The fashion and politics of natural hair

Andrinea Murphy : Beautiful African American Hawaiian model portraitIt’s understandable that many of us are tired of talking about hair . There’s so much around this topic.

However, I’m not at all exhausted with the hair topic yet.
I think we should keep talking about hair because our strands are bearers of shared cultural experiences. I don’t think the hair conversation is about vanity. I believe we are explicitly and/or implicitly also talking about culture and history when we talk of hair. You know, things like the ‘good hair’ phenomenon, western and non-western beauty ideals, career hairdos and more. I reckon that when those types of concerns are no longer part of our social fabric then the conversation will end.

I think one reason people would rather kill the conversation is because they think it’s shallow. And they are right to an extent; for example there’s an abundance of natural hair blogs that simply copy and paste information and pretend to be doing something avant-garde. Then there are those that provide inspirational resources like my new blog subscriptions; Natural Belle and urban bush babes. Love them!

There are 3 reasons why I stopped relaxing my hair:

1. It occurred to me that if I dislike the hair that grows out of my head naturally then there’s some part of my identity that I need to have a reassuring conversation with.
2. After having that conversation I admitted to myself that I wanted hair that had nothing to do with my heritage because I’m neither Indian nor in any way equine.
3. I wanted healthy hair.

So the transition to natural hair was for me a step towards accepting myself inside and out. And with every little curl that grew I felt a sense of healing, I felt like I owed my hair an apology for thinking that it was unattractive and unmanageable for too long.
As Lorette, a locktician and commenter on the post ‘A tribute to the black hair conversation’ said:

I find that sometimes women come to me with the physical manifestations (damaged hair) of spiritual damage due to the years of trying to live up to false representations of women of colour. When I “fix” a womans hair it is usualy one step on a journey of self discovery and growth and affects their whole personas and life out look and supports them on their road to achieve balance. I am blessed to be part of these womens evolutions.

Many women today are again abandoning relaxers and natural hair is moving into the mainstream. With that move natural hair becomes less of a political and more of a fashion statement, which in return means that natural hair becomes commodified for advertising. And I don’t see a problem with that, in the sense that it’s preferable to be bombarded with adveritsing for products that include scrumptious ingredients like coconut, shea and cocoa butter rather than no-lye, am I right? But I’m wondering, must it be either/or? In between the fashion and marketing frenzy of natural tresses, is there space to discuss this new found love for our ‘hairitage’? Where has it come from? Does it have to do with the spirit of the times; of the Afropolitan and other Africa-centric movements? & will the relaxer eventually become an embarrassing memory, like it has for men of African heritage or is it here to stay as a staple product in African heritage hair culture?

Creative Commons License photo credit: tibchris

  • dionne

    Thank you once again for physically manifesting my idle comment blurted out today as out of nowhere i declared my need to return to the topic of hair i am so curious about and attached to. It lay dormant for a while but hadn´t been fully expressed. I agree, the doubting voice inside threatens that i would be warding towards superficiality, when in fact it is so integrally a part of my life that it feels frankly rude not to. So thank you again, for not heeding to that yes indeed, condescending ´here they go again´attitude, for eloquently sharing your magical journey, and for highlighting the need to bring attention back to something that is a necessary and empowering discussion.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Dionne, I do feel quite strongly about it and glad it resonates :)

  • Ankhesen Mié

    With that move natural hair becomes less of a political and more of a fashion statement, which in return means that natural hair becomes commodified for advertising.

    Which is definitely the reason we need to keep talking about it (i.e., staying vigilant). We need to make sure that this movement of ours…remains “ours”. Already I’ve noticed the mainstream haircare lines changing to accommodate us. They don’t care whether we’re natural or not, so long as we keep giving them money.

    Which is why when blogger Anna Renee wrote about how black women in America, for example, are at the risk of financially sabotaging the movement, I realized that we’re just getting started.

    • MsAfropolitan

      As soon as it moved to mainstream the financial side of the movement became commercial, but I think there are quite a few brands who are ethical still. And not because they claim that they are, but as consumers we can and should be aware of a brand story, nowadays so accessible simply by reading the stories behind brands on their website like Oyin for example, is encouraging.

  • Melody

    This is a sensitive issue for me because l dont like the hair i was born with and until now i was avoiding the subject. Thank you for this particular article. Women love yourselves the way you are. Your hair is part of you too.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comment Melody, I hope you grow to appreciate your hair with time.

  • teachermrw

    I am glad you are keeping the hair talk alive, and done with intelligence and insightfulness.

    Like many people of African-American descent, I spend most of my days in predominately-White environments. In that environment, when people, who are mostly White women, comment on my hair, they comment on the length; I wear a teeny weeny afro. They often remark that it must be so “liberating” to have short hair. Well, yes, but, it is liberating, but not only for its length but also for the reasons about which you write in your post, and that’s the part of the conversation most White people cannot fully grasp.

    • MsAfropolitan

      How true your last statement is. You should tell that next time. I think it can be an eye opener for many white people. Thanks for the article compliments :)

  • Val

    Thanks for this hot button post, and the links to the blogs. Though, I have been “natural,” and am currently not (nor intending to be for some time), I respect and admire the choice for a black woman to wear her hair in its natural state when the world at large encourages her to do otherwise. I’ve had a chance to look at Natural Belle’s blog, and I really appreciate her inclusion of all women (natural and not), while she embraces her own natural beauty.

