AU NATUREL

How I learned to love my natural hair miles away from home in Nigeria

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

I held my breath as the barber took his large scissors to my hair to administer the “big chop”. It was the evening of December 20, 2013, and I was cutting my hair for the first time in my life. I closed my eyes as the strands of relaxed hair grazed my face and fell. It was hair that I had spent twenty years tending to and grooming. Hair my mother had lost her patience with wrestling and combing, often spending hours to get it right, until she finally decided to put the “creamy crack” on it when I was four and that was that.

Since then I knew a round of heat applied through a white creamy relaxer would get me what was needed: straight and somewhat flippable hair. The kind of hair I saw on shampoo ads while growing up, with the horizontal sheen of light flowing down its droopy length. As the barber’s clipper outlined my scalp, I remembered Coco Chanel’s words, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.”

I discovered my “roots” on the streets of Harlem in the summer of 2013. I had moved to New York for graduate school and I was uptown for a news reporting class at Columbia. I had just taken out my Brazilian hair weave soon after I moved and noticed a lot of black women in Harlem, particularly African-American women, walking around with woolly hair and they looked great and self-confident. I was in between hairstyles (the period when I wear a scarf until I decide what next to do with my hair). I approached one woman, about my age, who had really long, curly and kinky hair and asked her what weave she had on. She laughed and said it was her hair. I scoffed. “Seriously?” I asked.
 “It never occurred to me to consider my own hair as a hairstyle option until that day in Harlem.” 

And she parted her hair to show me her roots. I was shocked. I didn’t know that my hair, that black hair could look so good relaxer-free, just as it grew naturally from my head. Back home, it was uncommon to see women with kinky hair or worse still, with short coily hair, unless you were from rural areas; these were girls who were teased and called “Mbeke,” suggesting that their unprocessed hair was the result of their social standing and lack of sophistication.

Natural Hair Irene
The author’s transition from straightened hair as a child through adulthood to natural hairstyles. ((Author's own))

On the face of it my hair journey is similar to many other black women. But all my life in Nigeria I had learned to aspire to Western standards of beauty from magazine ads to TV shows, salons and loved ones, so the irony of exploring my natural hair in the West wasn’t lost on me. I had never felt that curiosity or desire to wear my hair naturally or unrelaxed throughout my time, more than two decades, in Nigeria.

After early perms and a handful of scalp burns since, I started experimenting with weaves after leaving secondary school at 16. Once every month (a week after relaxing my hair), I would spend about 200 naira (now $1.01) to have my hair deep conditioned and blow-dried. In truth, the second-week wash was a way of ridding hair of any leftover relaxer. My hair was 14 inches long and my mother and I were always proud whenever I would unwrap or loose my hair at the salon and the stylist would gasp: “Wow! Your daughter has long hair.”

When my hair started thinning out in college, I didn’t notice because I was too fixated on its length and like most of my peers, I had discovered weaves and “fixing” hair—as it is called—could give us the look of any celebrity we wanted.I graduated from cheap, synthetic weaves to Brazilian hair after moving from the conservative city of my birth, Kano, to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. That was in 2011 and at the time, everyone was fixing Brazilian, Peruvian and Indian human hair that could range from $40 to $500 or higher. It symbolized a certain kind of contemporary African sophistication.

 Black hair relaxer sales have continued to decline in North America —dropping by 19% in the two years to 2015. 

But it never occured to me to consider my own hair, sprouting however it willed from my head, as an option until that day in Harlem. Little did I know that I had stumbled on the “transitioning movement” and when I researched the movement online, I found that even A-list celebrities were involved, from Viola Davis to Lupita Nyong’o.

There were hundreds of DIY YouTube videos and an entire glossary was attached to it: “big chop”, “teeny-weeny Afro”, “poo”, “pre-poo”, “no-poo” etc. It was big, vast and rich. Consumer research firm Mintel has found that as more black women wear natural hairstyles or braids, hair relaxers sales have continued to decline, dropping 18.6% in the two years to 2015. Mintel also forecasts relaxers will move from the second largest segment of the $2.7 billion black haircare market to be the smallest by 2020. In the US, black women are nine times more likely than any other racial group to spend on hair products and beauty aids says Mintel.

 I’d never criticize the use of weaves or relaxers; for me my transitioning process was a chance to reexamine my motives for using them. 

After I cut my hair, my oldest brother, who has spent more than half of his life in the US, loved it. However, some other family members and friends were confused. To some I had stripped away a crucial aspect of my beauty. An ex even said, “no one would bother you now that you’ve cut your hair.” My cousin teased and called me an “African footballer.” But in New York and on the streets of Harlem, I was greeted with “oohs” and “ahhs” and praised for being a “true African sister.”

Not that I cut my hair to authenticate myself or make a statement; I did it to explore a curiosity, to embrace my hair as an option and to cut costs. Maintaining my hair has become considerably cheaper, especially because I do it myself with products that I can use for months. I go to the salon once in four months to do a protective style. So far my regimen includes water, Cantu shea butter conditioner, coconut oil, EcoStyler gel and, occasionally, Shea Moisture’s curl-enhancing smoothie.

 Going natural was a lesson in self-love that my self-worth wasn’t dependent on adhering to a specific beauty standard. 

Admittedly, styling my hair can be stressful; it takes considerable time and during the winter, I keep it hidden in braids to prevent it from drying up and breaking. My biggest lesson from transitioning though was simply the realization that my own hair is an option and it was breathtaking to see it rise thick and healthy from a tiny Afro to a six-inch crown of hair. Not that I’d ever criticize the use of weaves or relaxers; for me my transitioning process was a chance to reexamine my motives for using those things and learning to dissociate my confidence, beauty and, by extension, self-worth from them.

It’s also made me eat healthy, hydrate properly and take better care of my body. Going natural was really a lesson in self-love and a revelation that my self-worth wasn’t dependent on adhering to a specific beauty standard.

My beauty isn’t dependent on being able to whip my hair back and forth. Going natural broadened my understanding of the versatility of Black hair and the diverse ways we choose to express our beauty.

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