While many are ditching the straighteners, wigs and extensions, others have found the prospect of wearing their natural hair to be more tangled than straightforward
I was in my early twenties when I gained the confidence, and the knowledge, to wear my hair in all its gravity-defying glory. And I wasn’t the only one – the modern natural hair movement has gained serious traction over the last few years. On social media, the community is thriving with the #naturalhair hashtag hitting seven billion views on TikTok, while brands like Tracee Ellis Ross’s Pattern and Bread Beauty Supply are catering to and celebrating curly, coily, and tight textured hair.
The result is that people are saying no to relaxers – according to Romina Brown, CEO and President of Strategic Solutions, in 2009, chemical relaxers accounted for 60 per cent of the multi-cultural hair category. By 2019, that market share was just five per cent. But while it’s clear that many are ditching the straighteners, wigs and extensions, others have found the prospect of wearing their natural hair to be more tangled than straightforward.
“The natural hair movement eventually created a lot of pressure around what natural hair ‘should’ look like rather than encouraging people to embrace their own textures and curl patterns”, Cora Harrington, founder of The Lingerie Addict, wrote on Twitter to over four thousand likes. It’s a sentiment that resonated with many. “I have a friend who wore her Afro out and was approached at the train station as someone thought she was suicidal because her appearance was so off [to them],” says 21-year-old Londoner Grace Therson-Cofie, who has attracted attention on TikTok for defending her 4C-textured hair and that of her friends. Therson-Cofie feels that pressure is placed on Black women for their natural hair to look “tamed” and “presentable”, leading to widespread internalised shame.
With the full caveat that people should do whatever they want with their hair, the natural hair movement eventually created a lot of pressure around what natural hair “should” look like rather than encouraging people to embrace their own textures and curl patterns. https://t.co/sVKVXi8bN8— Cora Harrington (@lingerie_addict) January 30, 2022
But what exactly constitutes “presentable”? “It’s all about long hair that isn’t too tightly coiled”, says 29-year-old Emmanuella Kwenortey from London. “Better yet, if [your] hair has the length of caucasian hair but the curliness of Afro hair – essentially the hair you see on a lot of mixed-race men and women”. Voni Robi, a 27-year-old Australian woman who now lives in Denmark, agrees saying she used to long for her natural 4A hair to suit this aesthetic. “I always thought that type 3 is the most beautiful and my mum is half white, so I felt like I was robbed of having beautiful, soft, mixed curls”.
As Harrington suggests, the natural hair movement is often seen as playing a role in this kind of thinking. By glamorising looser curl patterns and prioritising them over kinky and coilier textures, many feel it has created an unspoken hierarchy of curls and perpetuated a beauty standard that’s arguably rooted in whiteness. “I believe that there is an ‘acceptable hair type’ that a lot of people in the natural hair industry will push over others,” says Jenna Aubertin, a hairstylist who trained at the Aveda Institute and specialises in styling curly hair. “I think many of us, myself included, wanted a space to be free, where we felt like we belonged, but there is always someone placing an ideal as to what is and isn’t natural”.
Amber Morrow, a hairstylist who works for CBS Studios in New York, says clients come to her “all the time” with reference photos featuring images of people with loose curl types. For her, however, it’s not the natural hair movement that’s to blame. “To be very frank, it’s the marketing industry [selling] to Black women that is responsible”, she says. “While things are drastically different and we’re seeing more Black creatives having a voice on campaigns, it’s still a majority white space”.
Robi agrees that it’s not the discourse pertaining to the natural hair movement that’s the problem but wider societal attitudes towards natural hair. While moving to Europe allowed her to experiment with her hair in a way that she never felt safe enough to back home, she still doesn’t feel confident going all-natural. “One of the biggest factors that makes me feel comfortable wearing my natural hair is my environment and the people I’m around – I definitely don’t feel comfortable in predominantly white spaces”.
“Natasha sees her natural hair as a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to finding love”
The workplace is one such space. My 61-year-old aunt recently told me about an incident back in the early 2000s, when one of her white male colleagues said he “preferred her without the natural hair look”. Nearly two decades later, Robi experiences the same prejudicial attitudes: “You can never be Black and just have your hair out in an office and no one’s going to ask you questions”, she says sadly. Robi opts for wigs at work, which she says still draw attention, but there’s “no fucking way” she’d wear her natural hair out at her current job.
It’s not just in public that Black women fear retribution for not having the “right” type of natural hair – intimate relationships also prompt feelings of inadequacy. Kwenortey is recently married but worried about her appearance while dating predominantly white men. “I had pictures of me [on apps] with my braids; I don't think I had the confidence to profile myself with my natural tightly-coiled 4C hair”, she explains. Her best friend Natasha Onwuemezi is a 28-year-old single woman from London who, like Kwenortey, sees her natural hair as a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to finding love. “I have nightmares of hair mishaps happening – like them trying to run their hands through my natural hair and getting stuck”.
A few years ago, popular YouTuber VanBanter posted a video that went viral in which he interviewed Black British boys about their ideal type of woman. “Obviously mixed race” and “Coolie hair, no dark skins” were some of the responses, feeding into a problematic narrative perpetuated by hip hop artists of the 2000s and onwards that light-skin women with flowing, curly hair are the desired archetype. Although colourism is still rampant within the Black community, Robi says that entering into a relationship with a Black man has bettered her outlook on her natural hair: “[My partner has] always made me feel like I can do whatever I want to my hair and that’s always made me feel safe”.
For some, it’s not so much the attitudes of others that are the deterrent, but more so the amount of upkeep that goes into maintaining natural hair. “Wearing your natural hair out can be very time consuming because curlier hair types tend to get more tangled”, says 19-year-old Rashaida Joseph-Staples from London, who opts for wigs or braids. “Some people assume that if you aren’t wearing your natural hair out that you aren’t comfortable with your ‘Blackness’ which is unfair”, she says.
@graceendian Reply to @thereallshaunbella honestly that mindset will keep you oppressed. #fyp #DayMeNightMe #InstaxChallenge #fypシ #reply #comment #naturalhair #trend ♬ original sound - graceendian
The shift towards greater acceptance of natural hair both within and outside the Black community is happening. Disney now has its characters donning hair bonnets before bed and Black hair is on the brink of being legally protected against discrimination. Despite numerous advancements, however, Black women are still apprehensive or downright averse to showcasing their natural hair – but it’s not the natural hair movement that’s the problem, it’s the continued propagation of outdated, prejudiced attitudes.
“I spend so much time talking about, explaining or defending my hair that it makes me constantly feel othered and dehumanised”, says Onwuemezi. When I ask her if she ever feels there will come a time when Black women will collectively feel confident wearing their natural hair, her answer is depressingly candid. “Only when we stop centring whiteness as the ideal of beauty, and only after we undo centuries of racism and misogynoir – so never”. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown – but I’d argue that having kinky hair on top of your head is the hardest burden to bear.