This personal essay first appeared in Black Hair Magazine on 27 March 2018 and is reproduced this week on my blog as it is no longer under embargo. Thank you, again, BHM for picking up my reflections as a young girl and to Jamelia for her recent effort in raising black hair awareness in the UK media. Stunning featured photograph by talented photographer Odunsi Oladimeji.
As a 15-year old Afro-Caribbean schoolgirl, I wanted to be a 15-year old Caucasian white girl. A white girl who had long hair which shone and moved. Long hair which shone and moved and returned to home base effortlessly.
My white girlfriends’ hair did their bidding with little work or intervention and I was deeply infatuated. I remember tying towels around my head to emulate the look and feel of the hair of white girls at school and on glossy TV adverts – in so far as a terry cloth towel can look like any sort of hair.
The bane of my Afro-Caribbean hair, as I saw it then, was it didn’t behave like ‘white hair.’ A gentle wind would blow out any carefully cultivated ‘do’ or humidity would curl the hair I had so painstakingly brushed straight.
Not that I liked elaborate hair-dos. I would eventually come to prefer my long hair parted off-centre and tied away from my face. This preference had less to do with emulating anyone and more disliking the feel of hair on a teenage face prone to chronic acne. Eventually growing up into a celebration of my own skin and identity would also come to play its part.
But back then I wanted long, straight and moveable hair. I wanted TV hair.
An exception to the afro-hair-equals-difficult-hair rule appeared to be girls of colour in America. Their hair moved and behaved like that of their white counterparts, an aberration I attributed to the States having the right kind of water. My world was to open up when I discovered American girls in all probability ‘relaxed’ their tresses. This is chemically straightening hair with a tub of cream called ‘Relaxer.’ Relaxer and I were destined to become mates.
All of that said, I had what my culture considered to be ‘good hair.’ Good hair was often of length, straighter looking and easier to maintain than the often derogatory term ‘picky’ hair. Meaning hair which was courser, often short and which matted easily.
But even with all this ‘good hair,’ it could take a good two hours for me to wash, dry and comb the thing into any sort of order. I had to wait several days after a wash for my hair to loosen up naturally and become easier to style. One reason why black girls did not wash their hair every day like white girls. Having waited for our hair to calm the hell down, we weren’t about to start the whole process again the day after washing and beating our hair into submission.
It was not until I was earning that I swapped towels for years of relaxing my hair, or adding long and straight hair extensions.
I used relaxing cream and wore hair extensions for many years, despite the damage it inflicted on my scalp and hairline. In those days, my extensions were tightly plaited in at the roots since the method of clipped-in hair pieces would not become popular until white girls adopted hair extensions like the second coming.
For a time, I also sported long skinny braids. I was married in braids. En masse they looked as fine as hair but took hours to execute. A personal best time was kissing away a Saturday but, more usually, the weekend went in a blur sitting in a black hair salon reading back copies of ‘Black Hair.’ Fortunately, black hair salons also doubled up as entertainment centres so you laughed as often as you cried at the pain in your scalp before the women were done. Uh huh, several women took it in shifts to ‘do’ me.
Suffice it to say, black girls and women spend billions on their hair – usually in one weekend. Getting my hair just right was always a priority and “just right” typically meant fancy London prices in fancy London black hair salons when I had something called disposable income.
I can’t remember exactly when it all became too much of a faff and I cut my hair short. Really short. It probably wouldn’t have been whilst I was still living at home since I would have feared the older generation’s collective gasp at my throwing away the ‘good hair’ God had given me. I do, however, remember the next day I had no sign of buyer’s remorse. I have liked my short hair from that day to this.
I now spend very little time on my hair, albeit I do still home-relax it straight as preference. In reaching that preference, I have tried all sorts of hairstyles: towel-wearing, natural, braided, relaxed, coloured and damaged. In the melee, I eventually made peace with how Melinda likes to wear her hair.
But with this peace, has come a growing irritation at the lack of advertising for ethnically diverse hair types on UK TV. Self-acceptance and celebration of all hair types on the street is not being reflected in our advertising media.
Since black British women spend at least six times more on hair care, one guesses this lack of presence is not fiscal?
But I don’t know.
To assist my understanding, I sent a tweet (twice or three times) this week to the Advertising Standards Agency, but have yet to receive a response.
And now, more than irritation, it is my natural curiosity (if not natural hair), which is begging the question again:
Answers need not be on a towel.