A conversation about black women’s hair and the reason I cried when I finally learnt how to manage my 4C hair and why it DEEPLY matters

I am what most would classify a coconut (a black person, who speaks and uses mannerisms that most would consider). I’m not particularly fond of the term but I know it’s widely used and in my case it’s because of how I speak English, with a twang (I cannot hear it by the way) so it doesn’t surprise me when people make a remark. The main reason for this is that I was in a Private school from Grades 3- 8, where we were only 3 black girls in a class of 15 at some point and a small part of a handful of black learners in the entire school for most of my early school years. This is why my life is so rich with a diversity of friends from different races and cultures.

Hair started being significant for me when I moved from a predominantly black school to one where there were different races in 2003 not only from what I saw on other learner’s heads but in story books. When I started at my new primary school my English wasn’t at its best, so to improve it my mother brought me books, particularly fairytales, Cinderella, Snow White and the like. A princess always had long, straight and full hair, this my child mind concluded made her beautiful. The learners in my school only solidified what my story books had been communicating all along, of what a princess’s hair should be. Most of my friends had long straight hair and I remember looking at it with a deep sense of longing. Having never seen a princess with coils on her head like mine. I remember so many people making a remark that my hair looked a lot like steel-wool, which is used in cleaning pots, I was told my hair looks dirty and people made jokes about how rough my hair was.

Most black hair types however look nothing like Cinderella and Snow White, our hair grows mostly in coils or curls and for some it barely reaches the shoulders. So how is it different you may ask, well you see, black hair isn’t all the same, some hair curls, some coils, some hair has volume and some hair is thin, it could be that in a group of black women they could all have different hair types that work like this:

These are the different hair textures and mine is the last 4C

This classification of hair came about in 1997, when a hairstylist Andre Walker, created a numerical grading system for hair types. Where he classifies afro-textured hair as ‘type 4’ (there are other types of hair, defined as type 1 for straight hair, type 2 for wavy, and type 3 for curly, with the letters A, B, and C used as indicators of the degree of coil variation in each type), with the subcategory of type 4C being an example of afro-textured hair. However, afro-textured hair is often a challenge to categorize because of the many different types. Those include patterns that are (mainly tight coils), pattern size (watch spring to chalk), density (sparse to dense), strand diameter (fine, medium, coarse), and feel (cottony, woolly, spongy).

I only found out about the correct terminology of afro hair last year at the age of 28, for years I convinced myself and was convinced by others that my hair is stubborn, ugly and needs to constantly be straightened for it to be somewhat manageable.

I grew up convinced that I would never look like all the princesses whose stories raised me and shaped my idea of beauty, this mindset didn’t start only in my childhood but has deeper and more painful roots, my mother straightened her her religiously and later removed it altogether. The women I grew up with also were adamant about keeping their as straight as possible, but what could have been the reason? Let’s consider the history of black hair for a moment.

Afro’s were never a problem to Africans they only started being a problem when colonialism began and western oppression, Afros and different African hairstyles were used to distinguish and identify people on the basis of their tribe, occupation and societal status. Beyond being a natural aspect of African beauty, African hair and its unique texture sets us apart as a race, and its delicate nature requires deliberate and specific attention. European explorers and their governments in a bid to assert racial domination went as far as fabricating scientific data to prove that the African man was a lesser human, all in a means to justify the ‘civilization’ of Africans.

Using humiliation and psychological warfare, the Europeans facilitated propaganda to ensure that Africans hated every aspect of themselves. Slaves were not allowed any personal belongings(or even clean water), including their instruments of hair maintenance, resorting to using grease to lubricate their hair, and using metal ornaments used to groom sheep to comb their hair.

Over half a century since the independence of most African nations, and close to a full century since the abolishment of slavery, the psychological implications and self-hate are still very present in most African communities. Natural hair is still not embraced, and many people still maintain conservative opinions about traditionally hairstyles African styles.

You might be tempted to see these perceptions as exaggerations, that can’t really cause much harm, but you would be wrong. As hair forms an intrinsic part of identity, it’s appearance to some, can lead to harmful perceptions and deeply challenging self esteem issues.

D(The above has been adapted from) https://thenativemag.com/history-value-afro-hair/

This history has a deeply interwoven phenomena that shouldn’t be dismissed and swept under the “not everything is about race” mat, because believe it or not most oppressive systems have been derived from oppression and their history matters it DEEPLY MATTERS!

It would be harmful to not consider the above when we speak on black hair. The truth is most black people hate their hair, because their mother’s and grandmother’s hated it as well. I grew up when natural hair wasn’t as widely embraced and this had dire effects on my self esteem. I thought my hair was what prevented me from being seen as a beautiful girl and I promised myself that as soon as I got the chance I would do whatever it takes to make my hair look “princess like” and so I did as soon as my parents allowed more freedom, I relaxed my hair, you see relaxing hair is when you use a chemical to straighten hair by penetrating the cuticle and the cortex layers of the hair shaft to loosen the natural curl pattern. This process leaves the hair weak, brittle and prone to breakage. It can even burn your skin, cause severe damage to the scalp and often leads to permanent hair loss.

Relaxing is the most painful thing that you can do, especially if you do it without proper knowledge, most of us have “burnt” our scalps and could tell stories of how excruciating this process was, but in an attempt to be accepted by our peers and even more deeply by ourselves we endured the pain.

