Growing up, one of my favorite trips was to the saloon to get a perm because it meant straighter hair. And straighter hair made me look like the actresses in my telenovelas and Hollywood movies. Although I didn’t enjoy the burns I got after the relaxer was washed off my hair or the hair dryer that swallowed my head, I still went happily. There is no beauty without pain or so I thought.
I took those trips every three to four months because that was when the relaxer wore off and my mother would go “Your hair is due, it’s time for a perm” or she would say the sentence containing the word I have grown to hate “you have undergrowth.” I would later learn that undergrowth was my Black hair and it was constantly resisting oppression. The hairdressers like my mother repeated those sentences like the “undergrowth” was a weed that needed to be banished immediately. It had no place on my head. I accepted this and each time my friends’ hair became a bit hard to comb -which I later found out it is because I wasn’t using the right comb or I was not combing it the right way- I told them it was time they got a perm. But I had other friends who didn’t heed my advice. Some of them had never gotten a perm and I would wonder how they were able to wear their undergrowth out in the open instead of tucking it in.
Last year, a girl sparked a big conversation on Twitter about Black hair. In her thread, she talked about black women’s “obsession” with hair that isn’t theirs e.g., Indian and Brazilian weaves, etc. She concluded that Black people have an internalized hatred for their hair and while I don’t agree with everything she said, I agree that we harbor some form of dislike for our hair. For years, I believed our hair should be straight and soft. So, I didn’t like it when my hair stood tall instead of laying down. I didn’t like it when it shrunk whenever water touched it. I didn’t like who my hair was without a relaxer. There were many women and girls who, like me, thought their hair was stubborn and needed discipline. We all grew to dislike our hair and a huge part of this is rooted in colonialism and racism.
When the white men came into our land, they tried to remake us. They introduced their language, their food, their sense of style, and of course their standard of beauty. Everything about us was rejected, deemed unsuitable. People who modeled themselves after the colonialist were given slightly better treatment. That meant straighter hair got the jobs and people who carried undergrowth as hair were oftentimes denied. Even today Black hair is still seen as unprofessional. To fit in with the new culture imposed on us, we began to devise means to straighten our hair. Lack of representation on screen and in the beauty industry fortified the cancellation of Black hair. The women I saw on TV had straight hair with a texture that felt like silk including women who looked like me.
Straight hair is the standard and it pains me that even in a country occupied by Black people like Nigeria, it is the same. I didn’t notice this till my transition in 2016. It started with a few of my friends asking when I was going to get a perm when my natural hair had overridden the straight one. I told them I wasn’t getting a perm and they looked like me I was crazy, then gave me an unsolicited lecture about how hard it is to care for Black hair. What is crazy is, I still get this question every time someone notices my hair is natural. They ask because they believe my hair is not in the right state. Each time I went to the salon, the hairdressers would complain about my hair because they were clueless in the face of Black hair which is insane because they are Black. They would also advise me to get a perm. During my JAMB registration, I took a picture with my hair in a puff and when my father saw it, he asked, “Why did you go in there with bushy hair?”
Some of my friends who are naturalistas have similar experiences. My friend was turned away from a class because her hair didn’t comply with the dress code. Her hair was in a high puff.
I spoke to some other women about the issue and they had the same responses. Nimi, a 300-level student was given a weird look at her exam center because her hair was in twists and was asked why her hair was “unkempt.” This left her clueless about what to do with her hair and also worried that people might not take her seriously. Jemimah, another naturalista was “advised” numerous times to relax her hair. She noted that these encounters were made for her to see her hair as “stressful.” Kevwe had a similar experience as Nimi when she went to a saloon. The hairstylist insinuated that her hair was unruly and would not look nice on cornrows, and she added “person go look like mad person.” None of the experiences stuck with me more than that of a young woman who went on a date with her natural hair and the man told her he liked low maintenance women. I have learned that this misconception is quite common. I find it funny because anyone who knows anything about natural hair knows it is expensive to maintain. It is also disrespectful to sum a person up by merely looking at their hair.
It worries me that Black people are actively participating in the cancellation of Black hair with the comments they make and the rules they enforce. It worries me that we are picking parts of our Blackness to embrace and we don’t even see it. Our hair is part of who we are. It has been painted as an abnormality for years but it is time we normalize it and see it as the crown that sits on our heads.