  • Natural Belle

    Thank you for the shout out and mostly thank you for this post in general. one thing I’d like to highlight is that this ‘movement’ began with women supporting and sharing with each other, like sewing circles or a book club it was about sisterhood and e-friendship, as it becomes more mainstream it is becoming more divided, watered down and more about how much money companies can make from bloggers and consumers.
    and also hair is integral and important to most women of all races it just so happens that our hair has been ridiculed, sidelined, tortured, and unloved for generations so yeah it means alot to us and it should be discussed.
    thank you for your fab website and thank you Val xx

    • Val

      Okay ladies, inspired by both of you and others that I’ve seen online (Cipriana, and many many more), I’m giving natural hair a go… for as long as I can. Thank you!

      • MsAfropolitan

        I’m honoured to have been one of your inspirations. Thank you. i think you are going to love it.
        Be patient in getting reacquainted with your hair texture and if you have similar reasons as I listed in the post for for wanting to go natural, then you may find patience in that sense of healing I was talking about.
        Thanks for letting us know, it shows that we indeed can have progressive conversations through hair.
        I’m smiling. x

  • SOASian

    Hey Ms. Afropolitan :)

    I totally agree with the copy and paste comment (“there’s an abundance of natural hair blogs that simply copy and paste information and pretend to be doing something avant-garde”) Thanks for the two blog links, will check them out.

    I stopped putting chemicals or using chemical-heavy products in my hair about 11yrs ago and for me it was an outward confirmation of a change that had taken place within. Initially some of my friends, and even strangers (particularly at the salon!) would make harsh comments and I’m amazed to see some of the same girls now asking for tips on natural hair care. While most ppl have complimentary comments lately, yesterday someone still asked me at the gym why I prefer my “mop” and “spider like” hair to a perm. I was told “its just hair”….so I wonder if my skin is also “just skin” so I can bleach it to my peril loll.

    Back to your question – where has it come from? Hmmm with the countless hair blogs aand followers, I also sometimes wonder how many are retaining their natural hair texture for health reasons and love for of heritage as opposed to joining in on a growing and ‘trendy’ fad ….kind of like a new type of weave or a holiday spot! Whatever the motive though, it’s good to see the renaissance!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Indeed, whatever the motive, it’s a good development. But it’s nevertheless interesting to see an emergence of natural hair weaves. It shows that it’s very much a trend as it is about heritage!

  • Cipriana

    .First let me say I am humbled by your words thank you so much for including UrbanBushBabes what a compliment. Love your site as well and we have always loved NaturalBelle. I just have to say what an intricate and needed topic of discussion. I definitely would not judge anyone on how they prefer to where their hair, natural or not because I do believe the old saying “you can never judge a book by it’s cover” (after all look at Oprah, Michelle Obama and Corretta Scott King). Sometimes within speaks volumes and can leave the outer appearance as an afterthought. On the other hand I definitely feel Natural hair is not “just hair” if that was the case natural hair would not arise all these topics of discussions and because of this I feel it is raising an awareness that can lead to healthier choices in lifestyle as well as self -confidence. Anything that produces healthy and positive questions and conversations amongst us I see as a beautiful place to be. Thank you again :)

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Cipriana, Thanks for your comment, I completely agree. So many of us have rocked weaves and relaxers anyway before going natural so it would be hypocritical to judge. There are many layers to the story and what we ought not do is simplify any of them. Keep up the great work and keep inspiring us with that amazing mane of yours :)

  • Anna Renee

    What a wonderful article. I agree that we should keep talking about our hair, because it is so intertwined with our spirits. As Lorette the loctician states, becoming natural is a 1st step of “fixing” our spirits.

    Though it may seem shallow because it’s “just hair”, for us, it’s anything but shallow! Our hair is a bold statement of our uniqueness! God made it that way.
    When I’m feeling badass, my natural hair goes against the grain of western decorum!
    When Im feeling powerful, my hair can make that statement for me! When Im feeling soft and sweet my hair is soft and fluffy to me. My hair speaks volumes! Then there are times when Im not focused on my hair at all.

    I believe that all women of color should live for five years with natural hair! Just to learn their inner strength. Even if they decide to go back to perms or whatever, that five years would teach them alot about self acceptance and being at peace with oneself, even in the face of negative people.

  • MsAfropolitan

    Great suggestion :) It took me the first 2years if not more of relearning my hair and if I hadn’t been patient, I may have given up on learning how to look after it

    Thank you!

  • Mads

    I think the hair conversation is one we’ve been having for decades and will continue to. The natural hair movement isn’t as popular here in the UK as it is in the US (yet) and I am still having to defend my decision to go natural.

    Like a lot of people of West Indian heritage there is a lot of every race in my blood so I have naturally long, fine hair. I wasn’t allowed to relax my hair until I was an adult (18) and kept it that way for 10 years until I couldn’t be bothered/was tired of wasting my money/damaging my scalp etc. White people assume my hair is relaxed (I don’t care what they think) – my problem is other black women! Growing up I got such hate because of my hair and now I get all the ‘is your hair real’ or ‘you’re so lucky to have such good hair’ comments which I know they think is a compliment.

    My issue is that my 5 y/o daughter does not have hair like mine and although it is past her shoulders, it is typical afro hair which I braid and love and like me, she won’t be allowed to relax it (god forbid) until she’s an adult. All the comments about how lovely my hair is, and ‘thank goodness she has your hair’ are making her dislike her hair in favour of mine. I try and reason with her (as much as you can with a 5 y/o!) but the seeds of doubt are being planted!

    • MsAfropolitan

      You might have tried this already but you could perhaps cut out glamorous pictures from mags with women with afro textured hair for her to admire.
      Several friends who have daughters have shared similar stories with me, it’s sad and tough to know what to do. Shows that there is something deep rooted with society and our hair.
      I hope it’s a short phase in your daughter’s life.

  • laraba

    Very insightful. thanks for this post.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for reading