Jan 11, 2015

African hair for dummies: an introduction to African hairstyles

Photo’s: courtesy of LAETITIA SABITI

For those who don’t know whether an afro can actually be combed. Those who doubt whether braids are appropriate for a professional setting. And those who believe dreadlocks are nasty. 

As the media is wrongly condemning African hairstyles to either seasonal fashion statements or bad hair, six women agreed to clear the air about these misconceptions and to give a brief introduction to the African hair matter.

1. Afro’s come in different shapes, sizes and structures…
But don’t mistake my afro for dreadlocks.


Kathy: “I’ve noticed that many people, even those with African origins, know so little about the variation in African hair textures. Not all afro’s are one and the same. They may look the same but there are a gazillion different curl patterns. It may well be that the products that I use, don’t work on the hairdo’s of others. I must admit that it took me some time to figure that out myself. Getting to know your hair is a continuous learning process that requires a lot of patience. Which I have been for the past years, but it sure wasn’t that easy.”

“I blame it on the so-called “Western ideals of beauty” and meddlesome outsiders. Truth be told, it’s not so much the Westerner with the naturally sleek hair but rather the fellow African descendant to hustle that ideal of beauty. I’m actually having a harder time being told by fellow Afro-headed to wear a weave than being asked by Westerners how I comb my hair.

“Even though I have fully accepted my natural hair, I sometimes worry too much about what others might think. I wouldn’t want to show up at a job interview with my hair filling up the room. Depending the venue or the occasion, I could prefer to wear my hair sleek to fit in or to feel more comfortable. I indeed believe that this doubt is fed by the Western conception about beauty that afro’s are messy and unkempt. But that doesn’t mean I share the same opinion, because to me an afro can be well-coiffed as well.”

2. Afro, braids, dreadlocks…
I should be able to wear whatever style I want, for whatever the occasion


Nathalie: “As a kid I’ve always considered it funny to trick schoolmates in believing that I used a magic potion to let my hair grow. It was far too easy to fool them. They didn’t understand how I could go from a short afro to Rapunzel long braids in just one day. I couldn’t really blame them for asking me the same questions over and over, but I got annoyingly used to it. I then decided for myself to be creative with my answers.”

“Unlike what some people may think, my hair is curly not spongy. There is no such thing as hair being spongy. I’ve got real thick curly hair and I’m embracing it. Better yet, I’m loving it. However, that particular moment I’ve chosen my natural curls over relaxers and extensions, I’ve received many negative comments. My hair was seen as too different and not taken care of. Luckily I have a strong character. I didn’t care much about the negativity evolving around my hair business.”

It’s important to me that I can be myself whatever the occasion. Even if I would be a lawyer, I would be rocking braids in court. I don’t even understand why it’s questionable whether afro’s, braids and dreadlocks are suitable for work environments. You should be able to wear whatever style that pleases you. This is me, this is my heritage and this is my comfort hair zone.”

3. Relaxed hair, don’t care…
Because relaxing your hair doesn’t necessarily mean you hate yourself.

Naomi: “Even though friends tell me repeatedly that it’s unhealthy, I relax my hair. But I no longer use relaxers as frequently as I did six years ago. Growing up, I’ve experienced with different hairstyles just like many other woman with African heritage. I was however adopted into a white family and as much my loving mother tried to learn different African hairstyles, she desperately failed at braiding my hair. She started relaxing my hair when I became a teenager. It made my hair more manageable.”

“Now that I’m older and more aware of my hair, I quite frankly still share the same opinion. I have never regretted my mom’s decision to relax my hair because I make that choice for myself now. I only do it four times a year and prefer to use softer products in order to get a loose curl pattern. So the reason why I perm my hair is rather out of convenience and not out of contempt of self. I do not have the time nor patience for protective hairstyles or box braids.

“Despite what others may think, my hair is very nutritious and well cared for. I get complimented very often on the thick and healthy texture of my hair. Although my mother didn’t know much about African hair, she taught me a lot on how to keep a balanced and healthy hair regimen.”

4. Washing, drying, combing…
 The usual routine for “unusual” hairstyles.


Marleen: “I’ve been asked very often whether I can comb my hair. As if my hair were something inhuman. I do comb my hair. Only difference is that I use other tools and products, like an Afro pick for example. Another question I frequently hear is whether my hair actually grows. Even though I can somehow understand certain questions, they mostly bug me. Afro’s aren’t something new. It only takes a little effort in trying to grasp the mystery of my kinky hair.

Chantal: “The strangest question I’ve heard so far is how I wash and dry my hair. Well, I wash my hair with shampoo. I honestly wouldn’t know if there’s another way to wash it. I’ll probably use a couple of products more afterwards, like hair balm, but I think the principle is overall the same. Depending your hair type, you either add a moisturizer or conditioner or nothing at all. However, it only takes me five minutes to dry my hair. So it’s not such a bad thing having African textured hair. I don’t really see my hair as a problem, while others do. Eventually, the outside world is making the African hair matter more complicated than it needs to be.

Marleen: “I’ve lived in Congo with my parents until I was five years old. Moving to Belgium hasn’t only been a huge change emotionally but has also been a big challenge for the way I regarded beauty. I started relaxing my hair until I was 12 years old. I then tried to go natural, but didn’t know how to handle my curls so I started experimenting with extensions. My mom pushed me to try a little harder by cutting off all my – by that time, damaged – hair and giving me advice on the products I should use. Ever since she did, I’ve grown more confident over my hair. I eventually realized that the way you treat your hair and the manner in which you radiate it towards the outside world, is also the way in which the outside world will treat you as a person. From the moment I’ve tried to hide my natural hair by forcing it into styles I’m not comfortable with, people addressed me with the strangest remarks. However, the more I got confident and started to accentuate my curl pattern, the more compliments I received on my hairstyle.”

These interviews were conducted in the cozy TINSEL atmosphere and in the company of some hot cappuccino and sweet home-made lemonade. 

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