If you have afro curly hair, you’ll most likely have used a particular type of hair scale to try and identify just how curly your hair is. Designed by Oprah Winfrey’s hairdresser Andre Walker in the 1990s, the 1a-4c hair chart has become a staple way for many Black women to categorise their natural curls. When going “natural” — breaking away from chemicals and regular usage of heat-based tools to manipulate your hair — one of the first questions posed to you will be: “what is your hair type?”. Everyone from professional Black hairstylists, beauty influencers and TikTok creators, to what feels like the whole natural hair movement seems to use this scale. But the scale has not been without its controversies. How useful is Andre Walker’s hair scale in measuring the variety and totality of afro hair? And does it actually create more issues than it solves?
The hair scale was originally used as a marketing tool for Andre Walker to sell his hair products. The scale is broken into four overall categories; 1a-c are “straight” hair textures, 2a-c are “wavy” hair textures, 3a-c are “curly” hair textures and 4a-c are “kinky” hair textures. The concept was that you would be able to choose from his line of products, based on how your hair was categorised. The scale was created long after the 1970s natural hair movement, where for the first time Black people were being encouraged to embrace and buy products that complement their natural hair texture. Andre’s scale was created during a resurgence of high manipulation of Black hair, such as a return to relaxers and the Jerry Curl boom.
Walker himself has claimed in a 2011 interview with Elle Magazine that, unlike looser 1a-3c hair, “kinky hair can have limited styling options. “That's the only hair type that I suggest altering with professional relaxing," he said at the time. Rather than apologising for what are clearly texturist remarks, he doubled down on those comments when critiqued, adding “my advice is based on how to best achieve strong, healthy hair. So for those who would like to engage me in a debate about who has more racial pride and self-esteem, based on hairstyle preference and use or non-use of chemical relaxers, know that I believe in personal freedom, and in the use of advanced technology when it yields positive results, which many of today's (versus yesterday's) chemical relaxers do deliver." Sadly, his emphasis on “personal freedoms” does nothing to acknowledge that his recommendations for kinkier hair contribute to a wider beauty standard that kinky Black hair in its natural state is inferior and incapable of being manageable and beautiful on its own terms. This makes it very difficult for Black women with kinkier hair to simply “choose” to be natural when even professional hairstylists don’t recommend it.
Perhaps the natural hair movement being so dominated by this scale is one of the reasons why Black women with kinkier hair feel they need to manipulate their curls into a looser texture.
Perhaps Walker’s problematic views are impossible to separate from the scale itself. Many have remarked that the chart encourages whiteness or euro centricity as the default. It is easy, particularly in a society that already views kinkier hair as inferior, to see hair that is the furthest away from the white ideal of 1a-2c, as the most “difficult” or least desirable — something Andre Walker has refuted. In an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, the hair chart is explored and one woman interviewed refers to it as a “modern-day pencil test” in reference to a test used in apartheid South Africa, to determine someone’s race. If you put a pencil in someone’s hair and the hair held the pencil, you were considered Black, and therefore a second class citizen. Perhaps the natural hair movement being so dominated by this scale (whatever Andre’s Walkers intentions) is one of the reasons why Black women with kinkier hair feel they need to heavily manipulate their curls into a looser texture.
It’s also interesting to note that the origins of the chart were about selling hair products. Creating a simple chart (initially the 3c and 4c categories weren’t even included) to determine your curl pattern is an easy way to persuade people to buy your products, by finding a category that you neatly slot into with a selection of products tailored to the category. But, historically capitalist endeavours to help us manage and style Black hair, often lead back to the same ideas of inferiority, lack of nuance in advice about Black hair care and a need to fundamentally change or manipulate our hair texture. The emergence of Black hair capitalists in the early 20th century such as Madam C.J Walker and Annie Malone helped soften the often aggressive language used in beauty advertisements to describe Black hair, but ultimately the sentiment was very similar: that manipulating your hair was necessary. We can see this playing out today with the use of the hair scale; though some of the language used to market it seems self-empowering, and centred on maintaining “healthy hair”, its use does seem to often come back to texturist ideas. There is probably more money to be made in telling Black women they need a whole host of products to manage their hair, than telling them their natural hair is good on its own.
Black hair textures should not be viewed as something alien or unruly, but as hair that is completely normal.
Another critique is how little the hair scale tells us about other aspects of our hair that are just as important as the curl pattern, if not more so. Subrina Kidd, a Black hairstylist based in London with 20 years of experience styling a variety of hair textures, told Unbothered that “personally I’m about 50-50 with [the hair scale]. The scale has been helpful as a quick reference point, so on the one hand it gives me a rough parameter… I’ll be able to know prior to a hair consultation if the texture is loosely or tightly coiled.”
However, she also emphasises there are many other important considerations to take on board to really know and understand a client’s hair. “No two heads are the same, our hair is unique! When I consult with a client I want to know what their lifestyle is like their routine, their hair density, hair health, how they feel about their hair, what’s their budget in terms of products, and if they are time-sensitive in terms of maintenance.” There’s a non-exhaustive list of attributes to explore. It’s often the case when scrolling through social media apps like TikTok, where there will be disagreements in the video comments section about whether the creator’s hair is, for example, really “4a” or “4c” partly because the hair scale doesn’t really focus much on other aspects of afro hair. The scale assumes we all fit neatly into these constructed groups, when that isn’t always the case, leading to disagreements about whether you’re really representing a certain hair type.
Subrina Kidd emphasises building a relationship with clients based on trust and exploring the history of how they feel about their hair. “Sometimes it’s important to interrogate how the client feels and understand them personally, otherwise styling suggestions I make might trigger them, and make them think of a time when they weren’t feeling great about themselves." Dryness, porosity, differences in length, shrinkage, heat damage, hormonal changes, chemical changes and our own internalised psychology about our hair, are all important factors beyond the shape of our coils.
So, are there any alternatives to this hair scale? The LOIS scale is more complex, taking into account sheen, shine, and frizz, as well as the texture or strand thickness of hair. Category “L” are hair strands with “all bends, right angles and folds with little to no curve”. “O” is “if the strand is rolled up into the shape of one or several zeros like a spiral”. “I” is “if the hair lies mostly flat with no distinctive curve or bend”. “S” is if your strands are “a wavy line with hills and valleys”. The LOIS scale has no obvious hierarchy and makes it easier to see if you have a combination of different curls and textures, as many of us often do.
Walker’s hair scale clearly has benefits as well as several pitfalls in categorising Black hair, but admittedly it would always be tricky to create a perfect hair categorisation system in a wider cultural and political environment that simply doesn’t value Black hair. Black hair textures should not be viewed as something alien or unruly, but as hair that is completely normal. A better understanding of our hair has to come with dismantling beauty standards and expectations, especially in terms of institutional policies, and even government legislation. If we can dismantle this framework, we can truly allow Black women to understand and love their hair without shame, and give Black women the true freedom to style their crown however they would like to.