I first got my hair chemically relaxed when I was 12 years old, after begging my mother to let me do so for at least two years. Surrounded by friends with long, swishy hair at school and constantly presented with images in cinema, TV, magazines and my favourite music videos that suggested straight hair was the pinnacle of prettiness, it was unsurprising that a pre-teen me stubbornly wanted to iron out every kink in my natural hair, trying desperately to conform to the perceived ideals of Western beauty.
Thankfully, some 15 years later, in 2018, the discourse around afro hair has moved on. Mainstream media has slowly begun to show a more varied, representative depiction of modern women, with more inclusive notions of beauty, and the natural hair movement has gone from strength to strength globally. Sadly, some popular titles are still reluctant to celebrate black women's hair in all its glory, choosing instead to photoshop it to make it seemingly more palatable for their audiences. Both Lupita Nyong'o and Solange Knowles recently fell victim to this, and a backlash ensued.
For that reason, we cannot underestimate the cultural significance of the release of Black Panther this week. In the pivotal Hollywood blockbuster, which offers an empowering new narrative, a majority black cast take centre stage as Marvel superheroes. Not only are we at last seeing black characters as we've seldom seen them before, but the film also celebrates afrofuturism fashion and textured hair, with the entire cast sporting beautiful natural styles.
In keeping with this momentous recognition of black power and beauty, Refinery29 UK has collaborated with afro hair supremo, Charlotte Mensah (you may recognise her genius work from Erykah Badu's hair at the Fashion Awards) and photographer Lily Bertrand-Webb on a series of stunning images that honours the art form of afro hair threading. Shining a spotlight on the traditional west African technique, which has been used for centuries as a protective style and alternative to heat styling, four beautiful women below demonstrate the countless, creative ways threading can be worn.
"Hair threading is a technique of wrapping extra strong cotton, wool, yarn or nylon around sections of hair," Charlotte Mensah explains. "All the styles are three-dimensional and are a combination of patterns etched on the scalp and threaded strands which are raised from the scalp. The hair becomes stiff but pliable and is easily coiled into bold geometric shapes. The length of the hair determines the simplicity or complexity of the style."
"I’ve seen a huge cultural shift towards natural afro hair. In 2005, I started a column with a hair magazine called Natural Fix – at that time people would say to me it's just a trend, that is all it will be, but that column lasted over a decade. It's wonderful to see that more and more women are embracing the wondrous textures of their hair and celebrating its versatility with bodacious 'fros, beautiful braids, hair threading, tempting twists and luxurious locs.
"Our hair, in all its diverse texture, from kinky to curly and straight, is truly one of the marvels of our race. Whether we celebrate the rhythm of our natural curls or opt for a straight look, our options are greater than ever. It is important to know your hair and the TLC it needs to stay healthy and luscious. By doing this, every day can be a great one."
My hair is a part of me. Not only in the physical, literal sense but as an extension of myself. It's something I have to take care of, look after and love. I could talk all day about my hair as if it's another person, the love-hate relationship, when one of us doesn't cooperate and when at times we just want to part ways. I love when it can illustrate my mood and be as big or as bold as I want.
The intricacy and skill of hair styling (especially of afro hair) is heavily underrated, and there's so much creativity within it. Threading is an art form; it's something I wasn't very familiar with but having it threaded was so comfortable. It was a weird sensation of someone wrapping parts of my hair; it was similar to the feeling of cornrows but didn't tug the root of my hair. Having my hair threaded gave me the feeling of protection, my hair felt safe from everything – the air, the cold, dryness. It would be something I would rock to make an entrance; it's a very regal style to me so definitely a special occasion! The morning commute does not deserve the slay.
Don't Touch My Hair is a movement but in reality should just be common sense. DTMH to me is "please respect my space" – even if you've asked permission to touch my hair and I refuse, you have no right to feel offended. To reach out and touch something without consent is so uncomfortable. It's been an internal battle as to whether I'm being sensitive for allowing people to touch my hair versus addressing the situation; when I know I don't want to be touched and feeding into someone else's curiosity and perpetuating a behaviour I feel is wrong.
