Reclaiming Black Hair

In Beauty by Sydney Hussett

Ages 0-10: “Nappy” Phase

All of the Disney princesses that I obsessed over had long, flowing and silky hair. My hair was always in braids, little pony tails, Bantu knots, puffs, or whatever elaborate hairstyle my mom decided to style that week. Every two weeks was “wash day:” a full-day event that consisted of shampoo, conditioner, deep conditioner, and squirming in pain while my mom attempted to detangle all of my kinks. I would sit between her legs while The Young and The Restless play in the background and would try not to cry as she styled my hair. 

Although I knew my hair was different from a lot of my peers, I did not find anything inherently wrong with those differences. I knew that my stiff hair would never flow down to my back like the other kids, but it wasn’t the end of the world. In all honesty, I figured I would eventually get dreadlocks like my mom. Dreads respected gravity and could give you the appearance of long, flowing hair, and so I loved them. 

As a kid, I was too busy enjoying life to concern myself with the specifics of my hairstyle. This was the last time in my life that I was completely oblivious to the controversy that is Black hair. Ignorance was bliss, and so long as my mom was taking care of my hair, I never had to really think about it. 

Ages 11-13: The Perm Period

Entering the sixth grade, other kids began to point out that my hair was “nappy” and different from their straight and thin hair. I became conscious that while the other Black girls in my grade all had perms, I rotated between detailed cornrows and puffs, and extensions from my local hair braider. It always seemed like a hassle spending hours getting my hair braided so tight that I had a headache for days after. It felt so unfair. There were so many restrictions on what I could and couldn’t do; I could never get it wet, and I always had to tie it up at night in a headscarf.

Little did I know that what my mother was doing was the healthiest possible thing for my 4c hair. Coily, dense 4c hair like mine requires the utmost patience and care, and braids are a form of art that helps to protect it. The origin of braids can be traced back to 3500 B.C., where braid patterns and hairstyles indicated a person’s tribe, age, marital status, wealth, power, and religion in African tribes. This tradition soon became globalized, moving to Egypt, Greece, Indigenous Peoples in North America, and the Caribbean. Today, braids are an art form practiced internationally by those in the African diaspora, persisting through triumphs, oppression, and liberation. From a young age, I was severely ashamed of my hair, as it was so different from everyone else’s. Meanwhile, my hair was a connection to my ancestry that I was taking for granted.

In order to disrupt the narrative that Black girls had short, tangled, and coarse-textured hair, I was obsessed with proving to my non-Black classmates that I had “good” hair. In doing so, I strayed away from traditionally Black hairstyles to become aligned with Eurocentric beauty standards to convince everyone, including myself, that I was not different from my white peers. I straightened my hair throughout the sixth grade to the point where it was almost a daily practice. In my mind, I wasn’t like other bald-headed Black kids who couldn’t grow their hair, because I had length. 

That length was short-lived.

The harm I was doing to my hair had slowly started to add up and by the seventh grade, my hair was severely heat damaged. Still, despite the heat damage I was obsessed with achieving a look of silky perfection. Instead of trying to remediate my hair, I doubled down and asked my mom if I could get my hair texturized. My lack of 4c hair care knowledge truly showed with this request. I thought that if I got my hair texturized, it would magically transform my hair from 4c to 2a and I would be able to straighten my hair as much as I desired without any damage.

Texturizers and perms are fairly similar, as both chemical processes permanently alter the shape of the hair strands. Perms in the Black community began post-slavery, because kinkier hair was considered rough, course, and not beautiful. In order to gain acceptance, many Black women adopted White American hairstyles and used dangerous chemicals to perm their hair to achieve the finger coils and soft waves that were in style. 

Since I had associated straight hair with healthy hair, I did nothing to take care of it. Once the texturizer started to wear off, I would simply get another treatment. Reflecting back, I think the most appalling part about this is that the hairdresser continued to give me the treatment. My hair was so obviously damaged, and my mom did not have much experience with natural hair since she had locs for several years. By the end of the Perm Period and the cycles of treatment that came with it, my hair consisted of split ends, lots of breakage and damage, and I could barely get my hair into a ponytail. 

Ages 14-19: The Braid Era

Entering high school, I knew that I could not walk the halls with my damaged, short hair and began to religiously get extensions (Braids). My hair routine consisted of taking out my braids, washing and blow drying my hair, and getting it re-braided at 5 a.m. the next day. I was ashamed of my hair and so I never let anyone see it. Miraculously, my hair completely reverted to its natural state without having to do a “big chop” and it began to grow like I’d never seen it before. 

