Note: Originally posted in 2013 as My Beautiful Hair. When my writing was rubbish.
Growing up in Streatham was without a doubt the happiest part of my childhood. We may not have been the richest family, but we lived in a community full of love and support thanks to my Church of England primary school and our local Baptist church across the road – both provided us with a rich supply of friends, some of whom we considered family. One of the advantages of being a child is the ability to see beyond the surface and accept people for what they are, which was why most of my friends were white, although this was also down to the fact that we lived in a predominantly-white neighbourhood, but any parent in the diaspora would confirm that raising Nigerian children in a non-African environment is a task.
Apart from Floella Benjamin, Rustie Lee, and Derek Griffiths, black celebrities on British television were still rare during my time . In the 1960’s black families were excited to see a fellow African on the box (“Turn to BBC1, one of us is getting shot in that soap!”). Most black children were embarrassed by their parents’ accents, including myself when I was with my mates. I liked most Nigerian dishes, but I hated eating anything which required rolling and dipping, and to this day I would still choose rice over gari. I refused to learn Igbo (Biggest regret ever), and even tried to develop a Cockney accent despite my South London upbringing. All the girls at school had pretty English names (Beth, Sally, Joanna, Samantha, Anaconda…), and I was stuck with an African name they could barely pronounce – even my dolls had better names than I did (Vanessa, Jemima, Hortensia, L’Oreal), and yes, they were white. My pet hate, however, was reserved for the crazy mop-on-top called my hair.
Ah, my hair. My mother did her best to ensure that uncontrollable monstrosity was well groomed, but I couldn’t understand why it remained frizzy, and why I could only wear it in plaits and cornrows. Occasionally it would be woven by thread, and while I was probably the envy of some local New Romantics who spent a fortune trying to copy that style, people made fun of me at school, comparing my hair to worms and spiders. I remember a girl in one of the senior classes whose snide comments carried some racist undertones, and it didn’t help that a few years earlier I had drawn a picture of a blonde girl when asked by a teacher in Sunday School to submit a self-portrait (The media had always portrayed blondes as the pinnacle of beauty). There were a few black girls in my class who were able to wear fringes partly because they were of mixed heritage – had I copied them, I would have looked like a cockatoo. I asked my mother if I could have it all cut off or at least texturised, and she always refused, which I thought was unfair considering she had a curly perm. With the help of my trusty combs and clips I tried to look like Diana Ross…and ended up channeling Don King. After we moved to Nigeria where my father had a better job, I was shipped off to a prison-yard my folks called boarding school where my earlier wish did come true – my hair was cut short (In Nigeria, most secondary school girls are banned from growing their hair long to discourage vanity). Unfortunately it didn’t suit me; I resembled a heroin-addicted lesbian (For the record I’m not a homophobe, I simply looked like the sort of person most gay women would go for, albeit one who was also a druggie), and was forced to retain the appearance for seven years.
On completing Secondary school, I was finally allowed to have my hair relaxed. Hallelujah. A family friend who owned her own salon gave me my first perm which stung my sensitive scalp, but I loved the result, and couldn’t stop flaunting it, but I was unprepared for the hassle I faced when the undergrowth appeared. I also had to spend money on getting it washed by a professional every week, and forked out even more for numerous treatments. My lovely straight hair was now weak, which was why it refused to grow long. Nevertheless, anything was better than getting confused for a member of the Deeper Life church. Through the years, I braided, curled, wove, attached, extended…name it and I did it (although I drew the line at locs), but I was never truly satisfied, and always truly broke. Once again, I envied my old friends back in Blighty who still looked good without any extra effort. There were also some mixed-race girls in our neighbourhood in Uyo whose curly manes were often admired by their peers, and I would shake my head thinking life wasn’t fair…why hadn’t my mother married a white guy? Sorry Dad.
