For many black females, the decision to ‘go natural’ has been fuelled by a revolution of self-acceptance, self-love, redefined standards of beauty, and nonconformity. The term refers primarily to the eradication of relaxer, a chemical straightener which works its magic by uncoiling, unkinking, and de-constructing the tight coils which are the hallmark of our African ancestry. The second you unscrew the lid you are hit with the pungent smell, something like a rotting egg, and if that is not enough to deter you, the chemical proceeds to create a fiery itchiness on every part of your skin it comes into contact with. Other methods were used in the black community, and whilst my mother kept me far away from chemical straighteners, the ‘hot comb’ was her tool of choice. This metal comb was placed on top of the kitchen stove until it was nearly glowing with heat, at which point it slid through my hair like a magic wand turning it to silk before my eyes. Perhaps ‘magic wand’ is inaccurate, more like a Taser burning the tips of my ears and the back of my neck as it passed around the perimeter of my head, all in the pursuit of ‘good hair.’ Ultimately one would think that good hair would simply be hair that you are happy with, but within the black community the term ‘good hair’ has very different connotations. In short, ‘good hair,’ or ‘white girl hair,’ is hair which flows long and silky, sleek and full, an antonym of ‘nappy’ ‘kinky’ ‘black girl hair.’ One thing was for sure, my hair boasted none of these qualities, and whilst my Jamaican grandmother marvelled at the silky hair of my cousins from our part Jamaican-Chinese ancestry, I distinctly remember her shouting after me “chile, your hair favour barb-wire!”
The author with ‘natural’/non chemically straightened Afro hair
However, discomfort is not unique to the black woman, in fact for many women a little pain seems an appropriate price to pay for beauty. So why is the black woman’s hair so political? And by political I mean entangled in a struggle for power, respect, and meritocracy. In the summer of 2014, I remember going to an interview for a mini pupillage at a law firm in London. It was my first taste of the corporate workforce, I had gone through my personal statement with a fine-tooth comb, but my hair remained natural and free. I arrived on time and as I sat in the waiting room my eyes were automatically drawn to the only other black female in the room. She was poised, her clothes perfectly fitted and not a hair out of place. For the first time, I thought that my natural hair could possibly disadvantage me in corporate Britain; just as I had learned to celebrate my hair personally I was forced back into offering the world a warped version of myself. Maybe the interviewer would think I had not made an effort to do my hair, even though getting my afro to sit so neatly and proper on my head had taken one wide tooth comb, one bristle brush, a handful of edge control, a dollop of Shea Butter curl crème, and 30 minutes at least. Yet, perhaps my hair would stand out to her like a tattoo of my ex-lover’s initials in the middle of my forehead and limit my employability like a silver hoop dangling from my eyebrow. I realised this was more than just a corrupted ideal imposed upon black girls from birth, that they must conform to a Eurocentric standard of beauty to truly be beautiful, this was a racial bias which permeated all sects of society that had grouped the hair which sprung from my scalp with taboos like tattoos and piercings.
Afros are not the only black hairstyle which can attract negative bias. Other protective styles worn by black woman include braids, cornrows, twists, and dread loc(k)s. I had read about one such controversy where a young girl called Lara Oddofin had a job offer withdrawn after refusing to change her braided hairstyle. The employer wrote “Unfortunately we cannot accept braids – it is simply part of the uniform and grooming requirements we get from our clients. If you are unable to take them out I unfortunately won’t be able to offer you any work.” Ironically, braids are a style many professional women opt for, in an attempt to achieve the neat and professional look that many corporate jobs require. Braids can last for up to 3 months, are very versatile, and can be styled in many different ways all without the irreversible damage of chemicals and heat. Perhaps the most controversial of all black hairstyles is dread loc(k)s, and in September of 2016 the US Supreme court deemed it legal for employers to discriminate against dread locs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who brought the case to the Supreme Court, rightly saw this for what it was, stating “prohibition of dreadlocks in the workplace constitutes race discrimination because dreadlocks are a manner of wearing the hair that is physiologically and culturally associated with people of African descent.” The fact is locs, though worn by people of all races, are primarily associated with people of African ancestry and a verdict like this disproportionately affects black people. More importantly, such biases are no doubt fuelled by the culturally ignorant assertion that locs are merely a style with roots no deeper than hair follicles. Having grown up with Rastafarian grandparents, I saw first-hand the cultural and religious elements of their locs. My grandmother called it a “constant reminder of her liberty and livity [way of life]”. For many, locs are an ethnic boundary marker which Rastafarians wear with great pride, no different than a Jewish Payot or Sikh turban.
Within modern feminism, there is a gaping hole where the black woman should be. Our hair is one of the unique experiences which separate our narratives from women of all other races. One problem women in all cultures face is that people seem to infer so much from so little. The texture of one’s hair could tell you so many things about them; ‘wild,’ ‘crazy,’ or ‘unruly.’ These are the adjectives used to describe black hair and, consequently, they often become the adjectives used to describe black women. Some have refused to abide by these rules as a stand for the right to be treated equally to their white counterparts, i.e. in accordance with their qualifications and their contributions. Nonetheless, others endure this discrimination in silence, for fear that their hard work could not only be dismissed on account of the racially ordained characteristics of their hair, but then vindicated by a legal system which approves their maltreatment. Natural hair was utilised in the civil rights movement by organisations like the Black Panther Party as a proclamation that black is beautiful, not ‘ugly,’ ‘unprofessional,’ or ‘something to be changed.’ The fact that in 2016 the act of a woman wearing her natural halo could be so revolutionary highlights that many of the same prejudices which plagued us in the 1960’s still prevail. Today, worthy women are continually forced to pay the damaging price of assimilation and many women continually fight against institutions which seems to care more about the hair on our heads than the head on our shoulders.