While hair can oftentimes be a reflection of your mood or mindset, for Black people — and Black women in particular — its significance runs much deeper, serving as a symbol of strength against prejudice and discrimination.
"Since hair is an extension of our appearance, Black hair is often policed and targeted to discount our abilities and limit our access to resources, education, and employment opportunities," says Afiya Mbilishaka, Ph.D., an expert on Black hair and mental health, and the founder of PsychoHairapy. "[So] we bond with other Black people through hair and create community through the grooming process to fortify us in places that see our hair as a deficit."
Whether those rituals take place in the salon chair or at home, they're a powerful form of connection, says Kristin Rowe, PhD, assistant professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton and a consultant for selfmade. "[It's about] connecting with other Black girls over shared experiences. Or connecting with your mother, who used to sit you in her lap and braid your hair. Or connecting with your great-grandmother because your mom and grandma would be getting their hair done for Easter at the same time. All those interrelationship moments with other Black women and girls build up a sense of worth and a deep connection of belonging.”
From embracing natural hair to committing to a Wash Day routine, taking time to focus on one's hair is important for self-care, adds Dr. Rowe. "The pre-poo, the shampoo, the conditioning cap — I'm carving time out in order to do this for myself, with myself, and in my own space.”
Doing so can also be a way to honor ancient hairstyles and rituals, which can be emotionally grounding and important in preserving the legacy of Black culture. "One ancient black hairstyle that I incorporate into my work is braiding," says Mitchell Cantrell, celebrity hairstylist and Ouidad ambassador. "Black people have been braiding their hair for centuries, and I honor this style by putting braids on my celebrity clients to display our culture on a global scale."
In partnership with Ulta Beauty, which helped bring Black-owned beauty brands to the forefront at R29's recent The Glow Up event in Atlanta, we asked four Black women to share their own personal hair stories and to walk us through their rituals, the different meanings behind them, and the ways hair care and healing are inextricably linked.
"I'm a protective hairstyle kind of person. I really love getting my hair braided, mixing different styles, and adding accessories, like shells or beads. The process of changing up my hairstyle and expanding my perception of beauty is very ritualistic for me. I change my hair about every four to six weeks. I'll take out my braids, wash my hair, oil my scalp, and let my hair be free for a bit. Or sometimes I'll let it live and then braid it back up immediately. It's about becoming comfortable with another layer of myself and then stripping it all away and trying something completely different.
"Over the past three to five years, I've been going through a stage of unlearning, redefining, and reexamining my hair, and finding products that will really feed and nurture it. Hair is so intimate, especially for Black femme folks: Many of us have horror stories that include being told that our hair is 'difficult,' or damaging it with perms or too many chemicals because we weren't comfortable with our natural hair. I used to be stressed about my texture because I have 4C, kinky hair — and so much of it — but that just means I can do so much with it. I recently got my hair braided by someone and she told me my hair was 'so difficult.' I looked at her and said, 'My hair is difficult because it's really thick and requires patience.' If I had heard that when I was a kid, my feelings would've been hurt, but I was like, Okay, it is difficult because not everybody deserves to touch this hair.
"I now have a fun and resilient relationship with my hair. I see it as an accessory, and not necessarily something that defines me. I came to that realization in college. After I graduated, I cut my hair really short, and then I shaved it all off. I felt I needed to get to a point where I understood that my value or beauty wasn't tethered to how long my hair was. It unlocked a lot in terms of understanding my gender identity and how I show up in the world. I thought, Wow, I'm really pretty, but I'm also really handsome. I became comfortable with that fluidity. I'm non-binary, but so much of the outside world sees me as feminine because my hair is longer now. When I had short hair, there wasn't a question about my queerness. Hair really challenges perceptions: Does long hair have to be feminine? Does short hair have to be masculine? Those are just boxes we're being put in."
Brittney King ("King Britt"), 25, wardrobe stylist, content creator, and entrepreneur, New York, N.Y.
"My hair routines change from time to time because I try different looks a lot. So, the process of transitioning between hairstyles feels like a ritual. I'll start by taking my hair out of whatever style it's in and detangling it. I make my own rice water and cleanse my hair with it as a pre-poo treatment. Then, I alternate between three different shampoos. My favorite one has tea tree oil in it, which gives my scalp a tingling sensation that I enjoy, especially after my hair has been in a protective style for a while. Depending on which shampoo I use, I reach for the corresponding conditioner. Then, I use a leave-in conditioner and detangle my hair with a brush, separating it into four sections. Sometimes I'll rub aloe vera gel on my scalp, too, for a little extra moisture.
