It’s 8pm on a Monday and my arms are aching as I’ve spent the better part of the last three days fashioning my hair into Marley twists: a protective braiding hairstyle that weaves extensions into my own curls. Most black women I know can attest to how tiring it can be to braid a whole head of hair, as it often takes gymnastic manoeuvres to achieve certain styles. While the process is often exhausting, it is also rewarding and so worthwhile.
You might wonder why this seemingly unremarkable act is so significant to me, but hair is political and impactful for various reasons. For one, it's a common experience for black women and girls to be subjected to negative societal standards for afro hair. In the US, cities and states such as New York and California have taken positive action to ban racial discrimination against people wearing certain natural hairstyles, but the remaining prejudice often results in dissatisfaction with natural hair in its varying textures.
The way I saw my own hair was significantly impacted by negative societal perceptions of black women and their appearance. As a young girl, it was uncommon to see women on TV, in magazines and the general media with hair like mine. If they did look like me, it was rarely presented as an image of beauty to be appreciated.
Like many other black girls experiencing hair frustration, I spent most of my childhood chemically straightening my hair with relaxers. The aim was to make my hair manageable for styling, as well as for aesthetic reasons. When I went natural somewhere in my early teens, my decision was spurred on by images I saw online of black women with luscious, healthy curls and a glowing confidence in their tresses which I didn’t have. But I was left exasperated, grappling with my tighter type 4 curls after years of relaxing.
Although the natural hair movement has changed black women's outlook in ways that are empowering, many of us are wildly unprepared for the long process of learning to manage our hair and the trial and error involved in taking care of it. For others like myself, especially those with kinkier hair types, the difficulty of detangling, sourcing products and sectioning and styling our hair can be immense. This is often why many women revert to chemically processed hair. I don’t criticise such choices; being natural is in no way a requirement for healthy hair maintenance and perming doesn’t necessarily mean you dislike your own texture. But when provided only with YouTube videos, developing the skills to style kinky afro hair can become overwhelming, often resulting in just as much frustration as we started with.
Speaking to other black women showed me that this frustration is widespread. "I thought going natural would make my hair instantly amazing, but it turned out to be really difficult," says Renee, 22. "I didn’t know how to do important steps like detangling or sectioning and that made the first couple of years hard." Combine this with the stress involved in finding hair products that work – not to mention the cost – and the incredible patience required to see progress, and it's clear that going natural comes with extra challenges. Ultimately, natural hairstyling is often an intense commitment for which many of us simply don’t have the money, energy or time.
Years of ill-management and a lack of information encouraged me to see skills like braiding as achievable goals for long-term commitment to my hair. Even though I was natural, I rarely attempted the protective hairstyles worn by my favourite vloggers out of fear of failure. I started styling my hair into beautiful high buns and ponytails, laid-back chunky cornrows and bouncy twist-outs to practise working with my natural texture. Although it didn’t always come out perfectly, it was a learning curve and I began to discover more and more about my hair. Self-taught hairstylist Ene Nwafor, who offers one-to-one braiding classes as part of her brand HerLine HQ, seconds this. "I used to watch YouTube for hours to learn new skills," she told me. "Lots of black women get their information there as it’s such a great place to start if you don’t know much."
Still, the one style I had yet to attempt was braids. As a fairly labour-intensive and skill-dependent style, I left it to talented individuals like my mother (who could easily style my hair with dazzling skill, neatness and speed) or experienced hairstylists. Despite my initial frustration, I gave YouTube another chance, and it ended up being a saving grace. Upon completing my own braids for the very first time, the finished result signalled an empowering point in coming to learn about and, most importantly, love my natural hair.
One thing I noticed when following braiding tutorials was a shift in creator demographic, as I found myself learning from girls in their mid-teens. They were masterful in styling their own hair and it filled me with pride. At that age, I didn't have a clue. This is an incredibly positive development in the natural hair space. The significance of learning to braid as a member of the African diaspora is not lost on me, nor is satisfaction of sharing the skill generationally. Lola, 22, who now does her own hair, agrees. "As a second-generation Nigerian, getting my hair braided by my mum was a cultural bonding experience and a signifier of my heritage," she told me. "It’s really gratifying to know I can engage in that and pass it on to my own children."
Although I went natural almost a decade ago, learning to braid my hair just this month felt like a triumph after years of mistakes and dedication. Even though it took many hours and the results are currently always imperfect, being able to recreate a hairstyle that is so important to me and many other black women worldwide is a brilliant feeling. There’s an intense gratification in getting to a place of knowledge that as a teen was beyond my reach. For black women, achieving styling feats like this can be crucial in creating cultural shifts, especially in regard to how we see ourselves and, ultimately, how we come to accept and love our natural hair.