It took years to understand.
Some people are still told that the natural hair growing out of their heads is unprofessional because it looks ‘messy’. Holding everyone to a standard of beauty that is only attainable for the minority has damaging consequences.
When I was a teenager, I attempted to style my hair in a way that I thought I wanted. I had my hair cut into a short bob – not realising that my untameable hair wouldn’t hold the style like Victoria Beckham. I had it chemically relaxed – twice. My curls bounced back swifter than the regrowth.
By the age of 16, my best friend was training at Toni & Guy as a colour technician. The first time she put bleach on my hair, it turned orange. She creatively used toners to achieve a beautiful honey-gold colour that complimented my complexion. Unfortunately, my dark roots spoiled the look within weeks – it ultimately went a dull auburn.
The most notable aspect of her skill was that she was able to apply colour treatments to my hair, without further aggravating my scalp. I had always had dandruff and dry skin from childhood. When I was 13 it really became problematic. The products I used at the time did not help. As they were purchased from supermarkets – they were not designed for hair like mine.
Eventually, my scalp became infected because I scratched at it to remove the lumps. It took months for me to tell my mother who took me to the doctor. A fungal infection was the first explanation. When the treatment failed to clear it, I was referred to the hospital. The consultant stated that it was psoriasis and gave us a concoction of cremes and lotions that burned like salt on an open wound.
It was only when I tried to style my hair in pigtails that I realised I had a small bald patch at the back of my head. I lost almost a third of my hair at its worst – I wore a bandanna to cover it. It was clear that the hospital treatments were failing.
My grandmother had psoriasis on her arms and always used herbal remedies. We purchased some tea-tree conditioner that we would leave on my scalp overnight and wash it off in the morning. The infection started to clear.
When we informed the consultant at my next appointment I was discharged because it was against the terms of their treatment. We binned their treatment and continued to use the herbal conditioners. It eventually cleared completely although I still do suffer flare-ups from time-to-time.
My hair itself is a strange texture. It looked and felt like my mother’s hair when I was younger and didn’t require heavy conditioning treatments. She just brushed it and tied it up in a ponytail. The strands are not exactly curly in the traditional sense – there is a curl, but each strand literally follows its own path. Some strands are straight, some are wavy and others are curly with a few kinky strands hidden in the mass.
I didn’t appreciate the colour until I had grown out the last of the hair dye. It appears dark brown/black when you look at it directly – but when natural light passes through it, it appears to be a bright, fiery orange – the type you only see at sunset in Autumn. I also have a significant amount of grey hair that I am far from ashamed of. Those strands are even crazier – they just do their own thing.
I have noticed that the strands evolve in colour. They start off brown on the outside, orange from the core. It gradually gets lighter, turning gold before settling into silver – it’s beautiful! Especially when the oils in my hair make the silver strands sparkle against the darkness of the mass of curls.
I finally realised as a young adult that I was damaging my hair brutally by trying to change its colour and texture. So I stopped.
I first started buying products designed for Afro-Caribbean hair after my scalp first cleared. I tended to buy a lot of random products to test, disregarding most of them. I still experiment with different brands to see what works best – when I can afford to. Natural based products tend to have the best impact, mostly products made with shea butter or coconut oil.
So with the help of the right products, my hair texture is 3b when it is short, and 3a when it grows beneath my shoulders. When it is brushed out with little to no product used, it is closer to 2a although it looks frizzy enough to look closer to 2c. I rarely straighten it because I rarely have it cut –this time last year it reached my tailbone. I had seven inches cut off (the first cut in 5 years), and presently, it reaches my waist.
Currently, the flare-up of psoriasis that began three years ago has persisted despite finding excellent products for the curls. Tea Tree stopped working about 4 years ago and I have experimented with many different products to no avail. Part of the problem is that when my hair is loose, I cannot get to my scalp to apply the lotions – even with an application nozzle. When I try, it tends to unevenly dispense or negatively impact upon the rest of the curls.
The best solution I have found is to prepare my hair in a protective style that consists of individual braids which I weave into a French plait for public outings. This allows me to apply oil and targets the affected areas. The only problems with doing this is a) it takes a long time and requires a high level of maintenance and b) the way society perceives the style is entangled with a complex narrative.
I had known that I needed to braid my hair for months but hesitated because the work environment was openly hostile to anything beyond quaint English village essences. I intended to dedicate last weekend to the task, however, something made me hesitate.
I find it curious that I felt the need to inform my work colleagues that I intended to braid my hair – just in case they objected, or perceived it as anything beyond the need to treat my scalp while protecting my hair.
During the week that leads up to actually braiding my hair, a UK paper thought it was nothing to digitally remove an elaborate braid from Solange Knowles, who repeatedly emphasises the importance of hair to her identity. Knowles had written a song called “Don’t Touch My Hair” and had spoken in the interview about the art of braiding. The practice and purpose of wearing our hair in braids are tied in with our race, ethnicity and culture inherently – our hair is not a fashion trend that can be disregarded when something else comes along.
I am fortunate to be born the time I was – to be able to grow into adulthood in a place that had a shop selling products that help not harm my hair. It may have taken many years to understand my hair – but on the bright side, at least I can pass this knowledge directly to my daughter, so she doesn’t have to take so long to love and enjoy her hair exactly as it grows out of her head.
Anyone who thinks my hair looks messy when I am in a professional environment should see it when I really don’t maintain it. I make Einstein’s hair look slick.