By grade 11, I felt confident enough to wear it out, and that was when I realized that I had no idea how to care for or style my natural hair. I tried to learn how to braid my own hair and I was not very good at it. I researched different hairstyles but nothing seemed to hold. My hair didn’t slick down well and my edges did not lay either. I couldn’t leave it out in an afro either because it got dry and tangled. By grade 12, I had lost a lot of hair again, and reverted back to braids, simply because I didn’t know what else to do with it. I was at a plateau where I felt disconnected from my heritage because I didn’t find the beauty in it that my ancestors did. For centuries, Black women were able to style their hair in elaborate hairstyles with pride, but in today’s day and age, I did not feel the same dignity and honour for my hair. My hair has always felt like a huge part of my identity and not being able to appreciate it had a huge impact on my confidence.

Ages 19-21: Healthy Hair Act

Once I was in my second year of university, I was determined to educate myself on what my specific hair needs were and began to do research on hairstyles, techniques, and products that would allow my hair to be healthy. Forgetting about length and attempting to achieve Eurocentric beauty standards, I really began to appreciate the beautiful hair that I was blessed with. Around this time, the natural hair movement in the Black community was increasingly gaining support. More videos and blogs were popping up that helped people learn how to care for their hair. I realized that there was a huge community of support regarding hair care for Black women. Here is what I learned:

Moisture: Moisture is the key to everything. Once your hair is properly moisturized, it will be easier to style and manage, and it won’t become as tangled. The key is knowing how to moisturize your specific hair!

Porosity: Hair porosity is your hair’s ability to absorb and retain moisture. This was the key to healthy hair. I have extremely low porosity hair, making it difficult for it to absorb and seal in moisture. 

Diversity: Everyone’s hair is different. What works for someone else may not work for you. Using the Black hair community for support, take bits and pieces that work for you, until your hair is healthy!

Less is more: Personally, I like to keep my routine simple. Wash day used to be an event, and now it takes no more than 1.5 to 2 hours. Instead of continuing to try a bunch of different products, I keep it simple using the LOC method with castor oil and a Shea Moisture leave-in conditioner.

The primary problem I had now was styling it. My hair does NOT like gel, at all. This made it difficult to achieve the polished slicked-back look. Plus, given how frequently I went to the gym, the product would build up and I would have to wash my hair every 4 days. In search of styles that worked best for me, I had to take a step back and ask myself why I was against incorporating traditional hairstyles into my look. Bantu knots, cornrows, and puffs were all styles that I could do, but I was worried that they would not be accepted by my peers and deemed unprofessional. Internally, I was also conditioned to believe I didn’t look good in these styles, because I didn’t inherently believe that my 4c hair was beautiful. It took a lot of reflection and self-acceptance to decondition my self-bias and internal racism when it came to my hair. Once I stopped trying to style my hair to please everyone else with my hair choices, I began to feel more connected to myself, my hair and my “Blackness.” I slowly began to experiment with styles that I liked and discovering a hair care routine that worked for me. During this period there were several challenges such as determining the best protective styles with my natural hair, what products worked best with my hair porosity, and learning how to braid my hair. It was a huge learning experience, but by the end of it, I was truly able to accept my hair, building immense confidence and self-love.

Ages 22 (The Present): Natural Queen

After graduating from McMaster University in April 2020, my next step was to secure a job. “Professionalism” brought on a whole different kind of stress. I wondered if the stories of hair discrimination in the workplace would follow me into my new position. The power of Black hair is immense, influencing how you are perceived at work, school, or anywhere else in public. Talking to other Black women, they mentioned that people interacted with them differently depending on their hairstyle. The discrimination of Black hair is a worldwide problem that has children being suspended from schools, and adults losing their jobs. Hidden under the guise of professionalism, I don’t understand how my natural state of hair can be deemed unprofessional. Is my hair unprofessional, or is it simply the opposite of the Eurocentric beauty standards that have been widely adopted by companies?

Entering my office for the first time, I was relieved when I saw that it was a very casual work environment. Although I felt safe to show up in the fullness of my Blackness, I felt hyperconscious about keeping my hair polished. I often feel that my non-Black coworkers and peers are given the grace to have a bad hair day, but that doesn’t exist in my world. There is no messy bun, loose ponytail, or frizzy hair. The pressure to show up polished every day is something that not everyone has to experience. I know that there will come a day when I have to stand up for myself and my hair in a professional environment, and it is a hill that I am prepared to die on. 

That being said, my hair journey has instilled a level of pride and confidence that has me prepared to fight for my rights. Presently, you can’t tell me ANYTHING about my hair. It is not for anyone else to critique, have an opinion on, or judge, it’s mine, and I will continue to experiment and care for it to the best of my ability.