Three years ago and now back in England, I decided to go back to my hair’s natural state. I needed a change, and had read several black hair magazines which confirmed that natural was now in vogue. After cutting off the relaxed strands I waited for nature to take its course. And it did, expect that while my natural hair was growing out, it still remained short due to its kinky nature. During special occasions I’d wear a wig which I absolutely hated because it itched like lice and cut off circulation. I continued to wear braided extensions, but this proved to be another nightmare as my natural hair and the silky ‘attachments’ did not blend – you could tell where one started and the other ended. And don’t get me started on the maintenance. Combing took forever despite the lotions and potions I brought to soften the texture; there were too many natural hair products in my cabinet, I could have opened a pharmacy. At one point going natural was more expensive than paying my hairdresser a visit. After all those years of straightening, blow-drying, and colouring, it was almost as if my natural hair was taunting me by refusing to return to its former glory (“You didn’t want me then, so I don’t want you now.”). In the end, I had to admit defeat and return to chemical straightening. My hair might have been stubborn when I was little, but at least it was more manageable then. What upsets me even more is a few years ago I wrote an article on my other blog where I encouraged redheads to embrace that vibrant shade and ignore the bullies, and to this day it is the most-read article I’ve ever written. If we can see beauty in others, why can’t we see it in ourselves?
While I am now at peace with my Nigerian culture which I am proud of, my hair and myself are still at war (My Hair and Me – sounds like a sitcom title!). As I write this, I’m wearing it in a short braided bob with curls at the ends and it looks rather fetching, but it took ages to get it done, and I dread the day I’ll have to take the braids down, after which come relaxing and blow-drying…and yet another style. I know that women suffer to become beautiful, but this is ridiculous. My face is quite long with drawn features, so wearing my hair cropped is out of the question, but what’s even more annoying is that my sister has long hair she doesn’t really need as her face is round, and even if she went natural she won’t face the problem as myself because hers is much softer. What did I say about life earlier?
There is also the influence of society. If you do not wear your hair in European-style weaves, you are invisible; in America, no corporate firm will employ workers with dreads. At the just concluded Miss Nigeria pageant, I was pleased that a girl with a shaved head competed, proving that you don’t always require hair to be beautiful, but not one of the other contestants wore braids during the final, which was weird considering Miss Nigeria claims to combine vintage glamour with modern elegance. In 2007, Zahra Redwood became the first Rastafarian to represent Jamaica at Miss Universe, and during the competition she wore her dreadlocks with pride. Another former pageant winner, our own Omasan Buwa, broke protocol with her own mane. After sporting curly braids at Miss World and Miss Universe, she shocked the public with her own take on Grace Jones’s flat-top, before going completely bald. She now has dreads, which have attracted criticism as her current ‘do is not commonly associated with top government aides and most Nigerians link dreads with lunacy. Nevertheless I am glad that more women embrace their natural kinks, thus promoting self-esteem, and even Sesame Street has featured an Afro-topped Muppet who sings “I love my hair…” (See video below). I wish I had similar role models when I was growing up, but as the Muppet sings, my hair is part of me. Yes, it looks ugly. But it’s my heritage. And my heritage is beautiful.
I may be loosing the battle right now, but one day I will win. Hopefully without chemicals.
- Brandy Ditches the Weave for Her Natural Hair (starstruckpress.com)
- 3 Reasons why a braid/plait-out could be better then a twist-out (valleyfontaine.wordpress.com)
- Four Ways to Style Long Hair (beauty.answers.com)
- Afros and Victory Gardens (daratmathis.wordpress.com)
- Taming Split Ends (dailyglow.com)
- Rihanna’s Braided Beauty – Do You Love Her New Look? Vote (hollywoodlife.com)
- I Am Natural! (Underneath) (naturalfantastic.com)
- My Hair, My Decision, My Transition (chocolatecupkake.wordpress.com)
- Ekene’s Hair Story (thegreenevademecum.com)
- I Hate My Natural Hair… But I Won’t Quit On It (revolutionaryinpinkpumps.wordpress.com)