Black Hair is finally popular, but on whose terms?

by - Friday, July 08, 2016

One of the best parts about blogging and the internet in general is that you'll sometimes read or watch something that totally hits the nail on the head of something you've been thinking about but aren;t quite sure how to articulate. A few weeks back I stumbled upon this Guardian Video - 'Black Hair is Finally Fashionable; But On Whose Terms?' and felt inspired to share something of my own thoughts on the subject.

Growing up, I had something of a love/hate relationship with my mop. I can't say that I hated my hair personally, but I hated the attention it needed - how it would never stay in one style, how the baby hairs fluffed up at the front, how bloody much of it there was. My poor mum would rake through it's never-ending knots on a Sunday night as a I screeched and wriggled, often culminating in despair on both sides. I'd wear it in braids to school literally every single day just to keep it contained, resenting the lack of alternative options. 

Occasionally a school disco would roll around and I'd let it puff around a scrunchie as my schoolmates would crowd around and beg to touch it. I never minded that, but I minded feeling different. I'd roll my eyes as they cooed about how they'd love hair like mine, knowing that I'd swap my lifelong addiction to 'dark and lovely' for the low-maintenance of their straight locks. 

At my saturday job as a teenager I was asked to scrape it back or gel it down in order to look 'professional', a tale I see sadly repeated across the Internet. My straight-haired british colleagues didn't get ask the same thing, despite having hair much longer than mine. It's impossible to say for sure that the motivations behind this were racial, but I was definitely made to feel like their was something unattractive and unruly about my god-given frizz. Consequently, i caved around the age of 16 and got a relaxer, partially because of a pathological obsession with My Chemical Romance (emo fringe ahoy) and partially because I was at that horrendous age where fashion really, really matters.  

Fast-forward nearly eight years and the Kardashians and the Hadid sisters have turned braids into a style trend. While this is all totally cool with me and I don't think hairstyles are a cultural appropriation issue, (let's face it, plaits are just darn practical), there is an irony to scrolling down Facebook and see the same schoolmates who mocked you for having pigtails in PE sporting boxer braids with their bodycon dresses on a night out. It's even more frustrating to see fashion magazines and bloggers touting this as some sort of revolutionary look when it has been around for centuries. When paired with a desire to fetishise 'ghetto' culture - gold grillz, velour tracksuits, and the worst, 'plantation chic', it all just leaves a bad taste in my mouth - what happens to us black women when the trend is no longer in season? 

The desire for black people emulating white culture and vice versa have been around for years - just look at fake tan, skin bleachers, bum implants, lip fillers, Brazilian hair treatments...this is less an argument about cultural appropriation, and more a question of why the media can't teach us to stop trying to be each other and instead embrace what we were born with. This obviously has its exceptions and I do truly believe that if something about your appearance makes you that deeply unhappy, you should change it, but I'm talking about the smaller things we all do everyday, just to fit in with whatever is desirable at that time. I'm talking about the young black children who get their hair relaxed before they even know their hair is 'different', and about the content assertation that sleek and straight is the holy grail.

Quite often, it seems like black women simply can't win - frizz-ease is still a number one selling product, and it seems that to have desirable hair, you still have to have it stick straight, in perfect ringlets or as the current 70s trend dictates, a perfectly shaped afro - most black women will tell you that a defined curl is the holy grail. I take care of my hair, but being honest, how it looks on a day breaks down to whether I have been bothered to take an hour before bed plait it over night with a ton of oil and then sleep in a sweaty headscarf (sexy), or whether I've just thrown it back in a breakage- inducing bun, ready to deal with the consequences in the morning. Somewhere on the spectrum of British and Jamaican, I've been left with a half straight, half curl that lends itself to a frizz much more readily than a discernable 'style' - I'm somewhere in that limbo of desirable styles, not quite near either.

Slowly, the fashion industry is coming around to black hair, but the cynic in me does wonder if this is a real sea change or just a trendy flash in the pan movement. Look at your Jordan Dunn's and even Beyonce's of this world - they may champion natural beauty but are still strapped into straight wigs for big shoots or have blonde colouring. This doesn't mean to say that they're bad role models - I will respect any woman or indeed mans right to have their hair however they feel most confident, but I can't help wishing I was seeing a little more variety in the au natural department, or more high fashion stylists who are equipped to style black hair rather than just trying to hide it. 

There is hope - Julia Sarr Jamois, Zendaya, Solange and my absolute superstar, Amandla Stenberg are all great examples of black women who have embraced the natural style that feels right for them, despite whatever criticisms have been thrown their way. Magazines are starting to include tips for afro hair, however tokenistically. After years of chemical relaxers and daily straightening, I've grown to love my hair and am slowly learning how to care for it, but it's been something of an uphill battle. These women give me the strength to hope that the fashion industry really is coming around to a point of celebrating diversity rather than just paying it half-hearted lip service. From now on, I pledge to give the straighteners a rest and enjoy what I've been given - if anything, I wish it were bigger. 

You May Also Like