By Phoebe Boateng
Watching the Channel 4 documentary titled ‘Hair Power: Me and My Afro’ a few weeks ago made me feel so empowered as a black woman. The solidarity that I felt hearing many of my own experiences about my hair repeated on the screen in front of me was therapeutic, to say the least. This documentary touched on so many important topics about black hair that I believe numerous black people can relate to growing up in the UK. It discussed many points, not only within the black community but also the experiences and interactions that we have with non-black people too. The variety of topics discussed can be placed into two categories, confidence, and comfort in one-self and the perception of black hair to non-black people.
Going into black hair salons as a young girl was both a positive and negative experience. In reflection, it was one of the first places outside my home that I felt 100% comfortable, a place that was filled with people who had hair and skin just like me. However, it was a place that continued the narrative of straight hair being a ‘desired’ beauty standard. I remember boxes of hair relaxer on a shelf with packaging showing black girls with hair transformed from curly/ kinky to paper straight, relaxed hair. For those of you who don’t know what hair relaxer is, it is a product that chemically straightens your hair. It changes your curl pattern and relaxer is permanent, so once you relax you can’t go back. Relaxing my hair was a process that left my hair straight, but also left my scalp burnt and hair ultimately damaged. A process that I didn’t fully understand but knew that it wasn’t necessarily good for my hair. Much like skin bleaching, hair relaxing is a process that moves us closer to the Eurocentric and western beauty standard that has been ingrained into global culture as far back as slavery and colonialism. Straight hair or a loose curl pattern has been a desired beauty standard for as long as we can remember, and it is a reinforced beauty standard that causes so many black people to assimilate by using products such as relaxer.
It is not necessarily surprising that relaxer has been so popular within the black community when our hair is forever being policed, from school to the workplace. In the Channel 4 documentary, a girl recounted her recent experiences at school. In this, she described times that she was sent home from school because her hair was too ‘big’, as well as, the countless detentions that she was given because of her hair. She even recalls a time when a teacher waited outside her GCSE exam room waiting to send her home. Listening to this not only made me feel uneasy but also disappointed at the lack of awareness and understanding that non-black people have about black hair and the ignorant and damaging perception that they have. More needs to be done about the perception of black hair and the stereotypes that come with it. From black hairstyles not fitting company dress-code, to black hair being ‘unprofessional’, the list is endless.
Going into Sixth Form I decided to wear my natural hair. In all honesty, I wanted to shave my hair off and start over much to my hairdresser’s dismay. In the end, I cut the dead ends off. It felt like an empowering, bold, and freeing thing to do. I wish that I had decided to do it sooner! Since going natural, I have had braids, worn wigs, and had weaves. Some might question whether weaves and wigs are just as regressive in nature to relaxer. To them, I say no. Firstly, however black women choose to have their hair is nobodies’ business. Secondly, choosing to wear more ‘Eurocentric’ looking hair (weaves and wigs) wasn’t because I wanted Caucasian looking hair, it was because I wanted to try different styles. In reflection, when using hair relaxer, I think that it was a way of looking more like the people I saw in magazines and films and the positive affirmation that I received from others when having straight hair. The difference between wanting to fit in vs wanting to change up my hair is such an important distinction. It is a distinction that highlights the importance of a new era of self-love.
Now, so many black women have either fallen back in love with their hair or fallen in love with their hair for the first time. The natural hair movement is something that has grown over the past few years and it is an amazing thing to witness: to see so many black people unapologetic and comfortable with their hair. Seeing black people being proud of an aspect of our body that has been policed for centuries and continues to be policed is inspiring to say the least.
The conversation surrounding black hair will always be an ongoing topic of conversation as it is a part of our cultural identity. An identity that as we can see, has been stereotyped, policed, and discriminated against. In spite of that, we celebrate ourselves and our beautiful hair.
Channel 4 ‘Hair Power: Me and My Afro’ https://www.channel4.com/programmes/hair-power-me-and-my-afro
About the Writer:
My name is Phoebe and I’m a final year Law student at Keele University. My passions include writing opinion articles about social and political issues and journaling in the form of poetry. I also started a fashion page a couple of months ago showing my love for sustainable and vintage fashion.