Change, Self Image & The Natural Hair Hierarchy

Whether we like it or not, black African hair is political. Mugethi Gitau, a Kenyan woman who is obsessed with natural hair discusses various aspects of navigating the politics of black African hair.

'It is ironic that in the world we live in today, wearing your hair the way it grows as an African person is considered a statement. For generations, majority of urban Africans have been wearing their hair straight as a result of the imposition of western beauty ideals on colonised people, and this has become the accepted standard for hair.' It is not uncommon to hear comments of natural African hair being called unprofessional in the work environment, or untidy in the school environment, a concept that is contradictory fundamentally in nature. 'Last year, a 13 year old South African girl, Zulaika Patel, led a successful protest against her school, Pretoria High School's racist rule that the black students were required to straighten their hair , while girls of other races could wear their hair natural. This is common in schools all over Africa.'

Chimamanda Adichie, a bestselling author is quoted as saying that if Michelle Obama had natural hair, Barrack Obama would not have won the presidency. This is perhaps, the ultimate illustration of the politics of natural African hair.

'In addition, there is little knowledge on how to take care of natural hair in it's various textures, by hair stylists, and most products that are readily available, are made for straight hair. In Kenya natural haired women have formed online communities to encourage each other to wear their hair natural despite the stereotypes and perceptions, as well as sharing hair care and styling information and tips, an example of which exists on Facebook; groups like Tricia's Naturals (68,000 members). Hashtags like #teamnatural #naturalhair #nappyhead are used internationally on social media to have discussions, share hairstyles and hair care information with the aim of taking black natural hair mainstream.'

Mugethi is on a mission to break cultural stereotypes surrounding hair, change perceptions of diversity and encourage people to wear their hair natural. On her Youtube channel, NappyheadsKE, she tackles these ideas in depth. Have a listen to her thoughts below.

I had a tragic hair cut last week Saturday morning. I'd been planning a hair date with a friend for weeks, and musing over cutting my natural, big, luscious afro into a cute little halo-fro, or maybe even a curly fade-hawk, for perhaps longer. I get itchy sometimes; I get restless and start to feel suffocated by the inevitable stagnation that comes with living a life of adventure. I get bored in one place for too long, or start to crave a change, which usually manifests in me leaving the city or country, quitting a job, or doing something wild with my hair. I've done blonde, I've done black, I've done red highlights, blue low lights, but not much in the way of cuts. Because things are good, and I'm happy in my little life here in Johannesburg (for now), I settled on a new hair do, and off I went to the salon, brimming with hope, excitement, and optimisim that I wouldn't leave looking like I did the last time I got a hair cut, which was a dismal mistake my second year at university. I am older, wiser, and more sure of my ability to speak up when I'm unhappy. Lol.


I sat in the chair, wet hair dripping down my neck, because that's how you cut my kind of curl. He played with it for a little; spun me around in the chair, talked a good game and got started. I was waiting for him to whip out a fine tooth comb and a pair of scissors. Nope. Your boy started blow drying my situation. First red light went off. I've never had a dry cut before, and the logic of that makes sense to me. My hair is very straight when wet, and vastly shorter and tighter curled when dry. Cutting it wet gives you perspective, you can cut the shape right, and mathematically gage where the curl will go; also, it saves me from losing too much length because I can stop the stylist when they get scissor happy. When you cut it dry, you can never be sure of the exact same curl or volume, and inevitably when you wet it again, the shrinkage will shock you. My point is, your boy was going about this wrong, but I didn't say anything because he came highly recommended as the curly girl messiah, and seemed passionate and sure about what he was doing.

