In its natural state or not, it’s time we saw the true beauty of afro-textured hair – and that starts with our hair vocabulary. In honour of World Afro Day 2021, Nateisha Scott investigates.
The afro hair journey is as complex, fragile, and unique as its molecular structure, bound and interwoven by a history of discrimination, hardship and inferiority laid out by long-presiding Eurocentric ideals of beauty. Over decades, its history has witnessed manipulation and trauma, and as a result, its kinks and coils have consistently been put under strain to conform to the beauty standards laid out by a western agenda.
It wasn’t until the rise of the natural hair movement, championed largely by social media and key cultural influences, that our outlook on our own hair finally shifted. But, like any double-edged sword, while we openly accept the beauty of our texture, afro hair continues to be bound by a vocabulary hell-bent on taming, controlling and processing its natural state.
The history of Black hair
Throughout history, afro hair has constantly been othered. “Hair has always been an important part of Black history,” shares Charlotte Mensah, hairstylist and author of Good Hair. “Our hair is so versatile and unique that it is deeply embedded into our culture. However, because of ideas rooted in Eurocentrism, for example, natural kinky hair has been seen as ‘unprofessional’ and so smooth, silky straight hair became desirable.”
She goes on to explain that “our relationship with sleek, long and smooth hair is society failing to understand coarser yet equally beautiful textures”. From chemically-processed hairstyles, weaves and wigs to bigger prejudices such as those experienced by people in the workplace, afro hair has constantly been picked apart and labelled as inferior and unworthy. “We were taught by society and often at times within our own culture that the softer your hair, the prettier it is – this perception started to develop within our own homes as children,” hairstylist Larry Sims adds.
With the need to break free from this history and trauma, the Black community has worked tirelessly to reshape the way Black hair is seen, understood, and cared for. “Things have progressed greatly over the years in terms of how natural hair is perceived. Because of so many conversations, natural hair is now embraced by us as a community and in turn has become more ‘mainstream’ – it can be seen everywhere from advertising campaigns to magazine covers,” hairstylist Dionne Smith highlights. In the wake of this natural hair rebirth, we have seen afro hair artistry come alive, awash with braids and colour, hairstyles interlocked by twists, turns, rolls and presses. With freedom to explore our afro hair, it has helped unearth the beauty rooted within.
A restrictive vocabulary
However, while afro hair has flourished to an extent, there’s still this prevailing idea that it should be tamed and controlled, and this is largely perpetuated by product packaging, marketing terminology, advertising ideals and commentary made within the community and wider society.
“There seems to be a real need to constantly control frizz, tame edges and reframe the afro hairstyle to make it more palatable for society. Having untamed edges doesn’t mean your hairdo is dry or not done,” says Mensah. The terminology associated with afro hair has always been a shadow lurking in the background, with these restrictive terms serving as evidence of the subconscious definitions and rules that we still apply to afro hair in order for it to be considered acceptable within both the Black and wider communities.
This terminology has been so easily interwoven into the vocabulary used in packaging and marketing. Common terms such as ‘smooth and tame’, ‘frizz defence’, ‘frizz-free curls’, ‘sculpt & stay gel’, ‘control leave-in lotion’, ‘stubborn edges freezing gel’ and ‘anti-frizz and shine’ to name a few, are terms so commonly associated with Black hair care products, notions that are then unfortunately layered into the marketing. As hairstylist Cyndia Harvey importantly states, “Natural hair is highly politicised. Even the identification and label ‘natural’ as opposed to it being just my hair, is problematic. What I would love for people with afro-textured hair is to feel a sense of ease, relaxation, and freedom when they think of their hair in its most organic form.”
A language of love
What’s needed is an entirely new language for afro hair. A language of love. We need to strip away the boundaries and control and instead prioritising hair health, conditioning it with the love and nourishment it deserves.
It’s about rethinking what your haircare can do to nurture your hair. It’s about investing in quality products, regular hair treatments and gaining an understanding that hairstyles are complete – and just as beautiful – with our edges and texture in whatever state they come. “What’s beautiful to see right now is people tapping into deep self-love and throwing out all of those Eurocentric beauty standards we have become all too familiar with,” adds Harvey. “Afro-textured hair IS frizzy, wild and defiantly unapologetic in its beauty”.
Carving a new route of self-exploration, we need to create a new love language that celebrates the movement, texture and raw beauty that is afro hair. “Afro hair is unique, versatile, and liberating – diverse in all its textures (from kinky coils, curls to wavy) it’s truly one of the marvels of our race. No different to our expression, our smile, we wear our hair with pride because it’s an extension of us,” Mensah declare.
Instead of a language devoted to the taming of afro hair, the gears should be shifted towards a language that focuses on care and conditioning. Terms such as ‘intense hydration’, ‘moisture restore’, ‘curl enhancing’, ‘edge styling’ or ‘richly conditioning’ – these are all terms that not only focus on preserving the beauty of afro hair but prioritise its unique needs around hydration and moisture. Brands that have taken note of this change and are pushing towards reinventing the language, are growing by the day.
The tide is slowly starting to turn. Dizziak, Bread Beauty Supply, Charlotte Mensah Manketti Oil, Nylah and Boucleme are all great examples of brands that are making changes towards the terminology by instead focusing on the performance of their products. Haircare brand Imbue has even replaced the negative words associated with afro hair with blatant terms of liberation – instead of cherry-picking from the traditional (and restrictive) hair dictionary, its shampoo and conditioner are called Curl-Liberating Sulphate Free Shampoo and Curl Respecting Conditioner.
The way afro hair is seen and understood within the Black community as well as wider society needs to be reframed, reworked, re-explored. In order to see it flourish and bloom as nature and culture intended, we need to divorce from the terminology of constraint and fight for a new language – one of admiration, acceptance and artistry.