Hair Wars

To straighten or not to straighten? That's a question many Black women and girls ask themselves on the way to their hairstylists.

Thinking back to London in the 2000s, when I was a little girl, having an Afro was as Black as you could get. Today, it’s still considered the look that reflects true natural Black style.

Growing up in east London was great in the sense that everyday I could see a wonderful catalogue of Black hairstyles. I remember being dragged to the grocery store with my mother and being in awe at so many dark-skinned women with different styles. Some had weaves, others had beaded braids – and I’ll treasure the day I saw a multi-coloured braided updo.

My natural hair texture was kinky and tough, so my mother decided to straighten it for practical reasons. But as I grew older I began to notice how individuals in the Black community simply embraced their natural hair. In fact, they condemned hair straightening. By 2018, aged 20, I felt pressure from both my peers and the media to go natural.

The pressure was something I had never experienced before. It was a feeling of shame and disappointment, constantly weighing on my inner self. I felt ashamed of my straight hair. I felt like a Judas in the Black community. Every time I saw my reflection in a mirror, my mind raced with the repeated thought, “I have let my ancestors down”.

My inner demons finally won out. I decided I had had enough of my internal shame monster. I reached into my bathroom cabinet and grabbed the scissors. Time for my Big Chop.

Once my mother had finished tidying up after the Chop, I looked into the mirror and, to my disbelief, I smiled. No, more than that – I grinned! To see the strength and tenacity of my little mane in its natural state was abruptly, spectacularly, delightfully life changing. The short spirals of each curl on my head each seemed to have an identity of their own. It was an overwhelming moment. Long-nurtured heavy feelings of shame were lifted in an instant, replaced with admiration and awe and a rediscovery of self.

Presented in fashion magazines, natural hair has become the trend that everyone, black or not, wants to obtain. Straight, European styles are out. ‘Black power’ is in. ​

​The hair styles of Black models are typically more intricate than Caucasian models because of the thickness and texture of the hair – it’s simply stronger, better able to hold cornrow styles for long periods of time. ​

As a child, I would see front covers of magazines full of Black fashion and style icons. I would go to my local newsagent and look at the magazines that I knew I couldn’t afford, hanging around until I got kicked out.

But let’s kick back a generation to understand when progress was first made. Sara Lou Harris, Helen Williams, Donyale Luna, Naomi Sims and Charlene Dash were the Black models who emerged in the 1970s, redefining what beauty was to black women globally, regardless of the limited visibility they often had in a fashion industry full of racism.

Credited as the first Black supermodel, Naomi Sims was known for her complex yet smooth and straightened hair. As western societies became more accepting and a more diversified media emerged, Sims was one of the first dark-skinned models to make it to covers. She featured in top magazines of the period such as Ladies Home Journal and LIFE as well as Vogue. A true natural beauty, she appealed to both consumers and designers, even at a time when civil rights were still a huge issue in America. The designer Halston referred to Sims as “the great ambassador for black people”.

In 1979 Sims decided to capitalise off her hair by creating a business for Black people to buy extensions and wigs that matched their natural textures. Hers was a landmark concept – she was the first to create extensions targeted at Black women. Many American department stores rejected her idea, apparently uncomfortable with selling products specifically for women of colour. A big mistake – the business was reporting sales of $5 million within no time, promoting and championing both natural and straightened hair, in the process transforming ideas as to how Black people’s hair should be.

Despite all this progress, there is still a depressing sense of judgement that endures to this day felt by many Black women who opt for a natural hairstyle. Our hair, we sense, is still considered a form of distraction – a distraction to be ‘​tamed​’.

Apparently contradicting that, fashion stylists have adopted – or appropriated – styles such as braids and cornrows, presented as a fashionable switch up to their standard styles. It’s painful to observe. See it from a Black girl’s perspective – white people wearing styles that have historically belonged to people that have been oppressed and continue to lose out on opportunities, even in the 2020s.

But I try to remain optimistic. We ​all​ should have a freedom to wear our hair however we want as well as to share and inspire others around the world to embrace their freedoms. Natural hair or straightened hair? They’re both fine, regardless of one’s skin colour. The choice of hair style shouldn’t be an issue that provokes shame or hurt.

I hope that the choice of hair for Black women might cease to be an issue in future. A new generation of Black models, such as new supermodel Anok Yai, can set the right kind of example. They can represent our collective sense of liberation about our hair. Black hair. ​Our​ hair.

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