“Straightened. Stigmatised. ‘Tamed’. Celebrated. Erased. Managed. Appropriated. Forever misunderstood. Black hair is never ‘just hair’.”
– Emma Dabiri
For black women, the journey to loving our hair is fraught and threatened by western beauty standards. In the last few years, there has been a huge increase in support for the Natural Hair Movement. But to say that Australia is behind when it comes to the embrace of afro-textured hair is an understatement.
The Natural Hair Movement focuses on the normalisation and beauty of our natural afro-textured hair. The global media and western beauty standards have stigmatised black features and particularly hair for millennia, ‘unkempt’, ‘messy’, ‘nappy’, ‘unprofessional’, ‘thugish’, ‘exotic’ but never just natural, never just normal. As black individuals in a predominantly white country, wearing your natural hair is a political act. It is a symbol of rebellion against oppressive beauty standards long in need of dismantling.
There is a huge connection between hair and identity in black culture. For as long as I can remember my hair was a site of insecurity and looking back, I can see that this was insecurity with my own black identity.
I straightened my hair when I was 14 years old, desperate to look like the other girls in my class, the women I saw all around me, on my screens or the pages of magazines. I did what any insecure teenage girl would, I got rid of the aspect of myself that I didn’t like, that society didn’t like. This decision brings me such sadness now, to think about that little girl who didn’t fit in, if only she could see my afro now.
It is easy to associate this stigma with America or the UK, but this fight for the normalisation of afro hair occurs every day in Australia. In July, a petition from students in Sydney emerged calling for natural hairstyles to be accepted in school without punishment. One student, Laura Mazikana, who was forced some year ago to cut her afro hair recalls her story:
“I was sent to the principal’s office in Year 9 and he basically called my hairstyle ‘silly’. I cried in front of him … he just told me I had to take it out…I felt like I had to assimilate”
Another petition from hairstylist Chrissy Zemura called on the NSW TAFE system to include Afro Hair Styling in the certificate III Hairdressing course.
As a child, my parents would drive me 45 minutes away to the closest black hairdresser and for haircuts my mum would sit me in the garden and cut my hair herself, avoiding the stigma and shame that came from asking the white hairdresser up the road who would only make excuses and apologies in lieu of an appointment. Before I embraced my natural hair, I would sit through hours of torment as I (and many, many hairdressers) attempted to configure my hair into something that looked “normal”.
After engaging with the Natural Hair Movement online, I found the confidence to start again and like many black women across the globe I cut off all my long dead, straightened hair. Relaxers, straighteners and all products used to chemically straighten natural hair have taken a major hit, bought at a significantly lower rate worldwide but this does not mean this stigma is gone.
Since I returned to my natural hair, it has been an interesting and often disheartening journey. From having my hair considered ‘unprofessional’ (go ahead, google unprofessional hair and see what comes up) to a general loss in self-confidence. As a mixed-race woman, I sit in a privileged position inside the natural hair movement and yet Australia does understand or even respect my hair.
I have had my hair touched in bars, out shopping, at cafes, in class, waiting to cross a road. I have been made to feel lesser, smaller, less safe and autonomous in my own body. I’ve had my braids tugged, my curls tousled my afro patted. It reminds me of Candice Carty William’s acclaimed debut novel Queenie, in which she writes;
“Before I got off the bus, I made an internal list of people who could touch my hair: 1. Me 2. A hairdresser 3. That’s it, that’s the whole list”.
The long-quoted and emphasised idea in black hair culture that black woman’s hair should not be touched has been immortalised in numerous different mediums. From Solange’s similar single Don’t Touch My Hair to Phoebe Robinson’s contemporary critique ‘You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain to Irish Journalist Emma Dabiri’s history of black hair Don’t Touch My Hair. It is clear what we’re asking for and yet the struggle continues. For years the autonomy of black women has been brushed aside and these ongoing statements to STOP TOUCHING OUR DAMN HAIR is just one way we are attempting to reclaim our autonomy.
The Natural Hair Movement has been a godsend for me and so many black women. As we learn to find the beauty and enjoyment in our hair again, you can only hope that society and especially Australia, catch up soon.
Rosie is a full-time masters student, and part time dumpling enthusiast. Her loves include second hand bookstores, her growing cactus collection and intersectional feminism.