How Black Hair ASMR Helped Cure My Insomnia

Photographed by Olivia Joan.
It’s 3am, and the sounds of faint but distinct tapping noises and frenetic whispers are drifting from my iPad and circulating my bedroom. I am fast asleep and blissfully unaware that while my partner has the unfortunate job of turning off my heavily-curated Youtube playlist of whispering, back-scratching, scalp-tracing, tingly sleep-inducing ASMR. Every. Single. Night. A closer look on said iPad screen and you’ll find a healthy large afro being parted with a wide-toothed comb while the scalp is greased with microscopic attention. The video by creator Tiana of Gentle Sunset ASMR is part of a uniquely Black ASMR experience that is currently taking over Youtube, and is designed to help Black viewers experience a heightened sense of the popularised "brain tingles." In some cases, the sensations are so great, the videos help Black viewers deal with their insomnia, anxiety and confront their hair trauma.
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"Girl this video made me cry," read one of the comments on Gentle Sunset ASMR's 'Scalp Oil on Box Braids for Sleep' video, with more than 250,000 views. "Out of all the asmrtists (a creator who specialises in ASMR triggers) out there you have to be my favourite. I love to see the 4C hair!!!!! I’ve been WAITING to see someone that really embraces Blackness in ASMR. I found you!"  
"I just wanted to say that I love ASMR videos but I always had a hard time finding Black ASMR artists and this just made me cry because I felt weird watching people who didn’t look like me so I couldn’t really relate to them if it makes any sense at all," reads another comment.
Admittedly, I share the same enthused response. For me, ASMR hair play videos — where the artists brush, play and style hair in hour long videos — are more impactful when the model or mannequin has an afro hair type. If you've ever experienced the relief of tight braids being soothed by cool oils or finally taking down those cornrows ahead of washday, then Youtube pages like Gentle Sunset ASMR, Trigger The Tingles ASMR, Dejakey , Black Girl Magic ASMR are a delicious feast for the eyes (and ears). Simply put: the closer to my own natural hair type (4B), the more likely I will feel and embody the contentment and calm ASMR is known for.

"… to have something specifically catered to helping Black people relax goes even deeper than just helping you fall asleep. It can help change how you see yourself, how you treat yourself, how kind you are to yourself."

Yasmin Turner
But how did I get here? Post-pandemic, I found myself as one of a growing number of people who can experience the tingly, hair-raising sensations elicited by a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), and, via Youtube, use it as a means of aiding sleep and relaxation. You either feel it or you don't. The localised "brain tingle" can be induced by varying triggers, from chewing food to elaborate (and cringe-y) roleplay videos, yet for me, hair play videos have proven to be the recipe to help me achieve a strong eight hours sleep a night. Given there are more than 5 million videos devoted to ASMR on Youtube, with hair play videos emerging as one of the most popular trends within the niche, I’m clearly not the only one to have experienced this digital sleep pill.
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"I don't mind watching European hair [in ASMR videos] but I can't really relate because I could never ask someone to do something similar to my hair," says Yasmin, a 33-year-old Customer Solutions Analyst who has been watching ASMR videos since 2013. "I try to find girls with braids like mine because if I can picture it happening to me, it works."
Like Yasmin and me, 82% people are said to use ASMR to help them fall asleep per the Sleep Foundation. While science concerning ASMR is still relatively new, per Science Daily, "those who experience ASMR reported more frequent tingling, increased levels of excitement and calmness, and decreased levels of stress and sadness." It's a wonder how tailored approaches to ASMR cam help Black people face their race-specific daily stresses, anxieties and other mental afflictions.
"Even though it's just ASMR, I think for Black people, you never really relax — we're always on some kind of guard — so to have something that's specifically catered to helping Black people relax goes even deeper than just helping you fall asleep," says Yasmin. "It can help change how you see yourself, how you treat yourself, how kind you are to yourself."
She adds: "With ASMR, your hair doesn't even need to be done. There's a pressure in the Black community to always have your hair fixed but this is purely about relaxation. There's space for your hair to be messy and that's refreshing."

"With ASMR, natural hair is never a struggle, so you can relax."

