Today marks World Afro Day. Founded by CEO Michelle De Leon and run alongside director Denese Chikwendu, it is described as "A global day of change, education and celebration of Afro hair, culture and identity." It is endorsed by The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and celebrated by black women all over the globe.
Admittedly, I've had mixed feelings towards my amazing, afro hair in the past. It's always been very thick and has been difficult for me to manage, especially growing up. At school, I'd always receive unsolicited comments like, "You'd look so pretty if your hair was relaxed," something I found to be incredibly confusing. But I was young and impressionable. I ended up continuously relaxing my hair up until 22, but looking back, I wish I hadn't conformed to what other people perceived as social norms. It made me ask, why are people made to feel bad about embracing their natural hair? And why is it that people with different hair types are free to wear their natural texture without discriminatory remarks?
We've seen numerous headlines over the years about children being expelled from school because their natural hair is seen as 'distracting' to other pupils, which is ridiculous. While I've long left school, the sad thing is that adults play a significant role in perpetuating the negative language surrounding how natural hair is perceived, including at home and in the workplace.
"Unfortunately the term 'bad hair' has plagued communities for years. It suggests that kinky, afro hair types are not 'good hair'."
Dionne Smith, celebrity hairstylist and mentor.
Recently, a Tweet expressing the need for people to "stop equating natural hair with not having it 'done'" did the rounds on Twitter. It was supported by many other Twitter users, who chimed in with their own experience of negative comments when wearing their natural hair. It showed just how frequently people with afro hair are pestered with unnecessary 'undone hair' comments. Just because a person chooses not to have a weave, wig, braids or relaxed hair, it doesn't mean their hair is not done. And it definitely does not need to be commented on.
Dionne Smith, celebrity hairstylist and mentor concurs, "Unfortunately the term 'bad hair' has plagued communities for years. It suggests that kinky, afro hair types are not 'good hair'. Although we have seen a movement to embrace natural hair types, I see many clients who feel as though their afro hair will prevent them from opportunities, and this is steeped in historical colourism in society." On the impact of World Afro Day, Smith continues, "Afro hair is just as beautiful as all hair. I hope that we will all celebrate afro hair and that we can continue to educate and move society forward."
Laura, a postnatal doula from Scotland calls out the way lots of people talk about natural hair, too. "I don't like the language used to describe natural, afro hair," she says. "Words like 'frizzy' and 'nappy' are so negative and disempowering. Mainstream beauty standards focus on flowing, smooth locks, and natural afro hair just doesn't seem to fit into that image." Laura points out that there is a lack of black women in the public eye with natural hair. "Who do we look to as role models?" she asks.
After deciding to embrace her natural hair, Laura was often turned away from hair salons who didn't have the skills. "For many years I tried to hide my hair," she says. "It took moving to Canada for me to feel comfortable enough to get it cut into an afro. I felt free of judgement and I haven't looked back. I now embrace my big hair and I encourage other people to do the same."
Sisters Natalie, 29, and Savannah, 25, from London run natural haircare Instagram page @got.coils for black women. Both talked to me about their own natural hair experiences. "I definitely used to be someone who thought that wearing my hair in natural styles didn't look 'done', or at least not 'done' enough for a fancy event," says Savannah. She continues, "Once, I was talking with a black work colleague of mine about the upcoming Christmas party when she asked, 'What are you gonna do with your hair?' I told her that I wanted to wear my natural hair in a simple pineapple hairstyle and she responded, "Ooh, I just thought you'd wanna get your hair 'done' or something'. I know she didn’t mean anything bad by it, and this thought process is probably caused by the same things I've experienced, but it really opened my eyes to how prevalent this mindset is."
Natalie says, "There is definitely still an otherness projected onto afro textured hair within society. I wore a wig for the first few months in a new job role, then eventually wore my natural hair. Upon seeing my natural hair, my then manager commented, 'Whoa, Natalie, your hair is so cool'. He said this a few times on various occasions. I was a lot younger and not as confident as I am now, so I awkwardly nodded and faked a smiled rather than opt to "check" him (professionally of course) and let him know that comments made me uncomfortable and why."
Natalie also speaks openly about hair touching. She tells me, "Many white people disregard personal distance and respect when they go over to a black stranger to inappropriately attempt to touch that black person's afro textured hair." I too feel this on a spiritual level, and as do many other people with afros. If you're ever contemplating touching someone's afro hair, don't. In fact, don't even bother asking to touch it; it's just as disrespectful in my opinion. Surely you wouldn't ask to touch other hair types, so why do it with afro hair?
Savannah encourages more naturals to proudly wear their coils and kinks in the workplace and other spaces. "Express your discomfort and frustrations with non-black people (this includes non-black POC, too) who other afro textured hair, whether they intend to or not. We need to always practice putting our wellbeing and mental health first."
So remember this. Your natural hair is absolutely gorgeous however you decide to wear it. And while change won't happen overnight, days like today bring us one step closer to making afro hair discrimination a thing of the past.