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By Maxine Harrison
“Unkempt’, ‘unprofessional’ and ‘distracting’ are tropes often thrown around when talking about natural Black hair in the office, yet when Prime Minister Boris Johnson turns up looking the way he does, without a single combed strand of hair - the crowd stays silent.”
There are many things that form up our identity as individuals, and culture is of course a part of it. How we grow up, how we are raised, whether it is with self-love and self-confidence or not, shapes a significant part of who we eventually become. For me specifically, my hair has always been a big part of my identity.
My childhood consisted of routinely going to a family friend’s house to braid my hair. At this time, although I wasn’t a fan of the pain I experienced when doing my hair, I liked the bonding experience it offered, as I would get to hang out with my friends in the process. I also do believe that there were fewer resources back then to deal with detangling black hair textures. Times have certainly changed. There are now a lot more black-owned hair care products; products that clearly indicate what works best for Black hair types, and are so much better than in those days. There is also more awareness around self-acceptance and embracing your natural roots, with amazing campaigns like Halo Collective recently, which have set up a code of guidelines encouraging institutions to use it to protect students and workers with natural hair from being discriminated against.
As a teenager, my lack of knowledge on how to care for my hair type prevailed. My hair is on the coarser texture of the hair grading system (4C) and I didn’t really know what the right tools were on how to style my hair, without the fear of hurting myself.
So when I was around 14 years old, I took the leap. I decided to relax my hair. I thought this would solve the ‘hair management’ issue. Around that time, relaxers were a thing, and the natural hair movement hadn’t yet resurfaced.
Black hair has long been a big topic in the Black community, playing a huge part in the beauty industry. Stats have shown that African and Caribbean women invest around 80% more on cosmetics than their non-Afro Caribbean counterparts. This further illustrates how important hair care is as part of Black culture.
Something else that could explain these figures is that natural hair textures are often politicised. ‘Unkempt’, ‘unprofessional’ and ‘distracting’ are tropes often thrown around when talking about natural Black hair in the office, yet when Prime Minister Boris Johnson turns up looking the way he does, without a single combed strand of hair - the crowd remains silent.
These pressures to conform to Western, caucasian beauty standards are very real and are often what influence many Black women to straighten their hair or wear styles that resemble caucasian hair.
A large portion of Black women, including myself, have gone through the process of enduring scalp burns from chemical relaxers at a point in their lives, just to achieve a look that would flatten out the kinks and coils that naturally grow on our heads.
It wasn’t until I was in my last year of university that I embarked on my natural hair journey. Around that time, the modern-age natural hair movement finally arose, which really helped me and showed me a simpler way of life.
Now, four years later, embracing my natural Black hair has allowed me to find my own identity, but it also guided me professionally. Natural hair is now my niche as a freelance writer. I have come to love my hair in its natural form, and thanks to YouTube tutorials, I have also discovered and learnt how to care for my particular hair texture.
My university experience also taught me culture is a big part of my identity and showed me just how much. Having moved from one of the most multicultural cities in the UK to a city with predominantly white people, the contrast was very apparent. I yearned to meet people from my culture; something I had often taken for granted when I lived back home in London.
During my student years, I would look for hairdressers that could do protective hairstyles for Black hair, and I struggled to find affordable prices. This was something I usually never struggled with in London. Eventually, I met some fellow students, who were offering hair services at more affordable prices. Community played its part. Connecting with them over thick, Black, coily hair like mine was refreshing. It felt like home.
Now that I have, quite literally, reconnected with my roots, my hair is an even stronger part of my identity, as I embrace it in its natural fullness. This was something I used to battle with, but not anymore.
My university experience and more specifically, my personal hair journey, all relaxed and natural, taught me just how much hair is a key part of my Black culture and identity. This isn’t something you necessarily grow up to know naturally, and I learned it along the way. My personal relationship with my own Black hair also helped me understand the importance of human connections, and how much sharing the experience of self-discovery and self-love could shape me as a person.