Forget Hair Products. We Need Hair Therapy!
Changing your hair starts with changing your mind about what it means to love yourself as you are
When I was growing up in 1990s Nigeria, achievable “beautiful” hair was roughly shoulder length, relaxed, straight hair on a strict six-to-eight-week maintenance schedule, where your new growth would be retouched once “due.” A weekly or biweekly wash and set would help you manage your hair between relaxers, and if you were zealous, you might include a steam or placenta protein treatment.
I remember my first relaxer quite vividly. Beforehand, my older sister stretched my shrunken hair down my back to establish how long my hair would be once relaxed. I was excited; my length check promised hair down to my shoulders, and there would be no more tears at the sight of a comb.
Straight from the salon and ready to show off my new hair, I visited a friend with my mum. I loved going to this friend’s house, but she was always the boss when we played together. Out in her garden, I was required to lay on the floor with my virgin straightened kinks, styled in big twists with bobbles on the ends. But I kept my head and neck raised above the ground in a permanent crunch. Nothing was going to ruin my hair and steal my joy.
We see our hair as something to be put away rather than something to be cared for.
Our regular hairdresser was a short-tempered man who had little patience for his staff and a particular fondness for scissors. He encouraged us to regularly “trim” our hair so that it would be jolloffing. There is a certain kinship between the bounce of freshly cut relaxed hair and the graceful descent of single grains of perfectly cooked jollof rice from a serving spoon onto your plate.
Braids were a treat for summer holidays and an easy way to not have to worry about our hair. The first time I saw a woman in a weave, I was in awe. She had long, black hair cascading down her back, falling just shy of her bum. She smiled at me when I asked if it was her real hair. I had a similar reaction to Ghana weaving; the neat rows of long braided hair without the characteristic bulge at the root could not be all her hair.
My first weave was for my high school graduation and prom. It added volume and length and a newfound whip-ability. For four weeks, I, too, could fool the uninitiated with hair that was all mine. (Because it was paid for.)
These experiences shaped the beauty ideals that I carried with me well into adulthood. Ideals that dictate if and how hair should appear on every square inch of our bodies. Lashes long and full; brows neatly trimmed; armpits, bikinis, and legs waxed; and chins—God forbid a hair should sprout. Ideals that esteem long, straight, shiny tresses on our heads. Ideals borrowed from cultural imperialists and handed down intact from generation to generation in different forms, from hot-combed and relaxed hair to wigs and weaves.
Ideals that weigh heavy on Black women and Black hair, which, try as we might to curl, twist, relax, or straighten, will always be the antithesis of this beauty norm that still centers on a European standard. Today, it’s becoming more trendy to rebel against these standards and “be your own beautiful.” With mainstream culture paying lip service to diversity while espousing deep-rooted biases, perhaps that’s where we all need to start—by being our own version of beautiful.
In my final year of university, I decided to stop relaxing my hair. The summer before, my younger sister chopped off her braids at the roots and was now sporting a teeny-weeny Afro coiffed to perfection, and (though I’ll never admit it to her) she inspired me to do the same. A move to England, harsh winters, long-term braiding, and terrible relaxer treatments, complete with burns and clumps of lost hair, had put my hair in survival mode. I needed a change in style but also a change in mindset.
This is how I found myself on the 10-year anniversary of my last relaxer, rocking my Afro proudly but with very little knowledge of how to take care of my own hair. I had grown up with a tradition in which we see our hair as something to be put away rather than something to be cared for. We see our hair as something that needs to be changed rather than being the thing itself. We see our hair as hard work, something we don’t have time for, and unfortunately, if I’m honest, as less beautiful.
I’m learning to accept my hair texture as it is and at the level of effort it requires, without secretly wishing for looser coils.
I wouldn’t say I didn’t like my hair. I love the versatility of Black hair—its springiness, its uniqueness, and its ability to change shape and form. Its texture is suited to Nigeria’s hot and humid climate; upward growth keeps our necks bare, networks of air pockets keep our heads cool, and low porosity ensures that a sudden thunderstorm does not leave our hair drenched for the rest of the day and at risk of hygral fatigue. Our hair is regal, and we can do things to it that no other race can.
