I spend a large portion of my time thinking about my hair. What colour should I dye it next? Why is it so dry? Should I write another ‘think piece’ about it? Is it making too much of a statement? I have hair on my head and hair on the brain.
It’s not surprising that I'm obsessed, given the journey my hair has been on during its 35-year life span, from natural to braids to perm to relaxer to perm (again) to transitioning to braids to home-relaxer to blow out and finally to natural, right back where it started. There’s been good hair, bad hair, hair loss, hair growth, and a multitude of products punctuating every stop.
A political statement?
Currently, my hair is both its natural texture and bright green. Leaving the house most days, it attracts attention which leads me to question many things about beauty and my identity. Is simply wearing my hair naturally a political act?
Perhaps that sounds a little ridiculous, but I have spent a lot of my adult life worrying whether my hair depicts how in touch with my blackness I am. Is straightening it and aiming for an ideal measured by European beauty standards a sign that I’m denying my heritage?
The Afro has been seen as a symbol of Black power since the ‘60s and ‘70s, when people at the forefront of the civil rights movement, like political activist Angela Davis, wore their natural hair unapologetically. Yet, in the present day, it can still be hard to embrace your natural locks with a sense of pride when adults and children of colour who do so face discrimination in the work place and sent home from school.
On a personal level, I get tired on a daily basis from the assumptions people make about me based on my big, bright curly hair: that I am an extroverted character screaming for attention and that I’m happy for people to touch my hair. But my hair is neither a novelty nor public property; it is just my hair.
The cost of Black hair
As well as the emotional labour of maintaining my natural locks, there’s the physical, financial and practical side to contend with too. The UK Black hair industry is estimated to be worth £88million, which sounds like a lot of products and salons, yet, if you don’t live in or around a major city, you will most likely struggle to find the products you need or a hairdresser that is trained in working with black hair.
When my older sister moved to Norwich she couldn’t find anybody to cut, or style her hair. Unsure of where to go in London, she would have to travel four and a half hours back home to Manchester just to get her hair done.
Living in Manchester, I’ve always had access to products for my hair (unlike my sister) and, in the past few years, not just in specialist places. More recently, stores have begun stocking more natural and cruelty-free products, which has granted me the freedom to be a little more selective with the products I buy.
I purposefully seek out products designed and owned by Black women, because, if I’m adding into the £88 million UK Black hair industry, then I want to support those like me and know I’m getting a quality product. Who better to buy from than those who have first-hand experience with Black hair?
Black women have revolutionised the Black hair industry
Because Black women are marginalised across the world, you may be surprised to know that they have actually been integral to the rise of the black hair industry.
One of these was Annie Malone: an African-American woman who invented hair products and cosmetics for Black women. In 1902, she successfully went knocking door-to-door selling her ‘Wonderful Hair Grower’ formula, and then employed other women to sell her products. This included another African-American self-made millionaire Madam C. J. Walker, who, with her own cosmetics and hair care product line, trained thousands of other Black women in sales and grooming.
Apprentice Majorie Joyner enrolled at Madam C.J Walker’s Beauty School in 1912, and eventually became one of her national advisers, overseeing 200 of Walker’s Beauty Schools. Joyner also invented the permanent wave machine - an expansion on an earlier model - to curl women’s hair.
These women were instrumental in creating safe spaces and freedom for other people of colour, and not just through skill sharing and financial stability. Joyner and Walker were both civil rights activists, using their wealth to support Black-owned businesses and institutions and to encourage beauticians to engage in political movements. Salons were even used as a safe meeting spaces for civil rights organisations. These days, salons are still vital in building the community and providing a space for women of colour.
The salons at the centre of the community
Salons for black hair can feel unprofessional. I’ve spoken to friends about how a 10am appointment can result in me not being seen until midday and not leaving until 3pm for something as simple as a wash, cut and blow.
“But your appointment was at 10am!” they say, in shock. Which is true, but so was everyone else’s: the person having a relaxer, the one having a weave, the one having a perm, the one having braids, and the one having a wash and set, all being seen to by one or two hairdressers.
Yet, getting my hair cut is one of the very few times I am mostly surrounded by women of colour, and I love it. Women with their wigs off, women with their weaves out, women with their hair in its natural state, talking about family matters, work ventures, the latest soap opera storylines, it’s all there: Black women just taking up space!
As a lot more Black women embrace their natural hair, they’re also embracing the Black community as a whole, seeking out salons and products that are Black-owned, trained, or invented. We have a tradition of supporting each other, and of maintaining the support that started long ago, from Black women tending to each other’s hair on plantations to the likes of Majorie Joyner supporting civil rights activists in the ‘60s.
The importance of Black hair is much more than curls, colour and complying with European beauty standards. It’s about history, ownership, community, self- expression and, most importantly, taking up space.