As the reality of COVID-19 started to settle in and all non-essential trips were discouraged, my first thought was: What on earth am I going to do with my hair? It sounds incredibly self-involved. Yet seeing other women pine for their eyebrow lady and men fret about looking feral without their trims reminded me how our identity is tied up in beauty rituals.
When it comes to hair, I'm anti-DIY. I believe that most things are best left to experts. But in the age of social distancing, this approach has left me ill-prepared. For around six years, box braids have been my crutch as my hair transitioned from chemically straightened to its original texture. Sick of waking up early to style my hair (not to mention the damage caused by relaxers), I made the switch to braids at university and eventually worked out a routine to maintain them. Every six to eight weeks, I’d take the train back to Nottingham to visit the only woman I trust to do a full head of braids. In between, I’d rely on biweekly touch-ups around the edges (an optical illusion of sorts) from hairdressers in London, plus co-washes, oils and the magic of Aveda Control Paste.
To those who don’t have afro hair it may sound a little high maintenance, although it's anything but. Day to day, braids are a lazy girl’s dream, requiring almost zero styling. Even better, the lack of heat and manipulation prevents typically fragile afro hair from breaking, allowing it to retain its length. Averse to experimentation, I’ve stuck to wearing the same style in the same size and using the same extensions, whereas many black women switch seamlessly between afros, twists and wigs. My routine was more rinse-and-repeat.
During lockdown, I realised I'd have to face the thick mane of hair I'd grown so used to hiding away.
Despite stepping away from relaxers, I only truly started to fall in love with my natural hair around a year and a half ago while interning at a fashion magazine. I got to test a range of luxurious products that made haircare feel like an indulgence, rather than a nuisance. I also began making regular salon visits to ensure my hair was trimmed, treated and in optimum health before being braided. However, while I took pride in my growing afro, it rarely saw the light of day. I wore my hair in a headscarf on the way to appointments, scheduled to ensure I was never without braids for longer than a weekend. I’d grown attached to the convenience of them. But as it became clear that lockdown would extend well beyond my usual eight-week window, I realised I’d have to face the thick mane of hair I’d grown so used to hiding away.
I found myself sending desperate messages to different hairdressers asking for advice. I turned to YouTube and was drawn into the world of twist-outs, pre-poos and length checks, watching back-to-back tutorials by women who were better equipped than me for isolation. At that moment, I was tempted by the idea of using straighteners for the first time in years. I resisted. "This silk press took me around six hours," one influencer said. I browsed blogs and scoured reviews before I realised I couldn't proceed without first buying clips, grips, elastic bands, a Denman brush, a tail comb, pomade, heat protectant, deep conditioning mask and a hairdryer.
I've realised that wearing my glorious afro exclusively in protective styles is like wrapping a fancy sofa in plastic.
When my scalp started crying for attention, I finally took out my braids and the process I’d been putting off began. Pre- and post-wash treatments bookend the 30 minutes spent shampooing and conditioning in the shower. My first attempt at a blow-dry took upwards of an hour and the results were far from salon standard. Cornrowing was doable, although my plaits weren't nearly neat enough to wear outside. It became evident that despite the false confidence I’d gained watching dozens of videos, beautiful afro hairstyles require saintly patience and lots of practice.
If there’s one thing that can unify black women of all backgrounds, it’s a natural hair 'journey'. When I reached out to others to hear how they are coping, I was reassured to discover many found themselves in new territory, too. "I’m struggling because it’s a lot of effort," said blogger Cilla, who typically switches between braids and wigs. "My hair is at a healthy long length but I’m tempted to do [the big chop] again." Brand consultant Liana has already bitten the bullet, lopping off the relaxed bits of her hair now she can no longer get her braids done.
For writer Jessica, not having access to her loctician to crochet her roots, steam her hair and apply her balayage means she’s attempting to do it all at home. "It's a lot messier than usual, but I feel it’s far more authentic," she says. Meanwhile, after years of not applying heat to her hair, advertising executive Katherine decided to try wearing it straight, which she’s found quicker and easier than her usual curly hair routine. "I’m enjoying not worrying about what people think of my hair. Or about rain or humidity!"
Many of these women speak of allowing their hair to 'breathe' but also of the chance to learn more. "I was looking forward to actually having some time where I can play with my hair," my friend Natty said. Like me, she relied upon a regimented routine. Now, she’s trialling Dutch braids with extensions and testing out her stock of Treasure Tress products. "I’ve learned new skills. If I don’t have the time to do box braids or I just want something different, I can now achieve that by myself." Student Dami, who has a little more experience braiding and cornrowing her hair between appointments, tells me she’s ordered her first wig: "A very cheap one to teach myself how to style it before I go on to laces."
Six weeks into lockdown, I think about how little time I’ve spent running my fingers through my hair and how finally sitting down to style it myself feels like an act of self-care. After a successful braid-out, I tentatively posted my first ever selfie with my afro. I found that along with several emoji of approval, the earth kept on spinning. On the days I've had less luck since, I've simply thrown on a headscarf.
I have to admit that when this strange time is over, I’ll be slow to complain about sitting for hours to have my hair braided. But I’ve come to accept that wearing my glorious afro exclusively in protective styles is like wrapping a fancy sofa in plastic. Now that handling my own hair is not the insurmountable task it used to be, I look forward to showing it off. Even better, I’ve gained perspective: when you’ve lived through a pandemic, a missed hair appointment is not the apocalypse.