No, I love my hair, but I did find myself disappointed by it at first. What was the point in washing my hair weekly and moisturizing regularly if it was only going to feel dry and scratchy by the next morning? My hair never felt “nice,” it was not as thick or as long as I had hoped, and my wash days were dominated by hairballs and hours of detangling. I had tried fancy deep conditioners, leave-ins, and creams, all to no avail. I had to be honest about my attitude toward my hair, which was probably rooted in consistent disappointment.
Thanks to my older sister, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year delving deep into the world of Black hair care. If your browser history is anything like mine, then you’re probably bombarded with ads touting miracle hair-growth oils and serums; products that may well be good but will do nothing for your hair in isolation; and hair influencers who, for a fee, will teach you how to care for your hair. You may have seen some of the taglines: “How I grew my 4c hair long.” “Manipulation is the devil and moisture is king.”
There is actually a lot of knowledge in these groups, but unfortunately it is often shrouded in mystery. Seeds of confusion are sown, watered by the insecurity, anxiety, and lack of knowledge about our hair that I think we are particularly prone to as Black women. This saddens me, because I truly believe that basic hair care is a human right. While other cultures have progressively built on their knowledge, people of African descent have collectively lost ours through centuries of neglect. So, I’ve spent an ungodly number of hours researching, primarily focused on routines and product ingredients, with occasional forays into the emotional and psychological aspects of hair care.
Unsurprisingly, my findings point to consistency as the key to a successful hair care routine. It’s simple but certainly not easy. At least, it’s not easy for me. I have a friend whose wash day takes an hour, including showering. The last time I went to the salon, I believe it took two hours just to detangle my hair. In the past, I’ve spent close to two hours detangling my hair and eventually had to give up. In the last month, however, I discovered that using my fingers to separate the hair strands in each section halved my detangling time and effort. I’m learning to accept my hair texture as it is and at the level of effort it requires, without secretly wishing for looser coils, like my friend’s.
I also don’t think “easy” is a realistic hair care expectation for anybody. For me, adjusting my expectations goes hand in hand with figuring out what works for my own hair. I have decided that my hair is not too much work to take the time to understand what it loves; my hair is worth it.
Our hair journeys should not be about a desired length, but rather coming to a place where we come to love our uniqueness, fearfully and wonderfully made by God.
Having said all this, I do not seek to prescribe how anyone should wear their hair. I would, however, encourage you, as a Black woman, to consider honestly why you wear your hair the way you do. Consider also how you feel about your hair and caring for it.
In the past two weeks, I’ve been feeling really good about my hair while trying not to drift into obsession, and it all stemmed from a good wash day. It wasn’t necessarily quicker, but it was more efficient. I was at peace with how long it would take, and my hair felt moisturized for days afterward. I think that’s what a hair journey should be about. There are ups and downs, but the destination should not be a desired length, but rather a place where we come to love our uniqueness, fearfully and wonderfully made by God. A place where we truly see our hair as our glory.
Without going into the different doctrinal interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11, verse 15 of this chapter, paraphrased, says that a woman’s long hair is her glory. The Greek for “long hair” here is the verb komaó, which means to wear hair long or to grow hair out. The Greek for “glory” here is the word dóksa, which is something that provokes good opinion, something that has inherent worth. My inference from the passage — whether as an instruction to grow our hair long or as a metaphor for our attitude to worship — is that our hair, as Black women, in the way that it grows from our heads, is beautiful and has much value.
Much earlier this year, I was in Abuja, Nigeria, waiting in a hotel car park for a ride to the airport when I noticed a large group of secondary school students loitering outside their school bus. I was mildly irritated by having to weave through them, baby in hand, to get to the car. However, as I sat in the car and observed them, I noticed that all the girls had their hair in an array of natural hairstyles, from twists to bantu knots to cornrows, and my heart melted. As I cast my mind back to my young self stretched out in my friend’s garden, I realized that we have come a long way on our collective journey. We are certainly not there yet, but I wholeheartedly celebrate the distance we have traveled.