Black women have had a long battle when it comes to their hair.
Having it forcibly shaved during times of slavery, wearing headscarves post-liberation, to freeing their afros during the Black Power movement.
Hair, which was manipulated to resemble European hair type classified as ‘good’ by black people, because signalled the ability to fit into formal environments and that they could indeed be professional.
As black women, in particular, noticed the difference in treatment over time, the ideology of straightened hair being good and kinky hair being bad was passed down and enforced on their children through generations.
Today, more and more black women are abandoning the harmful chemicals introduced in their childhoods and shaving their heads in order to regrow their hair in a healthy state.
A huge inspiration for many was the documentary Good Hair by Chris Rock, in which the longtime comedian explored more about what it meant to have ‘good’ hair, and how harmful relaxers are for not only hair but for mindsets too.
Having undertaken the documentary based on his daughter’s feelings about hair, he then began to urge black parents to stop using relaxers on their young children due to the dangerous chemicals in the products.
Processes such as the chemical straightening of hair (known as a perming or relaxing) were done in order to make kinky hair more manageable, as some people’s natural hair can take hours to be detangled and groomed.
These processes were also done to assimilate into the mainstream and predominantly white society, a gradual sense of acceptance has meant that black women are now free to wear their natural hair without fear of repercussions such as unemployment.
The age of which women make such a fundamental
change to their appearance and lifestyles is becoming younger and younger, with natural hair blogger Ginny Pettitt being a major advocate for black women joining the natural hair movement.
Having decided that she wanted her natural curls back at age 11, she went to a salon and cut off all her straight hair.
By allowing her natural hair to show, Pettitt was forced to learn how to manage and care for it and to accept her true self.
Reflecting on this she says: “It was a really interesting experience because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, I just did it.”
A lot of women who go ahead with a big chop find themselves in similar positions with many not knowing their own original hair type and texture due to having had relaxers from a very young age.
These women have had to completely relearn hair care, often being forced to experiment alone as older generations tend to not know how to care for natural hair themselves.
Millennials are often painted to be the most selfish generation to date by baby boomers due to the way in which they advocate for and encourage self-preservation and conservation, with many adopting more of a socialist stance.
As minimalism and veganism become increasingly popular, so has the use of organic products, which relaxers are not.
In order to promote healthy growth, oils such as coconut oil, jojoba oil and shea butter have become increasing popular amongst this age group as they are full of vitamins and have many health benefits including healing scars and other skin ailments. Coconut oil especially was a huge trend in 2015 with people even using it for cooking due to its low cost and great health benefits.
The hair which is cut off in order to ‘go natural’ is often dry, damaged and over-exposed to heat. In a way, this correlates with the mindset of those wearing it who are trying to compress themselves and conform, to the point of actually causing irreparable damage.
Natural hair is a way to symbolise self-love as it is saying, ‘I accept who I am and my natural, true state’, this is difficult for many, due to how visible it is.
To shave your head in order to become natural is to let go of who you may have been all your life, and to start a new chapter in which both you and the world see you in a new light.
However, as millennials, black women are less worried about the opinions of others and seek to uplift and encourage others to embrace themselves and to feel confident.
This is especially marked in the popular hashtag #BlackGirlMagic used on both Twitter and Instagram to ‘celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women’, which when tied to the natural hair movement, reinforces that natural hair is indeed beautiful.
Even within the black community, natural, kinky hair is often seen as messy and, in some cases, too militant – long, straight hair, however, is still perceived as the most beautiful type of hair, and so those who have now chosen to go natural work to change this idea.
A millennial who battled with the concept of hair being beautiful is 20-year old Phalinda Wakadima, who shaved her head six months ago after months of deliberation, believing that if she was to go through with it, she would no longer be or feel beautiful.
She did not have relaxed hair, but always wore weaves and braids, which over the years started to affect her hairline and the overall condition of her hair making it damaged in a way which would not heal.
“The first reason why I shaved my head was because my hair was severely damaged, and I felt like I was holding onto it was because I felt as if my hair was my safety net. So I held onto it for a long time. I didn’t feel as comfortable without hair. I would have conversations with myself about it like: if I cut my hair off, then I’d have no hair, and I can’t rock no hair because that’s not attractive, but as the months progressed I found that I just wanted to get rid of my hair,” Wakadima said.
With women who go through the big chop, the process is either long and well-thought or short and sudden like Pettitt. In either case, it supposedly brings relief and a new sense of self and confidence.
“I cut my hair off, but it wasn’t growing as I was still wearing wigs, but then my mother told me that I should embrace my shaved head as it suited me, so after a while, I cut my hair again. At first, I did feel quite naked and a part of me just felt exposed as all my life I’d had hair… But I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I find that without hair now the thought of being beautiful doesn’t even cross my mind anymore, my preference is to be comfortable,” Pettitt explained.
Words by: Antoinette Wentworth-Smith