Natural hair is beautiful and it makes me happy that so many people decide to go on a new journey or embrace a new side of themselves. Quite simply, my hair is mine. Your hair is yours. And it's important that we celebrate and appreciate those who embrace the right to do what they wish to their hair. If you wish to chemically treat your hair, straighten it, wear wigs and protective styles, it's just as beautiful as someone else leaving themselves natural. I've noticed that there is a divide and we should be uplifting others rather than tearing them down for not meeting your standard of 'natural'. The beauty standard you set yourself (if any) should always be healthy and fuelled by the love of your OWN self.
Although I do not want to be defined by my hair (I know we are so much more), the historical and systematic experience of black women and our hair carries a lot of weight. My hair in its natural form is my Crowning Glory. (My friend Somalia wrote this play about our experiences.) It's a crown because not everyone can carry it, a crown because in its natural state it defies gravity and stands upright! A crown that I can feel proud of.
The natural hair movement has been rising strong and steadily for the past five or six years and serves as an empowering support system and force for women of colour. By choosing natural styles and saying no to chemical products we say yes to ourselves, our beauty and our history. The heart of this movement is about self-love and I'm here for it. This [threaded] hairstyle, more than any other, often feels emotional for me... It manages to be exposing but protective. In this style my hair is being naturally straightened but at the same time I'm extremely aware there is nothing to hide behind! I actually had my hair threaded by Charlotte about four years ago and I left the salon crying! It really surprised me how deep the scars were. My idea of beauty was so far away from my own version of it. It sounds extreme but prior to that the weaves and wigs I wore had covered my face and were mostly conforming to a European idea/standard of beauty, ie. a loose curl or straight weave. Threading is a bold style commonly found in west Africa but used all over the continent. It has served my ancestors for centuries, and to be honest it feels like it – it's unapologetic and strong. Would I wear this as an everyday style? Now, in 2018 – YES! I feel royal and regal. But it is important and interesting to note that just two or three years ago, absolutely not. It's been years of self-love, educating, learning and unlearning that has got me here, and I'm still going!
I think my hair reflects my personality – big and bubbly, haha. Keeping it in good condition is important to me and I give it extra care because it's coloured. I don't depend on it to make me feel beautiful but I still treat it as an expression of who I am.
It was amazing having my hair threaded! I had never had it threaded before and I feel like it's something more interesting than braids; it feels futuristic! I would wear it as an everyday style, I like the flexibility of it and its hold that allows you to create new shapes.
I don't think there's anything wrong with choosing to wear your hair in all different styles and choosing to have a weave or extensions, but I do think it's important to consider your reasons for doing so and to be honest with yourself. When I was younger, I wanted my hair to be the opposite of how it is now – straight and sleek because that was what was seen as beautiful in the 97% white area I was in. Nowadays, I know better; I understand who I am, know more about my culture and what my natural beauty is and what it means to do me. Learning to love your natural self is a journey and I'm still on it but when it comes to my hair I know that letting it be and embracing it in its natural form is when it's happiest, and so it's when I'm the happiest.
There's nothing wrong with being creative with looks, wearing wigs, putting in extra hair, etc. but you shouldn't get attached to it and feel like you need it to be or be seen as beautiful because you do not. There is nothing more beautiful than something in its natural form. Everyone has their own preference with expressing themselves through their hair but looking after it is my number one priority. I feel like the more girls support and encourage each other through their hair journey, the more we will all feel more wholesome and good enough as we are.
My hair is something I use to express myself. I often change my hair and try out different colours and styles. When I grew up I was surrounded by many of my aunties who knew how to braid hair. So naturally I learned how to do more cultural hairstyles. I think it’s nice to be able to show the versatility in my hair by wearing it straight or curly and also showing my culture too.
I really enjoyed having my hair threaded! My heritage is Ghanaian and my grandmother, who is from the Ashanti tribe, often threaded my hair when I was in primary school. It was also a very good protective style that grew my hair.
I think it’s important to educate people of colour on how to look after their hair. Before the natural hair movement there wasn’t much information on how to manage our hair and that made many people turn to relaxers. Being able to represent yourself in your natural state and also having versatility is very important for your personal self-esteem. I think the movement has helped many people, including me, feel more comfortable in their natural hair and also I enjoy how we as a community can share haircare tips and tricks. Whenever I have a hair dilemma I can always do a quick YouTube search and the natural hair community always has some helpful information. The natural hair movement inspired me to learn about hairstyling and since then I have been doing hair for clients through my Instagram DMs called #chanellygirlhair.