"My routine is about taking time to care for myself. Curls — and natural hair in general — aren't something we're taught to care for. Black hair is often talked about in a negative light in the media. Society can make it feel like a burden, or something to be ashamed of. And so by taking care of it, I've learned to love and appreciate the beauty of my hair — and by extension, myself. It's also a time for me to bond and reconnect with my ancestors, myself, my culture, and my history/roots.
"My hair routine reminds me of when I began to embrace my natural hair. I didn't wear my hair in its natural state until college; finally being on my own gave me newfound confidence that I wanted to embrace, and I couldn't do that without accepting my hair. So, I chopped it all off. How could I hide behind my hair when I didn't have any hair? It was my first step toward self-love and self-acceptance."
"As a hairstylist, I change my hair pretty often, typically wearing wigs so I can have a different look every week. So, on Sunday mornings, I deep condition with Matrix A Curl Can Dream Moisturizing Cream, which maintains my curl pattern and helps it stay coily instead of straight and stringy. Then, I braid my hair down under the wig unit. I grease my scalp with natural oils, secure the cap on, and then glue down the wig for longevity. Wigs are my ritual, but I do take a break from them in the summer (it's almost 120 degrees in Arizona). Currently, I have my natural hair out and I wear it in a ponytail or buns. I often color my hair, too, because it reflects how I feel. Right now, it's red, because I'm going through a big transition in life. The shade is a powerful way to embrace my situation and a reminder to keep going forward. To maintain the brightness of my color, I use Mydentity MyRefresh Color Depositing Conditioner, which doubles as a hair mask because it's packed with a blend of oils for enhanced softness and shine.
"My mom always told me, 'When you look good, you feel good.' If I wake up and I'm not feeling my best, I always do my hair because that's how I represent myself — it's what people see first. If that looks good, I feel good about myself, no matter what type of day I'm having. Growing up, I did a lot of perms and used relaxers — because I wanted long, 'pretty' hair like the other girls at school — so my hair was always brittle and dry. For moisture, I started doing more treatments and masks, and that's when I realized how important a routine is in getting my hair back to a healthy, natural state.
"My salon is located near a high school, and every time girls come sit in my chair, they always see it as a relief because they can talk about things with me that they can't discuss with their parents. They struggle with confidence because of today's beauty standards, and I remind them that beauty comes from within, that it’s okay if they don’t have it all figured out right now. I give them guidance. Helping people is what motivated me to be a hairstylist, because I love to make people feel better about themselves.
"This is important because of the policing and discrimination that Black women face with their hair. For most of us, our hair is not naturally straight. I hear stories about high school students having to cut their locs to be able to compete in athletic competitions. What does your hairstyle have to do with you performing as an athlete? Nothing. People need to realize that that there's a deeper meaning behind locs. [The hairstyle] is a symbol of cultural expression in Black culture and many have had their locs their entire lives. Our hair comes in all variations, and there shouldn't be any discrimination of something that's natural."
"My favorite weekly ritual is Wash Day because my shower gets really great lighting, making it a great time for me to take Wash Day selfies. It's fun and silly, and it became a tradition of mine during the pandemic. It's cool to watch my hair grow over time, too. It makes me happy, and I do it for no other reason than that. I think it's really important to do things that bring you joy and that's all. I only use one tool and two products in my routine: I start with a moisturizing shampoo that also detangles my hair. Then, I towel-dry it, brush it with the Tangle Teezer The Ultimate Detangler, and apply a hair mask.
"My hair routine came out of me wanting to see my hair in the shower, because I like to look at my curl pattern when it's wet. A hairstylist recommended the hair mask to me, and the shampoo was a happy accident. The combination has been great, and now I'm committed. The less I have to do, the more likely I am to do it.
"I work out four to five days a week, so taking a shower, having clean hair, moisturizing, and getting into bed makes me a very blissful person. It feels like I'm taking care of myself, which is an underrated skill and one people take for granted. You think everybody does it, but it's actually so much harder to take care of yourself than people think — and not even just from a hygiene perspective. There are so many things we're juggling all at once, so if my Wash Day routine is complete, well, at least I got that part down.
As young Black girls, we’re taught that our hair is fragile, that we have to be so protective of it, that we can't really do anything to do it. There's a big gap in education for Black women and their hair. It's interesting when you're taught to not touch your own hair — your mom or the hairstylist is doing it. Now, it's nice to feel like like I can capably take care of my own hair. And I think it's very healing because it's a way to reconnect with myself. The natural hair movement was a big healing movement for all of us in that respect because there was a lot of DIY and encouragement to be responsible for the health and growth of your hair. Finding a routine that worked for me definitely had that effect."
This article includes interviews that have been condensed and edited for clarity.
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