Written by Ata-Owaji Victor
Three Black women reflect on the pervasive narratives around their hair that had been instilled since childhood.
When it comes to microaggressions, labels such as good, bad and appropriate are some of the clearest examples of racism and prejudice directed at Black and brown people. Cloaked under the guise of uniformity and professionalism, the policing of textured hair (whether in its natural state or in historically Black hairstyles) is far from new.
In the 1960s, the Black is beautiful movement in the US brought the idea of celebrating and empowering Black men and women and their appearance to the fore. The phrase and movement, first popularised by photojournalist Kwame Brathwaite and fronted by the likes of feminist activist Angela Davis, sought to change the narrative around Black hair and features.
In the UK, the case of school girl Ruby Williams – a pupil who was repeatedly sent home from school because of her afro hair was deemed too ‘big’ to fall within the school’s rules – underlined the need for equitable policies in schools. Black hair has been a cultural catalyst for aeons.
According to research conducted by the Halo Collective in 2021, a campaign that has since partnered with Unilever UK & Ireland in order to support their commitment to celebrating natural hairstyles: “One in five Black women feel societal pressure to straighten their hair for work and more than half of Black students have experienced name-calling or uncomfortable questions about their hair at school.”
Additionally, although race-based hair discrimination has been illegal in the UK since the Equalities Act became law in 2010, 46% of parents say their children’s school uniform policy penalises afro hair, while one in four Black adults say they had negative experiences themselves while at school in relation to their own afro hair.
This idea that Black hair is not appropriate for public spaces can also be seen in the workplace, as ‘‘one in four Black adults have been sent home from work or faced disciplinary action as a result of wearing their hair in a natural or protective style’ according to a recent survey conducted by Dove.
In recent years, we’ve seen something of a cultural reclamation of textured hair, spurred on by books such as Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair and online movements like #BlackGirlMagic. However, the negative impact of racialised comments, from E! News anchor Giuliana Rancic’s remarks on Zendaya’s locs to my own mother’s insistence that non-chemically straightened hair makes people think Black children look “messy”, remains undeniable.
Stylist speaks with three women about the word ‘appropriate’ and how it has impacted the relationship they have with their hair.
As the mother of three girls, to say that the politics of hair has become a big thought in my life would be an understatement. I migrated to the UK in my early 20s. Prior to that, I was at boarding school. So, be it to stave off lice or keep up with the times, I’ve always worn my hair quite short.
However, after I had my third child and while I was at university, I found myself having to navigate the negative connotation placed on different forms of afro hair. This isn’t to say that growing up we didn’t have our own biases as to what we perceived as ‘good hair’ but, increasingly, I began to realise the types of hair that were seen as ‘appropriate’ had an impact on what jobs I could get and how far this new society would embrace me.
For me, that means a French chignon for the office and neat hairstyles for my girls that wouldn’t be questioned at swimming or PE. Now, all of my daughters wear their hair unrelaxed and, although I worry about how this impacts how the world views them, I too have begun to try and think a little less about what is deemed appropriate for my age or texture.
For the most part, my experience at school was OK – something that had a lot to do with the fact that my school was relatively mostly Black and I was regularly around all sorts of hairstyles. Despite this, all of our hairstyles had one thing in common: they had to look perfect. People spent ages taming their edges and trying to fix their hair post-PE, all to make sure that it was in the exact same state as it was when they first left the house.
I don’t want to say it was just the pressure to conform because it wasn’t that. Looking back, I have no doubt that the desire to look appropriate, presentable and perfect, came from a place of constantly hearing that your hair isn’t those things. That it isn’t beautiful, isn’t presentable.
Now I wear locs, fully aware of the fact that people have their own assumptions about the style. I’ve worked hard to get to a place where I just don’t care.
Growing up, I used to love wearing straight-back braids. I loved the simplicity of it. Until I started spending time outside of the UK in Nigeria, it was my go-to style. In Nigeria, being well groomed was a priority, so my hair had to be restyled every two weeks – if not, family members would make remarks about it not being clean or groomed enough. I internalised these comments.
Later, when I joined the workforce in the UK, I found it easy to slip into styles that would be seen as ‘appropriate’ because of the impact of propriety and what was seen as an appropriate hair state. I initially stayed away from styles that I loved, like the popular, messy Amy Winehouse-inspired beehive or super-long braids because of a fear of how I would be perceived.
Now I work in the creative industry and experiment a lot more with hair (even using it as an art medium); however, I can’t help but think that even now a ‘messy beehive’ on Black hair is likely to be perceived as ‘not appropriate’, especially in a more ‘corporate’ workplaces.
With initiatives like Halo Code and stars like Flowerovlove, Willow Smith and Tems, we can see that a widespread unlearning of the politicisation of textured hair is happening, encompassing a shift away from the rigid definition of what makes hair ‘appropriate’. In 2022, Black and brown women are demanding to be respected, no matter how we wear our hair: natural, straight, braided, in a wig or weave, and always regardless of texture.
Main image: Stylist
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