As a young woman being accepted matters and how people see you is as equally important. I wish I grew up with people who wore their natural hair more, particularly their 4C hair which is my hair texture. Relaxers were not very effective for me because as soon as it got humid or any amount of water touched my hair it would curl again and so after every hair wash my hair would be in it’s original form in no time. This was as you can imagine quite a frustrating process.

In 2019 after years of using chemicals I decided to stop using chemicals in my hair. (I also want to say: to the women who use chemicals, this is not in any way me judging you or saying you are less African because of your decision to use chemicals in your hair, you are free to do with your hair as you please, this is just my story) I stopped using every form of relaxer and started doing research on how to manage my hair, the first ever video I watched on natural hair maintenance, was of a beautiful woman whose name is Sinovuyo Mondliwa do yourself a favor if you want to start this process and subscribe to her YouTube channel, https://youtu.be/n8-iKeOXbGM (the first video I of hers I ever watched) I remember not knowing where I’d start, it seemed so overwhelming, I started buying so many products and trying so many things. I memorized how beautiful Sinovuyo Mondliwa was, for my child mind, my child heart, for all the times I’d looked in the mirror and wanted to shave all my hair off! In frustration and feeling overwhelmed with my hair, she was to me what I’d always needed growing up, someone who embraced what I was shamed from loving.

Growing up my hair was always kept short, my parents didn’t know to maintain it and so I never learnt a thing about natural hair as well. I only learnt how to wash my own natural hair at the age of 28 about a year ago and when I figured out how to do it I cried, I CRIED because so much of my identity is in my hair, I cried tears of joy and tears of sorrow, I grieved for the child who wanted freedom from the hair she was born with, because no one had taught her what loving it looked like, I cried for all the young women who like me were never portrayed as princesses but they are. They always have been. I always was.

I wear my natural hair more often now and occasionally take breaks and still have weaves (not because I’m not proud of my hair or don’t want to fully embrace my natural hair but because I love weaves as well, there’s this misconception that women who relax their hair and put chemicals in it are not proud and this is not true at all, everyone has the luxury and the right to do with their hair as they please and this says nothing about their African pride), so with that being said friends let me tell you a few things that are hurtful and that you should avoid doing.

1. Asking: Can I touch your hair? (our hair is not a spectacle for you to asses, unless we have some form of relationship and I give you permission prior to you even asking)

2. Making remarks such as: I prefer your hair in this form (weaves and chemicals) (this implies that you dislike our hair in it’s most natural state and if you really feel this way it’s okay but rather keep it to yourself) unless we have a personal relationship and I can say the same about yours.

3. Please don’t smell our hair (I cannot tell you how uncomfortable it is and yes people do it, imagine a random stranger sniffing your head? Surely I don’t have to explain why this is offensive)

4. Don’t say things like: Why do you wear “white peoples hair” some weaves/wigs are very expensive and our reasons for using them are not because of lack of pride but personal preference, unless you contributed in the purchase which can range from R2000 to R15 000 and higher please refrain from making these remarks.

5. Do not ask questions like: Is this your real hair, ( did you see the price above, if I took out that money for something it means it is my property and if it it is on my head, it belongs to me) this is not necessary at all friends.

I would like to mostly make an appeal to my all my friends who may somewhat be guilty of what I’ve stated and have not been educated otherwise, this blog is to educate you, I realize that some of you were not aware of most of what I’ve stated in this blog post, I understand that most of your behavior has not been with the intention to harm, but I hope next time you see someone going about their business and you are tempted to do any of the above you could consider for a moment how you would feel if the above was done on a constant basis to you?

To all the young girls who will read this, I want you to know, your beauty far surpasses the capabilities and length of your hair, you are more than your hair, so so much more, I think of you every time I wear my afro, may you know nothing is wrong with the natural state of your hair, I think of you when I wear my weave, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break every now and then, I think of you when I want shave it all off, I know the constant struggle and the need to put down a load, I wish I could cup your face, place my forehead on yours and remind you that we are kin, you are safe when you are in my presence, to fully be, to thrive without scrutiny, to know African ness is no crime and everything that comes with it, be it hair, facial features and everything in between, rest in this child: you are more that the rigid standards of beauty you have been fed as early as you were able to comprehend, You are beautiful in any state you choose. I’m sorry for all the times you were demoralized for something you hold so dear. I am sorry that I took so long to speak for you and stand with you. I will never spectate or step back, I will never again not use all I have in my power to tell you how I see you, as well crafted princesses. I pray for you often. I love you all deeply. Whatever our history may be.

Dear Sinovuyo, You are the princess I longed for as a child, you are the epitome of beauty for me and I pray you thrive, in business, in love and in all the areas you hold most dear, your videos helped me in a way you will probably never fully know, I found myself in the sacred spaces of your tutorials and your recommendations. I have bought most products, I have stayed away from others, I celebrated with each professional milestone, I prayed on days that were heavy on you and I consider you royalty in every way. Thank you sis, thank you. The troubled and lost child I once was thanks you. From the depths of all I am, thank you, may you be recognized far and wide and may all you touch flourish.

And as always friends,

Life Is Art

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