I can’t remember exactly when I began to see my hair and its care as a burden. But, I do know it probably involved a prolonged wash day and a painful battle between my tender scalp, my mother and a hot comb. While I’ll always cherish the days when my mum looked after my hair; it’s in those early years that I first felt pangs of resentment that I couldn’t just wash and go — no really wash and just go — like my friends with straight and wavy hair. Like many Black women with a thick and coily hair texture, I’d quickly learn that my wash days would require a lot of time and effort spent in a steamed-up bathroom and achy arms. And, it would take a few more years (read: decades) for me to learn that romanticising my wash days would become the key to finally enjoying them.
For Black folks, washing our hair can feel like an event in and of itself, it’s why it has been christened “wash day.” At Unbothered, we’ve long acknowledged that wash day isn’t just a routine for many of us, it’s a “ritual” that, between the products we choose to the spaces we create and the time we spend caring for our hair, connects us to ourselves. These rituals, although individual to the person, can root us in our culture and generations of hair traditions. As self-care goes, this practice runs deep.
Yet, it’s taken me a long time to feel that sense of connection and peace with my hair care ritual. I prioritised my wash days simply because it was a means to an end: if I wanted nice hair I would have to take care of it. But my wash days weren’t something I instinctively enjoyed. They usually take a very long time; a weekly practice featuring pre-pooing, detangling, shampooing, deep conditioning, steaming, diffusing or blow drying, braiding and styling that can sometimes take up a full day. If I am taking my hair out of braids or weaves, I sometimes have to miss events to detangle my curls. My wash days have never looked as luxurious, carefree and sexy as those white models in Herbal Essences shampoo advertisements. I aim for peace but I’ve quietly associated my wash day with problems.
It doesn’t take an expert to understand how I came to feel this way. For a long time, natural type 4 hair was associated with trouble; hair so unruly it needed to be tamed and controlled with a great deal of time, effort and expense or in some experiences, a hair relaxer. Some of these ideas about my “problematic natural hair”, lead to years of quiet self-hating and, admittedly, leaving my hair extensions and/or braids in that bit too long to avoid the “dreaded wash day” (making my wash day experience worse as a result of tangled hair).
I’ve been confronting these problematic thoughts recently.
Youtuber Jackie Aina, via her wellness page, Lavishly Jackie, has been showing up in the digital wellness space romanticising the very Black hair practices and the rituals I once associated with being a chore. Watching Aina comb through her luxurious ‘fro as piano music plays in the background, in a room that is just as luxurious, has begun to serve a purpose of reframing how some Black women see caring for our hair
"I feel like as Black women sometimes we used to make out that our hair was a chore, but it should feel like a luxury."
“Shout out to everybody out there unlearning negative self-talk around our hair,” Aina writes in one of her self-care reels. In the clip, she runs the shower as she begins her wash day ritual and lathers product into her hair. The video is aesthetic, serene and, importantly aspirational. “Hair does not make or break me. Wash days are no longer a burden. I actively choose to have hair so I may as well enjoy the process of maintaining it,” she continues. These words have become my wash day affirmations.
“I still struggle with loving my super tight 4C curls and wash days still feel so tedious for me but I know I will get there. Thanks Jackie,” read some of the comments to Aina’s video.” I feel like as Black women sometimes we used to make out that our hair was a chore, but it should feel like a luxury. You’ve turned it into a luxury and I love that for all of us,” adds another fan. “Never thought of it as choosing to have hair and you are so right. Changed my perspective about wash day,” reads another.
Unlearning negative self-talk about natural hair certainly includes challenging negative ways we discuss caring for natural hair. At a recent ‘Afro Appreciation’ Drink & Draw event in Manchester UK, Keisha Thompson, CEO of Contact Theatre, told the crowd — an audience full of locs, braids, fros, weaves and buzzcuts — that she no longer apologises for how long she spends styling her crown on wash days. “People who don’t have afros are always surprised when I say I spend eight hours on my hair. But the way I like to think of it is, if a white person spends, say, an hour washing their hair daily, my weekly wash day is just a culmination of the same hours.”
"Wash Day is a reset and the opportunity to embrace the beauty of our hair. "
Tracee Ellis Ross’ hair brand PATTERN is all for romanticising wash day routines in aid of maintaining healthy hair — no matter how long the process takes.“Having a restorative wash day routine is a great self-care moment to maintain healthy hair. Wash Day is a reset and the opportunity to embrace the beauty of our hair. We are all for creating a playlist, lighting a candle and making the experience —no matter how long – truly enjoyable and nourishing to the soul,” they told Unbothered.
Not enjoying your haircare ritual can lead to people skipping essential wash days — which can result in brittle, dry and fragile hair. But let’s get frank, the problem for many of us (well, me) is the time wash day can take. As Refinery29 reported earlier this year, over the past few years, we’ve seen many Black folk gradually return to hair straightening treatments and relaxers. For some, the decision was simply to help speed up the wash day process.
“One way to cut down your wash day routine is to refine the process,”says PATTERN. “The needs of everyone’s crown are different and therefore the needs for your hair on wash day will vary. Wash day can be 30 minutes or 2 hours or longer depending on your routine and what your hair needs – a deep conditioning treatment with the Intensive Conditioner or a true reset with the Cleansing Shampoo.”
They’ll be times when my wash days still try my patience (have you ever had the teeth break on your fave wide-toothed comb during a detangle session?) but I have gradually begun to associate my weekly sessions in the bathroom as an opportunity for scalp tension release, alone time with my big ‘fro out of extensions, and watching TV shows with 15 episodes per season. Whatever. It’s my time.
In a digital wellness world where we more often than not see bloggers commit to 12-step skincare routines and gruelling exercise regimens all in the pursuit of self-care, having lengthy Black hair-care rituals is the same thing. For me, learning to love this process — as well as love my hair — is as romantic as self-care can get.