As soon as he started my gut just felt wrong; my intuition said 'stop this train' and I regretted this whole thing instantly. My friend, ever the supportive presence in my life, could sense my nerves and worked hard to reassure me. I just had to trust it would work out. It didn't. He kept chopping, reassuring me this was just for shape. I stayed silent. Why?When I came back from the basin for the post cut rinse, my once long, gorgeous curls, were now hanging limply at ear length. The stylist started diffusing with the dryer, and I felt somewhat better seeing the volume come back to my mane, but no length. I had a halo-fro. I shook it out in a way that felt natural, and tried to talk myself into the new look. It was cute when I left the salon, or at least I kept telling myself that to keep from devastation. I had a scheduled shoot that afternoon and did my best to cancel it to avoid having to be seen too publicly with the hair, but the photographer had gone through all the trouble of setting up an array of studio lights, I thought it best not to disappoint him. I arrived with a mouthful of self deprecating humour, and pouted my way through all three looks, most of which I had my hair tied in a faux hawk. I got home and immediately burst into tears, messaged my best friend to tell him I was essentially heartbroken, and although he worked tirelessly to make me feel beautiful in the DMs that night, I woke up in the morning after tossing and turning, and decided I had to hide it. I got in the car at 8 am (because that's when the first one opened, though I had been up since 6:30) and drove to every salon I could think of, calling others on the way, Twoogling remedies from other natural hair women I trust, trying to book an appointment for something immediately. Tuesday was the earliest appointment, and so I holed up till then.

The 9 hour sit for the long faux locs I decided on gave me a lot of time to think; about my reaction to the cut, how it affected my sense of identity and self, why I suddenly felt unattractive and more manly than I did before, and why the addition of synthetic fibre to my hair felt adventurous and a little rebellious, but challenged my notions of what it meant to have natural hair. It's the natural hair hierarchy. With my massive mane of soft curls, courtesy of my mixed heritage, I was maybe not oblivious, but definitely complacent to the fact that I was at the top of the natural hair hierarchy. I had 'good hair'. I HAVE 'good hair', but my own complacency to my positionally in the system resulted in my internalisation of those very same western standards of beauty Gitau discussed above, and their imposition on myself. It's like I really had attached my sense of self worth, beauty, popularity and relevance to the size of my afro. Lord knows I got a ton of work because of it, and was always happy to accept the compliments I received URL and of course IRL. I felt attractive and special, and it was that same sense of elitism that triggered a disdain for the big afro wigs and sew ins I saw all over the internet, they annoyed me. 'But it's not real', 'they copied me', 'it actually grows on my head like this', and other such rubbish used to populate my thoughts. The jealousy that mine could never be as big as the wigs, and the smug sense of ownership over the style confused me now. Sitting in that chair, I began to feel ashamed of myself. I have never ever claimed to be a natural hair guru, or tried to tell women how to treat their hair because hell if I know, my texture or any other for that matter, but I realised that I was policing myself, and the women around me, internally. Something to unlearn.

While most of us don't know the history behind people of colour being labeled by their shade in comparison with a brown paper bag in the United States, we are more familiar with the test conducted to determine grade of hair during the apartheid regime. The 'pencil test' was used to group South Africans as white, Coloured or Black and to 'ascertain' which rights and duties were to be assigned according to classification. If a pencil fell through the hair, one could be deemed white or Coloured. These labels were used to decide who was inferior. A version of this test today? Try booking an appointment at a salon that does not specialise in natural hair and then the response (and sometimes increased price quote) based on the question, 'What type of hair do you have?'

Ask most naturals about their hair type and texture, and they will be able to rattle off a number and letter combination that coordinates with an understood type of hair. Andre Walker created the original hair-typing system with the intention of helping women learn to care for their particular type of hair. This was quickly adopted and adapted by the natural-hair community and often used to determine which products work best, or which YouTube tutorial you should watch.

The placement of soft curls has found its way on the top of this hierarchy, accompanied by rhetoric of 'desirable' and 'manageable' hair. And if you need an example of media (both black and white) falling in line with this thought, just look at the comments about Olympian Gabby Douglas from 2012. This amazing girl was out winning gold medals, and the main topic of conversation was about her ponytail. She was only 16 years old at the time, and already met with the heavy weight of public expectation of black women's hair.

'Unfortunately, that comparison and commentary begins at a much younger age for black girls. Summer of last year, Vogue got black Twitter riled up (once again) with an article on how North West’s curly hair was inspiring the next generation of girls with natural hair. The publication’s decision to credit a biracial North and ignore the coils of Blue Ivy Carter (who has faced more shade about her hair than days she’s been on this earth) sent a clear picture of what is deemed acceptable hair. Vogue's choice of celebrity babies spoke volumes about the 'good vs. bad' hair stigma being very much alive and well. We clap back when things like this happen in mainstream media but tend to ignore all of the instances where we do this to ourselves.'

