. My own natural hair began to break and fall out under the pressure of constant sew-ins and manipulation. Not to mention the fact that I was still relaxing my hair every few weeks – after all, I couldn’t let my kinky edges show through under my weave.

Then one day I finally had enough. I had started following black American Youtubers with natural hair, who had gone through the big chop and were embracing the beauty of their afros. As the online natural hair movement began to grow, I finally decided it was time to accept my hair for what it was, and embrace the beauty of the curls that God had blessed me with. So, next, came the big chop.

Phase 5: The Big Chop and Constant Regret

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Cutting off my relaxed hair felt both like cutting off a limb, and being released from shackles at the same time. I had had enough of the constant hatred of my hair and decided I would finally look after it properly. And thus, began my natural hair movement journey. I googled home remedies, the best products for growth, and how to get my kinky 4C hair to look more like the coily 3A curls. I would obsessively watch YouTube videos and search for ways to get my hair longer in the shortest period of time. I did Indian clay masks, egg and avocado co-washes, apple cider vinegar cleanses and held my head upside down for at least ten minutes a day, massaging oils in my hair to stimulate growth.  I wanted to be part of the natural hair movement, but thought I wouldn’t be successful unless I got a 22-inch afro that could be rocked in giant puffs, twisted out into gorgeous curls or styled up into intricate cornrows that would fall down my back. I felt like my short hair was a temporary moment of boyish ugliness that I would have to go through to reach the ideal black girl magic round afro. While I had become an advocate for the natural hair movement, I wasn’t actually embracing my own natural hair. I fantasized of having a certain type of afro and curl pattern, that frankly wasn’t my own. And my frustrations grew as I realised this would never become a reality.

And so began the hot combs and hair straighteners.  I essentially went back to square one, and returned to having weaves and wigs to hide what I thought was my ugly natural hair.

Then Came the Big Chop 2.0.

I finally came to a place where I actually wanted to love my own hair. In my first year of University, I went to a natural hair salon in London and cut my hair once again. And this time, I just felt liberated. I learned what my hair loved and needed and could style it exactly how I wanted. I loved my short hair. Where in the past I felt boyish and ugly with a short afro, I now felt beautiful and like an African Queen. I got to a place where my hair played a big part in me accepting myself and my identity. I would still do protective styling, going from weaves to braids or wigs. But this time it wasn’t because I thought my hair was ugly and I wanted to hide it away. This time it was because I just felt like changing things up and protecting my natural hair from the elements – especially in winter. I’m now open about my hair, I’ll let someone know if it’s a wig, weave or my own. I’m happy to educate people about my hair… as long as they don’t touch it without asking (I’m not a petting zoo). I’m not saying I still don’t find it hard to manage and there are times when I’m still insecure. For example, a ‘friend’ recently commented on a photo of me having fun as a child, with my hair flying around in its natural state. Her words? “How did your mum let you be seen like that, get a weave or some braids on that girl!” I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I took it to heart and started questioning if my hair actually was beautiful. There’s times when I just want a simple oil treatment or deep condition, and I call around all the salons in my area only to have the door shut in my face because they don’t ‘do’ afro hair. While most people can just pop to Boots to buy their hair products, I have to do full blown investigation and trek across London to find a shop that sells products for my natural hair. I constantly question why, when people go through hairdresser training, they aren’t taught the most basic treatments for afro hair. Something needs to change about the way natural afro hair is treated like an alien object that doesn’t belong in mainstream society.

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My journey with my natural hair isn’t an isolated one. So many black girls go through these exact feelings. Even my four-year-old niece has come home asking for ‘yellow hair’ or ‘curls’ like her friends. This is despite the countless books and toys with black afro-donning characters we’ve surrounded her with. Hair will continue to be a massive insecurity for black girls until our natural hair, braids, and cornrows are seen to be normal and beautiful, and not only when they’re on the head of a Kardashian. We need more public figures who embrace their natural styles and show that, not only is black beautiful, but afros are majestic too.

Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza

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