Yasmin Turner
For Black people who have sat between the legs of a friend or parent to have their hair done, the videos also provoke strong feelings of nostalgia. As one person shared on a box-braid video, "Growing up, I had a neighbourhood friend named Jazzlyn who would always get her hair braided and I think oiled or cleaned like this. I remember just chillin' on the porch with her in the summer, getting ice cream from the truck, and watching her get her braids in or cleaned or out, while I was playing with my tamagotchi..."
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At same time, the videos are helping to reprogram my own negative tender-headed past experiences. As a kid, I would flinch at the sight of rattail combs, wince as my hair was brushed upwards into tight ponytails, and as my mum's quick and talented fingers braided my hair a little too tight (sorry, mum — I always looked great, though). Instead, the videos show Black models in states of bliss, as afro combs work through their curls effortlessly, with absolutely no sign of a painful tug. It's blissful to watch.
Yasmin agrees. "I used to watch The Curly Whisperer, an artist who would look after her daughter's hair on camera, it's so relaxing to see. Because when I was younger, and my mum would do my hair in a rush, there was no comfort!"
She adds: "As individuals, when we think of getting our hair done, it's never truly a relaxing experience — it can take hours, it can be uncomfortable at times — it's not always something we think of fondly. But with ASMR, natural hair is never a struggle, so you can relax."
What's more, Black hair ASMR videos have begun to command audiences in the hundreds of thousands, and from the looks of the comment sections, typically incite a glowing response from those who are grateful to see their hair finally represented. As the demand for more Black hair play videos has grown, more ASMR creators from other racial backgrounds have taken note, and it's not uncommon to see white Youtubers attempting bantu knots and so on in the pursuit of inclusivity. Take role-play ASMR enthusiast ebafoxx with more than 350,000 subscribers. The Turkish Youtuber created the series 'Girl In The Back Of The Class' where she pretends to caress “the natural 'fro of a classmate. As she delicately pulls at the mannequin's coils she pretends to whisper for consent, of course. It’s a gesture ebafoxx’s Black followers appear to appreciate, with one viewer writing “I love the inclusivity and the amount of research you’ve done is clear. You asked before you touched, you asked about the scalp being tender and even offered to oil it for us! Thank you!! This made my day:).”
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While touching afro hair can be a tricky pursuit IRL (I stick by a firm hands-off policy), it's a move that's generally celebrated in the ASMR community however some white creators have been accused of bandwagoning and appropriating, especially considering Black creators don’t always receive the same high Youtube subscriber numbers or recognition for spearheading a trend they designed. 
Popular white American Youtuber John Garancheski, who leads channel Certified Mood ASMR with over 100,000 subscribers, is credited as one of the first to embrace an inclusive approach to ASMR hair play and says the response has been “overwhelmingly positive” despite at times being accused of “exploiting.” "I wasn’t very deep in the ASMR world to know that there was a lack of representation, until a subscriber wrote "hey I don’t see my hair being represented in a lot of videos, do you think you can do an afro hair video?" he tells R29 Unbothered from his mood-lit ASMR studio over Zoom.
Garancheski obliged (after admittedly being wary) and purchased various afro mannequin heads and conducted lengthy research on Black hair care. "I started looking for the right Black-owned products and techniques to make it as realistic as possible. My favourite part of this process has been learning about different hair types and styles, and learning about the history of Black hair," he shares. Garancheski's foray into Black hair has meant popular videos on Bantu Knot take downs, parting and sectioning for box braids and scalp massages on a mannequin head with voluminous textured hair — all of which have garnered views in their thousands, in one case 800,000 views. It also means his home is full of afro hair care products that he and his wife can't use.
Garancheski speaks in the same hushed, airy tone that has come to make his channel so popular, and you get the sense that he generally cares about the community he creates for — although, he's not attempting to try Lemonade braids any time soon. "In my last video where I was parting and sectioning — I asked for suggestions and joked “no Lemonade braids, y’all. You’re killing me!” I had looked [Lemonade braids] up and I was like this is really cool but it’s going to take me twelve hours to do. It gave me such a massive respect for something I’ve never experienced."
Seeking comfort from whispering strangers on the internet is already a weird concept to wrap your head around, and especially the idea that watching someone pick dandruff from a scalp could actually be very healing. Yet in an age where hair discrimination still runs rife in workplaces, schools, and wider society in both the UK and US, ASMR Youtube is beginning to show up as a digital space where natural hair can be rightfully cherished. And, for me, the simple process of feeling seen is enough to give me tingles.

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