I’m definitely not pointing any fingers. I am a proud member of Team Natural, and most of my hair favourites have 'perfect curls with just water and a shake' hair. I have fallen into the idea that defined curl days are 'good hair days,' and the kinky texture that comes with humidity or slept in hair do's, must be tamed and controlled. You’ll find a drawer of curl smoothies, custards and flexirods in my bathroom too, maybe even a whole shelf.

We may celebrate all textures and types in our mind and among our friends, but there is still a very apparent media and brand-marketing bias regarding the desirable type of natural hair. Just count the number of products marketed to black naturals that use the term 'curl' or guarantee to 'loosen.' There is a quiet understanding that this is what we are all looking for - to loosen our texture and achieve defined ringlets. 

I noticed a lot of the black authors for very popular blogs were lauded as having beautiful hair, and although true, similar adjectives were not used for women with kinky curl patterns UNLESS their hair was super long…like down to their butt long. These authors tended to be featured more, more widely celebrated, thereby increasing their exposure and chance at popularity and essentially, success in their field. On Instagram, accounts specifically for natural hair, for every picture of a woman with an afro, there are ten celebrating a woman with a loose curl that was in the wet and wavy category. And I am now more than ever aware of the part I play in this system. My visibility coupled with silence sends a particular kind of message about the brands who work with me. And although I am mixed race, being a woman of colour comes with a duty to identify and call out the bullshit that I have come to realise, many of us perpetuate unknowingly. 

'Has the natural hair community created a new good hair?' Has the natural hair community subconsciously created a hierarchy for curl types? And as a consequence, is there a natural hair standard of beauty that unknowingly demotes some women and celebrates others? The evidence is there. There are fewer successful bloggers with 4c type hair. There are few products marketed toward black women with natural hair that has a kinkily coiled hair texture. Instagram accounts that celebrate 4c type hair have significantly fewer followers compared to the accounts that highlight 'all' curl patterns and sparsely feature women with kinky hair, unless it is a celebrity or a high fashion photo. How do we tackle this beast with compassion, sensitivity and community? I spent 9 hours and way too much money on these locs, almost as if I were paying my debt to society for not having spent much on my hair my entire life. I get given my products for free (because of my curl), I hardly ever cut it, and I do all my styling myself with a paddle brush and a diffuser. But this new version of my hair is how black women all around the world live. Spending exorbitant amounts of money to hide what society has told them is unacceptable hair. Come to think of it, if society doesn't like it, society should have to pay for it. We can't tell our women that 4C is too kinky, not offer them any products to look after it, charge them for 'corrective' treatments, and then judge them for being synthetic or plastic or fake. It makes no sense. So much of a woman's self worth is rooted in how she feels about her hair, regardless of the style or texture. Somehow, we have to start doing the work in our small groups of friends, family and followers, of moving away from this new form of colourism; texturism?

I posted a selfie on twitter two mornings after my new do. That picture clocked 700 likes, higher than any other photo I have posted on that particular platform. I was completely flabbergasted and started doing that thing of questioning the way I looked beforehand. Was I not as attractive as I thought? And then caught myself. I am not my hair. Truly, as much as so much of my identity has been tied to my curl pattern and volume, and my success to my visibility because of it in some cases, I don't want to be locked into a system that can bring me to tears at the thought of losing a few inches off the curls 'all black girls would kill for', that grow naturally on my head. They will grow back. All is not lost. There are looks you can try. You are not a sell out. Be aware of your privilege, even if you aren't happy with this version. Participate in the conversation, use your voice.

I have a new sense of confidence I didn't have before my locs. It's like they've given me an edge I could never access, a kind of laid back cool that was always just out of my reach. I feel playful and sexy in a whole new way, and I'm excited for the person I am at this very moment, with no shade to the one I was before. Here's to MY new natural.

Photograhy x Anthony Bila