'Hello aunty, I booked an appointment'
'What are you doing?'
'I booked for 9:00, I wanted to be the first today'
'Oh okay, sit down I will be done soon'
30 mins later ...
1 hour later ...
2 hours later ...
'I am coming eh'
For most black females, this scenario should not come as a surprise. You plan in advance only to be waiting around, watching Nollywood films because your hairdresser decided to book three other people at the same time. You already know it is pointless organising lunch or dinner with your friends because you will pretty much spend the whole day (and a half) sitting under a dryer chair (not to dry you hair of course), smelling the Blue Magic in the air, whilst the aunty who turned up just before you ( with no appointment.. of course ) gets her hair done before you. But all jokes aside, I am only reminiscing on my personal experience of afro hair salons because hair continues to be of great significance and value within African, American and Caribbean communities. In fact, it has become the common denominator across multiple ethnicities in which black women share their hair journeys, tips and must-nots with a wider audience, thus creating an open channel for women to educate themselves about hair types and styles. You name it, afro, twist out, box braids, Senegalese twists, perms, afro kinky, dreadlocks or even going from colour 1a to 2b; we have all become experimental with our hair.
However, across history, the way in which we have chosen to style our hair determines our beauty, political stance, culture and socioeconomic status, be it directly or indirectly. And this parallel persists in today's society, unless you've been living under a rock for the past five years you will have most likely witnessed or heard the powerful growing voice of black women speaking out on oppression, mainstream society, self-worth and last but certainly not least, hair. When asked whether she was making a political statement with her hair during an interview with Channel 4's news presenter, Jon Snow, the Award winning African author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie answered:
Black women's hair is political. I don't intend to, but I do. By walking into a room with my hair like this [cornrows using Afro Kenke hair] people make immediate assumptions. If my hair isn't straight people can assume that you are either an angry black woman or very soulful or an artist or they might think that you are a vegetarian. What does society tell us is beautiful? Because when we look at women's magazines and what's on television it's straight hair. And it's something that I want to challenge.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi is one of the many voices that have spoken about the use of perming creams, revealing, 'relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you', whilst other natural hair advocates have gone as far to say that 'natural hair is a nod to being a real African', and that relaxers are one of the many dangerous lengths black women are willing to go to in order to achieve an unattainable European standard of beauty which is based on an oppressive and unrealistic ideal.
To some extent, the latter is not incorrect. Research shows that chemical relaxers are indeed harmful and damaging not only to our hair but to our health as well, and that within western societies, beauty remains synonymous with straight hair. From the mainstream makeup brands that only offer one shade of foundation and choose to name it 'chocolate, 'mahogany' or simply 'dark', to being unable to buy nude tights because apparently the colour nude is a shade to which only women with lighter skin tones are entitled, a realm wherein women of colour utterly fail to exist. As a result, many believe that black women have had to conform or change their physical appearance in order to fit in. Not true? Well if we are truly proud of who we are, then why do many of us show a preference for extensions, weaves, wigs etc. over our natural hair? Why is it not our default hairstyle, but rather simply chosen on occasion? Consequently, whilst our hair choices may appear to be our own, there are many social factors that come into play when deciding on how you choose to look when you step out of the house.
However, the other side of the coin reveals that some women simply cannot identify the correlation between perming one's hair and the abandonment of heritage, roots and history. I asked amongst my girlfriends who have or who continue to relax their hair about this issue and one of them replied:
'Okay so right now I am rocking a lace wig. And the idea that people think I am insecure or ashamed of who I am is completely absurd. You don't know me, or where I come from, or what I believe in. I have the right to choose what I do with the hair which grows on my scalp. Just like my nails, my clothes and my make-up, I play around and try different things. Why should I be treated any different to other girls of different ethnicities who do the same thing? It's never a problem when a white woman does something to her hair, quite the reverse, it's beautiful, it's cool, but if we do, it's a betrayal to our ancestors?'
Another friend said 'I have a problem with women who are unable to leave the house with their natural hair. That I believe is a problem. But if you not only love your natural hair as well as other styles as well, then what's the problem? You are not more 'African' or 'Black' than the other sister in the 26-inch weave. I've seen girls who believe that by going natural you become more in touch with your roots and yet cannot speak a word of their African tongue, let alone understand their history. You simply cannot judge 'blackness' by the texture of your hair'
The heated debate went on for a couple of rounds (these girls never seem to want to quit). But they made me realise that hair is not only an inescapable factor which touches upon the complexity of colourism, racial and gender inequality, however to simply believe that all women who relax their hair or wear weaves and wigs do so in order to satisfy a deep-rooted desire to be white, thereby undermining the essence of being 'black', would be to window dress the issue. Here are a product of women who find themselves in limbo as they refuse to be dehumanised and boxed into a category yet again because of the way they style their hair, only this time by their own community. Despite obtaining equal rights, we are yet to share the same privileges as other women of different ethnicities and communities who are not judged by their hair choices. And as a result, we remain imprisoned within our own history, imprisoned within our gender and imprisoned within our own race.
We have obtained the right to express our style and identity through our physical appearance without the fear or pressure of being labelled as a sell-out, or our actions interpreted as a sign of white supremacy. Instead of putting so much emphasis on how our hair determines our race, class, education, or self-worth, the best approach would be to shift our voices and energy into changing the negative perceptions of natural hair. We can be beautiful, successful, ambitious, sexy and professional with the hair which grows naturally from our scalps, however if we choose not to, our identity remains the same. The truth lies in the fact that our hair cannot determine our 'eligibility' nor meet the requirements which determine whether we are 'black' enough.
At the beginning of this article I shared my experiences at the hair salons with you, and as I draw to close I'll give you another insight into my life. I did the big chop about three years ago, and I did so not because of any social trend, or to be in touch with my roots but rather because I became aware of the dangerous side effects. And I can tell you today, I do not feel anymore Ghanaian today than I did on that day because, as my girl India Arie sings beautifully, I am not my hair.