Everything I Learned When I Transitioned To Natural Hair

Photo courtesy of Winnie Awa.
Photo via @nogracekelly.
Winnie Awa is the founder of Antidote Street, a digital platform aiming to simplify consumer education for those with afro and multi-textured hair types. Ahead, she talks us through her journey from relaxed to natural hair and shares what she learned along the way.
"Growing up, I didn't have a choice when it came to relaxing my hair. My parents took me to the salon to get it done when I was very young and so I carried on relaxing it throughout my teenage years and up until adulthood. If anything, I remember actually wanting my hair relaxed. Everybody I knew did it and I thought that straight, sleek hair was the prettiest hairstyle because it was the only one I used to see in movies.
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I always used to think of my hair as something I must bring under control, and while the excitement of being able to change your look is part and parcel of the black community, the experience actually wasn't very enjoyable for me. Relaxing became a chore and the styles never really suited me. Once I asked for a straight fringe and I left looking like John Lennon! I never truly related to my hair in its relaxed state and I didn’t understand what I was putting on my scalp. It wasn’t until I did some research into the chemicals used in relaxants and other hair products that I understood the impact that constant relaxing might have on my hair, scalp and health. I guess that was a turning point for me.

The first time I saw my natural hair, I was shocked. I’d never been confronted with what it actually looked like as I’d relaxed it for so long.

I stopped relaxing my hair around five years ago. At the time, a couple of my friends had given up relaxer and I loved their natural look, which inspired me to do the same. I initially started braiding my hair back to back, which allowed the relaxed ends to grow out, but when I glimpsed my natural hair I was shocked. I’d never been confronted with what it actually looked like because I’d relaxed it for so long. The first time I washed and conditioned my natural hair, everything shrunk and curled up, which alarmed me, but then I thought, This is kind of cool actually! I started sporting a teeny weeny afro and I adored it. I felt a mixture of excitement, fascination and curiosity because I didn’t know my hair could be like this.
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While I like my natural hair now, looking back, I do wonder what it would have been like for me if I had worn it in this style in various past jobs. I started my career in the city, working for corporate companies, but I'd never experienced hair discrimination as I’d relaxed it for years. At a careers fair once, a friend of mine was told she would need to style her natural hair in a weave to get the job. Funnily enough, my family's reaction to my transition was just as interesting. My sister said I should never have gone there and my mum asked, 'Are you going to do your hair?' I replied, 'No, Mum. This is it!' My parents live in Nigeria and there, to be ready to go out, your hair must be 'done', for example braided, cornrowed or in a straight, relaxed style or weave. Natural hair is a new concept and it must be 'tamed'. It's referred to as unmanageable, coarse, hard and bushy. When you hear these messages, you want to beat it into a different shape – a shape that’s acceptable – and that’s the challenge. There has been such a large focus on a Western ideal of beauty, so I’m excited to see that this is changing.

Natural hair is seen as something that must be tamed. It's 'coarse', 'hard' and 'bushy'.

One of the hardest things was actually finding a haircare routine that worked for me. I watched YouTube tutorials to learn new tricks but a lot of products featured were really hard to come by in the UK, and this hindered my process. I remember travelling to Peckham to buy all my hair products but I didn’t know half of what was on the ingredients list. I found it fascinating that there was hardly any clear information about ingredients and how to style natural hair, so nailing the right routine was a mixture of research, asking friends and a lot of trial and error. Washing my hair took forever; now my routine takes me around an hour – which is actually a feat!
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Right now, I’m using Jim + Henry’s Nine conditioner, £18. It contains only nine ingredients and it cleanses my hair without stripping. I follow this with Dizziak Deep Conditioner, £22, as I love the formula, which includes quinoa protein to build damaged bonds, inca inchi oil for intense moisture and colour protection. I always put on my thermal deep conditioning cap to speed things up and then rinse the product out. After I’ve washed my hair and it's still damp, I use HIC&NUNK's Hair Nourishing Balm, £34. It’s really thick and filled to bursting with nourishing oils, as well as mango and murumuru butter. My hair laps this up because it's so dry. Then I'll spritz on Five by Jim + Henry, £18, or Afrocenchix’s Seal Natural Conditioning Hair Oil, £10. They are both light hair oils but really lock in moisture. Whenever I put moisture on my hair, I’m always mindful to seal it in with oil. It makes the curls spring back up again and gives them short-term hydration before washing. Once I’ve done that, I let my hair air dry. It does shrink a little bit but before I leave the house I might style it into one or two twists to give it a bit of extra shape, or I'll pin it up in a cute style and keep doing twists for the rest of the day. During summer my hair dries out quite a lot, so I keep the Flora & Curl Hydration Hair Mist, £22, handy. I've also learned to avoid things like glycerin. It attracts moisture but you can’t always achieve the style you want with it.
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Getting my hair routine right is what inspired me to create Antidote Street. It’s like someone has done the homework for you and it takes away the guesswork of decoding and understanding products and styles, so that you can have fun with your hair. We engage with our brand owners, experts, trichologists and hair coaches to serve correct, educational information in a digestible way, because sometimes YouTube can go off on a tangent and not all the information you get in salon is trustworthy. I’m passionate about arming women with the right guidance. Kicking off on Saturday 3rd August, we're bringing a Summer Hair Lab experience to different parts of London, offering advice tailored to those with curly, coily and kinky hair types.
Overall, the word I would use to describe my hair journey is 'freedom'. The best piece of advice I could give to anyone wishing to transition to natural hair would be to embrace your hair in whatever shape or form. Sometimes, the media will only show you certain natural hair types, for example Yara Shahidi's hair, and often people think that when they transition their hair might be like that. This is not always the case. Don’t put too much pressure on your experience, either. Try and enjoy your hair whatever it looks like, have fun with it, and do it healthily. If you want to relax your hair, braid it or wear it in a weave, make sure you understand the ingredients that are going into your hair, and ultimately, make sure the choice is yours."
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