the reality of the natural hair journey, by women who have lived it
Reverting back to your natural afro texture isn’t always as linear and life-affirming as Instagram suggests.
Hannah Anderson, via Instagram
Finally, the natural hair movement seems to be gaining real traction, and afro-haired women have never felt more inspired to wear their true texture. Instagram and YouTube are full of stories from people transitioning from relaxed to natural hair. There’s entire product ranges dedicated to the process, as well as a whole dictionary of words to describe the different stages. The topic is covered in first-person thinkpieces across the internet, and has even become the subject of a Netflix film, Nappily Ever After.
If the stories are to be believed, the natural hair journey is a dreamy experience of self-discovery and liberation. A path that’s akin to a kind of spiritual enlightenment.
You go for the big chop (which, we’re told, should induce feelings similar to a rebirth) to shed your chemically-altered strands. Then comes the beautiful voyage back to your natural afro texture, where using 25 products and committing hours upon hours of styling and care is just a small price to pay for the promised result of a cascade of impossibly soft curls long enough to sit on. And it almost feels as there’s an unspoken rule forbidding anyone to claim otherwise.
But this one-sided narrative isn’t particularly helpful to anyone. In reality, natural hair journeys are as diverse as the spectrum of afro hair textures experiencing them.
My big chop was the result of a newfound fuck-it mentality. I’d come off birth-control, come out of a relationship and totally changed my career. Several days watching women (who, come to think of it, had way looser curls than my 4C texture) do magical things to their post-transition hair provided the final push I needed to pick up the scissors. But what came next were months of never-ending knots and tangles, crying through painful combing sessions and hair that dried up an hour after I moisturised it. This isn’t what YouTube promised. I may have weaned myself off the ‘creamy crack’ relaxers but I was still chasing hair that was never actually going to be mine, rather than accepting my kinky hair in all its nappy glory.
Don’t get me wrong, I have loved rediscovering my hair, learning how to nurture it and watching it transform with every new coil that springs from my castor oil-ed scalp. But no one speaks of the struggles of going natural like they do the good stuff. I can’t help but feel if there was more transparency and honesty in the conversation, not to mention a greater diversity of hair textures in the images presented, then the natural hair movement would feel a whole lot more positive for everyone.
I asked three afro-haired women to share the reality of their natural hair journeys -- the highs as well as the lows -- and what they wish the natural hair movement had taught them.
Hannah Anderson, musician
“When I shaved my hair, I’d recently moved from Texas to California and was at a recording studio with my boyfriend and some musicians. I just got up and said, “I’m leaving to cut my hair. I’ll be back in a little bit,” and I literally came back bald. I was having a bit of a crisis, moving between two cities was a huge transition, but years of relaxing and straightening had left my hair dried out and breaking, so it was a practical decision too.
I didn’t really know how to work with my hair in its natural state, so it was a learning process for sure, one that was very self-directed and included tons of YouTube videos. I realised that everyone’s hair is so different and I found it difficult to find people with not only the same hair type as me but also that wore the styles I wanted to wear.
The hardest part for me was when my hair was an inch or two long, in this really weird and awkward phase. I didn’t want to cut it but I had no idea what to do with this hair -- it kinda stuck up and didn’t have any particular shape. So I started to learn how to braid my own hair, which has been really cool. I still haven’t cut my hair since I shaved it three years ago, so I’m debating on what I should do now as it’s like an afro mullet. It’s like I’m back in another transition phase again.
I do appreciate the natural hair movement, as this process helps you uncover your true self in a sense, and when you see people in this free place it can be quite encouraging. But I watched Nappily Ever After, which shows the most dramatic haircut process I’ve ever seen that somehow solved all of [lead character Violet’s] life problems and she seemingly became this beautiful person. Realistically, even after cutting your hair there’s still that lingering doubt in the back of your mind. I questioned if I was doing the right thing, if I would still consider myself beautiful. Those things don’t just automatically change. Yes, I felt a shift, but it didn’t solve all of the issues I had with my self image.”
“Right now my hair’s half relaxed and half natural, so it’s a bit of a mess. I can be quite disrespectful when it comes to taking care of my hair. I tend to do things in the moment, especially if there’s a hairstyle I want. But before this, I hadn’t relaxed my hair since I was about 16. I used to live with my Mum and she never liked the idea of having kinky or afro hair so she always relaxed mine. But when I left home, I went natural.
My natural hair journey has been frustrating. [At the start] my hair would never do what I wanted it to. I thought that I couldn’t do anything other than have it in braids but I’ve come to appreciate it more, as I’ve learned how to do more with it, like twist-outs which I had no idea about. I didn’t know you had to put it in cornrows, leave it overnight and take it out. I thought people were literally just born with that type of hair.
I’m for the natural hair movement, but I’m also against it in many ways. I feel that a lot of it is bullshit. It’s good as it’s encouraging a lot of black women, and guys too, to do more with their hair. On the other hand, the movement has this specific image of black beauty that doesn’t represent everyone. Not everyone has the same curl pattern; I’ve always wondered where’s everyone with my hair texture?
We’re trying to promote going natural but really we’re still being told how to be natural. We spend so much money on products to make our hair curlier and to get us to have a curl pattern that’s not even ours, so are we actually trying to be our own natural or a natural that’s seen as beautiful?”
Gina Knight , founder of The Wig Witch
“I initially went natural 10 years ago as I really wanted an afro. It was my first big chop. I wouldn’t exactly call it liberating as it was more of a means to an end, so I wouldn’t have to deal with two textures of hair as my full ‘fro grew in. I was confronted with this head of hair that I didn’t know, but more than that, because I was adopted by a white family, it felt like a relearning of my culture, too.
I became a natural hair blogger, but developed alopecia in 2012, which led to a bit of a crisis of self. I thought, “If I no longer had hair, would people really want to learn about it from me?” So I hid it. I’ve spent the last six years trying every remedy, every mask, every fix to get my hair back to the condition it was before and I’ve not enjoyed it.
I’ve now lost 50% of my hair. I need to accept that, let go and say goodbye to a phase of my life that was quite hair-obsessed. I went for a second chop just a couple of weeks ago. That one has been more life-affirming and cathartic. I’m owning up to the fact that I have alopecia and choosing to be brave by not always wearing wigs to mask it. People usually do big chops with the motive of wanting to grow their hair back but I don’t have plans to do that. I’m over it.
On social media there tends to be this idealisation of the perfect curl. I always see the kind of hair that goes really wavy when it’s wet and dries in seconds and mine just doesn’t do that. If you have 4C hair like me, it’s as though it has to be as long as your back to be seen as ‘super-natural’ and to get the likes and follows. Social media also makes it look really easy but natural hair can be time-consuming and take a lot of care and effort.
The pros definitely outweigh the cons, though. The movement has given me the chance to connect with people who look like me. But, we have to be honest about the ups and downs as a lot of people feel that their journey isn’t what was promised. It’s about knowing that even though the majority of us struggle, it’s worth it in the end.”