The problems with the natural hair movement

While the natural hair movement has made huge strides in helping women to love their 'fros, it seems to prioritise some 'types' of natural hair over another

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gina lawton
“There is no higher purpose to having a looser curl pattern and rocking a ‘fro doesn’t make you a better feminist” – author Georgina Lawton (pictured)

Natural hair is having a moment – again. Historically a politicised issue, natural black hair finally infiltrated the mainstream when the ‘fro was famously sported by activist Angela Davis and actress Pam Grier. They styled it loud and proud to reflect the political sentiments of the time; namely, black power, militant feminism and a general resistance to cultural and beauty assimilation based on Eurocentric ideals. Today, as discussions of racial politics dominate the barber-shops and blogs, the natural hair movement is enjoying a defiant resurgence. But as colourism threatens to limit cultural-beauty progress and isolate and erase darker women, we have to question: have we really come that far?

The natural hair movement has boomed in recent years, and is today a social media-led discourse comprised of black video tutorials, hair-care tips, and a cultural shift towards redefining the position of ‘natural’ black hair within the hegemony of Western beauty through empowerment and acceptance. A quick search on Instagram for #naturalhair yields 7 million results, but look a little closer and you’ll see that most successful ‘naturals’ within today’s movement are light-skinned, mixed girls in possession of looser curl patterns that grow down, not out, or, the occasional darker-skinned woman born with kinks that are more susceptible to manipulation and length retention techniques. The message is in this sense is clear: the politics of black hair certainly doesn’t escape the natural hair community, and colourism is rampant. The more African in you and your hair, the less likely you are to see your representation online, with many black women arguing that they are being erased from the movement entirely.

Natural blogger Tanieka Randall lost her hair to leukaemia in 2011. Throughout her recovery, she documented her hair regrowing on Instagram – later using her public profile to launch her own haircare range. A black woman from Houston with a huge following across several social networks, Randall disrupts the dominant narrative which dictates that only mixed women with Caucasian heritage are able to grow long, healthy hair. But despite her success, Randall has experienced colourism within the natural community online.

“I’ve been told that my hair isn't kinky or coarse enough by some ladies with coarser hair. My hair is type 3C-4A, which isn't loose curls, but it also isn't really tight coils,” she explains. “I am starting to see more inclusion of ladies with coarser hair and darker skin but we still have a long way to go. The movement is moving in the right direction, but unfortunately I do think many brands and pages tend to show more ladies with lighter skin and curly, not kinky hair.”

Akilah S. Richards is a writer who wears her hair in locs (dreadlocks), and says she struggles to see her kinky hair type reflected in the black haircare community online and in shops. “My nappy, African, short in the back and curled up around the nape of my neck hair - having that representation is important, too” she says. “And generally, at the store, you are not going to see my hair on a box. And if you do it's like $45 because apparently it’s this special, exotic thing and you’re gonna charge me for shea butter and oil. I believe we need to decolonise haircare – I shouldn’t have to pay for a product because you don’t understand what my hair is.”

Often the lightest women become the biggest stars of the natural hair movement, able to attract lucrative sponsorship deals for their beauty tips. Fro Girl Ginny, one of the UK’s best known naturals is half-Zimbabwean. She’s recently returned from a sponsored vacation to South Africa with a major hair-care company and acknowledges that her dual-ethnicity and voluminous light brown curls have granted her a privileged space within the natural hair community. “I definitely agree that the natural hair movement places emphasis on [my look]”, she says. “Even though I’m mixed with looser curls, I see a lot more girls who look similar to me, than to my Mum. It’s a shame because it's supposed to be a community of bringing women together. We need more of that.”

However, journalist and hair blogger Valley Fontaine believes the popularity of mixed girls within the movement could actually be due to shared similar hair textures rather than an outward attempt to erase black women’s experiences. “Lighter girls, depending on shade and hair texture can appeal or relate physically to women who present themselves as not just as black, but South Asian, Middle Eastern, Aboriginal, Indigenous South Americans and so on’ she told me. “So if they are more successful I believe it could be more of a numbers game, than preference due to shade.”

Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll stumble across an uglier side to the natural hair movement. Memes shaming darker-skinned women for their coarse, nappy hair, and memes mocking those who still opt for un-natural styles with a ‘creamy crack’ (relaxer) or weave, are everywhere.

Even though UK sales of relaxers fell by 26 per cent between 2008-2013 (the only category in the black haircare sector to decrease in growth, many women know how to achieve long, healthy hair with chemicals, and express frustration at being shamed online through a movement that preaches inclusivity. As well as this, some online natural gurus are known to promote paraben-filled products as the key to good hair health and the hypocrisy is laughable; chemicals are apparently OK if being used on full heads of ‘natural’ frizz.

Some of these same naturals also make a smug link between having curly hair and being enlightened, or ‘curly conscious’. But of course, there is no higher purpose to having a looser curl pattern and rocking a ‘fro doesn’t make you a better feminist or advocate for minority rights – it just means you’ve exercised a personal choice over your hairstyle.

Fontaine also emphasised this stranger aspect to the movement: “I’ve read countless bashings of weave wearers – search it and it won't take you long to find something derogatory, and this has increased because of the new found love and appreciation of natural hair” she says. “Some naturals have been accused of acting like born again Christians, because they are said to be so happy that they want to evangelise to all, but in doing so they can also cause offence.”  

Richards agrees, noting the imaginary correlation between natural hairstyles and spirituality. “I didn’t all of a sudden get an ‘awakening’ when I got my dreadlocks – I didn’t turn into Erykah Badu,” she tells me. “It just means I want my hair in this way. As a black woman you’re supposed to develop a consciousness with your hair. And apparently you can’t be conscious with a perm. What else can’t I be conscious with? It’s ridiculous.”

Despite the divisions and tensions though, we can see some positive effects of the natural hair movement trickling down into mainstream culture; tentative inroads are being made to reclaim the ‘fro in fashion with brands like Marc Jacobs, Prada and Burberry all choosing to embrace black hair on the catwalk, and Beyoncé’s Formation song was celebrating braids, baby-hair, afros and the once-shamed space of the weave shop, through strong visuals and lyrics.

And the natural hair movement can also incite serious political change, too. When Bahamian student Tayjha Deleveaux was suspended from her school in February 2016, for wearing her hair in its natural state, outrage at her treatment by the school authorities led to the viral hashtag #SupportThePuff globally. Her mother Kessa Deleveaux tells me about the fallout from her unexpected global fame.

“I never anticipated the support and attention that the #SupportThePuff movement would receive. It warms my heart to see so many women of colour embrace their natural beauty regardless of what society dictates”.

She goes on to add, “The headteacher called Tayjha’s puff ‘outlandish’, which is absurd. How can someone’s natural hair be considered that way? You instil hate when you promote such nonsense, you encourage them to wear weaves that further damage their hair. To threaten them with suspension or give them an ultimatum to perm their hair is just crazy”.

I too supported Tayjha’s hashtag even though I’m relatively new to the natural hair movement. As a former frizz-hater who wore weaves for years while growing up in communities where my hair type wasn’t reflected around me, Instagram and YouTube were instrumental to my hair education and have influenced my decision to go natural for the past four years. I find hair care tips with ease, because despite years of disparaging it, I know that my fine, frizzy ringlets are represented on nearly every site celebrating the aesthetics of black hair. Not all women can say the same.

Social media is a great tool in helping black women shape their own identity with the natural hair movement. Many women previously frustrated with the cultural status quo can now protest against the dominant force of white beauty ideals through celebration of their hair - and it’s important they continue to do so. However, the movement is in danger of limiting itself, due to colourism frictions which not only elevate light-skinned woman over dark, but shame others for rejecting their curls.  If we are to see the movement spawn more politically-aware global hashtags, and infiltrate mainstream fashion and beauty trends, we first need to represent a diverse range of black women in our own communities.  Although we can’t blame the fans or the bloggers for the limited representation of black beauty tropes online, we must rid the natural movement of colourism to ensure that its success (like that of so many other Western beauty trends) is not based on its proximity to whiteness.

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