The last hairdresser I spoke to left me with a very conflicting message: "It’s time you care much less about your hair,” she said. To clarify, Brixton hairstylist Andrée Marie wasn’t instructing me to scale back my haircare routine but instead scale back the high expectations I give to my hair and myself. “I keep saying [to my customers], no one is going to give you an award if you stay natural, especially if you hate caring for your natural hair,” she told me, shrugging. “You don’t have to relax your hair either. Whatever you choose, it doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter what your friends or family think. In fact, no one actually cares!” she urged. As a passionate advocate for Black women doing whatever the hell they want, she was referring to the pressure some Black women feel when making decisions about the hairstyles they choose. Questions such as ‘Am I neglecting the natural hair movement if I straighten or relax my hair? Will my braids or locs be accepted in corporate settings?’ are no stranger to the Black women’s experience. And I, for one, am tired.
On social media, Black bloggers and influencers also seem to be pushing back against prescriptive advice and ideals about Black hair; from natural hair beauty bloggers returning to chemical hair straightening without shame, to those abandoning the pressure to retain length and protect hair from breakage in favour of experimentation with different styles such as bleaching their hair ice blonde. As British beauty blogger ‘Sincerely Oghosa’, stated on TikTok earlier this week: “If the hair breaks it breaks!” Similarly, back in March, a person tweeted, “Just watched Melissa’s Wardrobe IG stories from yesterday and she said “I feel as though the next movement after the natural hair movement needs to be the HAIR IS NOT THAT DEEP movement” and I can’t explain how much I agree.”
A flippant ‘my-hair-don’t-care’ approach to our relationship with our hair sounds very appealing because it’s not an overstatement to suggest Black people care a lot about their hair, the way it looks, and how it is perceived more than most. As one person tweeted, “I don’t think people understand how much pressure goes into choosing a hairstyle. Do you want braids because of the easy maintenance? Do you want to get your natural hair done but have to fight the humidity?”
It’s common knowledge that Black women are the biggest consumers of hair care products in the western world, spending, as Mintel reported in 2020, $1.7 billion on hair care products in 2020 (a look inside my own bathroom would support this data). In the UK, Black British women spend ‘£168m a year on hair products and account for 10% of the UK’s hair care spend yet make up just 2% of the UK’s adult population.
Whether it’s kinky or straight, long or bald, does our hair have to matter so much?
Thanks again to social media, over the last decade, the natural hair movement has seen a widespread embrace of afro hair textures, so much so, that sales of at-home hair relaxer products have witnessed a drastic decline. The natural hair wave is still welcome and suggests Black people don’t need to conform to western beauty standards by promoting the education of Black hair care en masse. Yet some Black women have grappled with guilt, and in some cases accused anti-Blackness. As one person confessed via Twitter earlier this year, “I do not like my natural hair. The styles that were practical for me did not make me feel beautiful. I tried to embrace and accept it. I failed. I live with the truth that my perception of my hair is rooted in and clouded by anti-blackness.”
Entangled in some Black women’s hairstyle choices is the pressure to honor your Blackness in a world that’s not always accepting. Black hair, whether in its most natural state, braids, weaves, wigs, relaxed etc, is so often politicized and scrutinized that our hairstyle choices never feel like just a hairstyle. Outside of the salon, Black people both in the UK and the US continually fight against hair discrimination within schools and the corporate world, with the US edging closer to passing the Crown Act nationwide. There’s clearly a lot to care about.
Yet I wondered if Black women could gradually move to a state of ‘hair autonomy’ by making decisions purely based on their own preferences and what makes them feel comfortable, without the influence of trend, tradition or western beauty standards. Whether it’s kinky or straight, long or bald, does our hair have to matter so much?
“Hair does matter… [and] hair matters differently for women of color,” says Dr Johanna Lukate, a social and cultural psychologist who has spent the majority of her academic career focusing on Black womanhood and Black bodily aesthetics. In 2018, Dr. Lukate, who gained her PhD at the University of Cambridge, held a TEDx talk entitled The Psychology of Black Hair, a video with close to 60K views on Youtube, where she broke down why hair is never just hair for Black women and their self-esteem. “While hair is a form of non-verbal communication for everyone, [Black women] are having a different conversation. For [Black women] hair is part of the conversation about the history of slavery and colonialism. It’s part of a conversation about the legacy of sexism and racism…” she explains.
Speaking to Unbothered UK from Berlin, Dr Lukate described how hair is inextricably linked to Black women’s identity and as a result, can impact a Black woman’s self-esteem. For Dr Lukate, it’s important to examine how the impact of slavery and colonialism (and how hair texture was used as means to classify a person’s race and social standing) continues to influence how Black women see themselves and their hair to this very day. “For me, it comes down to how the ideologies of race, gender and beauty intersect,” she says.
“It’s why to this very day it is never just hair for Black women because it's always a case of thinking about how people look at you and they're not just seeing a woman, they're seeing a Black woman or a mixed-race woman, and then they probably see a lot more as well,” she adds.
During our conversation, Dr Lukate explains that hair can also be a huge indicator of class within the Black community.
“With weaves a lot of times they can cost a lot of money. So while it’s not necessarily white people looking at you, other Black people are looking at you like, “Oh, she can afford like a really good weave.” There are so many things that come into what people can read about who you are and where you come from just based on how you style your hair and what it looks like.”
Black hair has always had a lot to say, especially during the sixties when the afro was used as a symbol of Black pride. Yet as Black women who chose to wear weaves, wigs, relaxers and texture releases (and all of the above), what exactly are we communicating when we divert from our natural texture?
“I mean, just if you think about media, for example, I think in How to Get Away with Murder, it's quite interesting, this dynamic of when Annalise Keating [played by Viola Davis] is portrayed with like a straight hair, she is this, like strong, successful Professor slash lawyer and usually like she wears straight hair. It's only in the private realm when she’s vulnerable that she's shown to take the wig off. I think that says a lot about how Black women use their hair to communicate.”
With that in mind, I ask Dr Lukate if continually covering your hair could impact your self-esteem. “I mean, not everyone who has natural hair is rebellious, or righteous but I guess it depends on how you look at it,” continues Dr Lukate, tentatively. “It’s a case of are you still comfortable going out of the house with your natural hair? Or are you at that point where you only feel like you’re adequately dressed or acceptable, or beautiful when wearing a wig or weave?”
She adds: “There will always be a backstory to this, right. What have people said to you? Did you grow up with this constant feeling of something is wrong with your hair? How did you end up at that point where you think, ‘I should consider my hair to feel more accepted and comfortable.’”
Dr Lukate’s conversation offered a lot of food for thought. And, I can’t help but question how much my own hairstyle choices have impacted my own self-esteem over the years. My big, long, curly hair, aided with hair extensions, has allowed me to access a certain privilege. I am unsure if I would feel as comfortable in myself without looking this way. My hair has always been a talking point, even when I don’t want my hair to say or represent anything at all. After the natural hair movement, is ‘hair autonomy’ the next best thing for Black women’s self-esteem?
“I've been wondering about myself, because, I’m not sure we can achieve [hair autonomy] without equal treatment [of our hair in society] right?” says Dr Lukate. “Also, can you let go of that long history with our hair? For [hair autonomy] to be entirely achievable, it would perhaps need raising a generation and then another generation who's much more accepting of human variations and human differences, who will not discriminate against children in school because their hair looks different. It’s also a case of changing our environment, why is it that ethnic people are relegated to shopping for [haircare products] in certain shops when the majority goes into the other shop?
“Until we get to an inclusive environment Black hair will never just be hair.”