My hair: style or political decision?

Text by: Shirlene Green Newball Photos: Kimmo Lehtonen

Weeks ago Miss Universe pageant was held at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia. Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi was crowned Miss Universe. She is 26-year old, an activist who fights against gender-based violence, and an advocate for natural hair.  She said, ” I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair, was never considered to be beautiful”. 

These words are not unexpected for many of us as black women. When I was a child, Saturday evenings were dedicated to my hair. I remember it was not a pleasure. I used to get in a bad mood, cried or shouted to wash and untangle my voluminous hair.

This day was chosen because Mom had time to comb and neat my hair for Sunday school. I guess, for her it was also not easy because she had to spend hours doing this same process to me and my other two sisters, regardless  they have “good hair”.

At age twelve, I started another process: relaxing my hair. Yes, my mom was the one who got it done, but eventually it was done by one of my sisters. My scalp is very sensitive, so by the time it was finished applying I had burn all over. I remember sometimes asking my sisters to rinse my hair before the timing was over because it was painful. 

Besides using chemicals on my hair, I remember also using a hot comb. Along came the burnt of scalp, ears and forehead. What a nightmare I lived, all because we were taught that black women have to relax their hair to look good, professional and acceptable in the eyes of society. 

Across oceans and continents, black people had been discriminated during centuries because of their hair, sex, colour and heritage. In South Africa during the apartheid, hair played a role. A pencil test was done. It was past through each person’s hair to determine racial identity. I guess if I was living there during this period of history, I would have been separated from my sisters because of hair texture differences.

Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in her book Americanah, “Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. […] Your hair rules you. […]You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do. If you go natural and take good care of your hair, it won’t fall off like it ́s doing now”. 

Discovering my hair 

At a Caribbean and Latin-American Afro women summit, I met several girls of my age with natural hair. I was startled went I saw those beautiful black hair, volume and style. But I was most amazingly of the pride they have about it. 

Months later I stop relaxing my hair. I went natural. My hair was reborn. I was glad. I had support from other friends and my partner to go natural. But others were not happy with my decision. My mom was shocked when she saw me for the first time. 

A friend of mine Cynthia Davis who relaxed and blowed-dry my hair for years was not pleased with my real look. She said, “ girl you need to come to me”, I said no. Eventually, she got lo like my natural hair and has been motivated to go natural. 

Alicia Clair, the owner of a bakery shop in the lovely village of Pearl Lagoon, south Caribbean of Nicaragua, is completely proud of her natural hair. Sitting at her place and eating coconut sweets, I heard her story of going natural. She said people had reaction phrases like “what are you doing? are you going crazy? do something to your hair”. 

Alicia thinks that black women should challenge themselves to do it. “ […] It’s part of our identity, not perming it feels good, it’s healthy, the hair has life, […] and you do not kill it”. 

I got to confess that going natural was not easy at first. You fight against your hair to clear it out, to moisturize, and style. It is a process. I learned to feel it, to discover it, fall in love with it, and finally to give and receive. It becomes a marriage between you and your hair. 

Afro natural hair is a gift. It ‘s variable so styling can be fun. But besides being a style, it is also political. My hair is part of me and who I am. With it being natural, I want to demonstrate that I am proud of my Afro heritage and that neither me nor any other black woman should be judged because of our hair. 

4 thoughts on “My hair: style or political decision?

  1. Tu cabello es unico, y propio de cada mujer es que nos permite inventarnos y reinventarnos desde la sencillez de lo natural y desnudo hasta con el uso de productos y accesorios en el..un abrazo!!!


  2. One of the beauty of a women relies on her hair, but it can be different texture and color of hair. Who determines which hair is better than another? The erroneous perception of society. My dear sister, I applaud you and all the brave women who expose and are proud of their natural beauty given by God.


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