By Chikodili Emelumadu-BBC Africa Have Your Say
It was only after losing a huge chunk of hair that I stopped straightening it with chemical relaxer – something I had done growing up in Nigeria since the age of six.
My bald patch was dubbed the “helicopter landing pad” by my flat mates at university for months afterwards.
I share this painful anecdote because a new documentary has re-ignited the natural versus straightened hair debate among black women.
| I’ve had my hair chemicalised for the last 10 years. It’s so easy to manage because I have a lot of hair. I love it|
Olivia at Queens Hair Design
Chris Rock’s film Good Hair focuses on the United States and the lengths and money African-Americans will go to achieve longer, smoother, shinier, straighter “good” hair – using hot presses, creme relaxers, weaves and wigs.
Women in Africa are no strangers to the lure of “the creamy crack”, as our American counterparts call relaxer – likening it to cocaine because of its addictive nature, and are as willing to take the risk of burning their scalps using it.
‘Feel the burn’
“I’ve had my hair chemicalised for the last 10 years,” Olivia told the BBC as she had her hair done in Queens Hair Designers in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
“It’s so easy to manage because I have a lot of hair. I love it.”
The most common ingredient in relaxers is sodium hydroxide or lye. In the documentary, an aluminium can dipped in a bowl containing the chemical melts completely.
But Florence, a hairdresser at Queens Hair Design, dismisses the “if you feel the burn, it’s working” belief.
She says it is all about technique and places the blame for any “helicopter landing pads” squarely on too-clean or already traumatised scalps.
“Usually before I relax your hair I will ask you whether you have recently braided or washed your hair. If you have then the hair will not relax nicely,” she explains.
South African Elma Titus, who specialises in African hair and scalp problems, agrees that relaxers are not solely to blame for the problem of hair loss.
“It could be the chemicals or it could be the extensions that you’re putting in your hair all the time without giving your hair time to recuperate – or even the wigs,” she says.
Apart from the health implications women face in search of good hair, there is the expense. Black women are said to spend about three times more on their hair than other women.
The cost of extensions and wigs can be staggering, ranging from $10 a-piece for synthetic hair to as much as $800 (£486) and upwards for human hair pieces.
Yet it does not seem to deter women bent on achieving perfect flowing locks.
Take Cameroon’s first lady Chantal Biya for example. Her leonine mane of tawny hair has become her trademark.
Nigerian Cherish Angula admitted to the BBC’s Africa Have Your Say programme that she had just spent $750 getting a lace-front wig – but she said it is money well spent.
“It lasts three, four times as long as ordinary weave-ons [extensions] and so it works out cheaper for me.
“It is basically a whole head unit, you attach it with glue around the circumference of your head and it gives it a more natural appearance like the hair is growing from your head.
“It’s basically the same thing that celebrities like Beyonce wear.”
What might seem like vanity to some can in fact boil down to survival for many women in Africa where careers and incomes can rely on one’s hair style.
| If you really want the job you’ll have to do what they want|
Judy at Queens Hair Design
In Kenya, for example, a woman with the natural look or dreadlocks is unlikely to succeed at job interviews.
“If you really want the job you’ll have to do what they want,” says Judy at Queens Hair Design.
And even the thought of opting for a natural look is greeted with hilarity by the Queens Hair Design clientele.
But some women, such as journalist Phyllis Nyambura who edits a women’s supplement for a Tanzanian newspaper, are trying to take on such prejudices.
“The weaves were great at first,” Ms Nyambura says.
“I would change my hairstyles and look different all the time but the problem was that they are a bit expensive and there is also that fake thing about them.”
For my part, I am immune to the fashion fascism, and my bad scalp days are well and truly over.
Thanks for sharing your stories. Please read a selection below:
I used to relax my hair and I never liked the way it look after. they are smoother, softer but will break more and never be at the same length, the back always longer than the front. And when using the relaxer, you have to try so many of them before finding the one that will not burn you scalp and relax your hair the way you want it. It’s been two years I went back to having my natural hair and went on to grow dreadlocks. In the beginning I went to the salon to have my hair twisted and I nearly gave up because all of them want to work with nice shiny smooth and relaxed hair and not the bushy and kinky hair that I had. I went on to have my dreadlocks done by myself and today I am very proud to tell people that it was me who did it when they ask when I got my dreads done. There is nothing better than having your natural and African hair.
Yacine, Dakar, Senegal
After years of braiding and relaxing my hair, it was not getting longer like I had thought. It got weaker and kept breaking. I decided to grow dreadlocks and I have never been happier. Its now long and thick and I dont get dandruff. I am a lawyer and work in a law firm. I got the job when I had my locks and it has never been an issue, contrary to what many people think. As long as it is neat you can work anywhere!!!!!
Esther W, Kampala, Uganda
I have gone back and forth on relaxer, no relaxer, weave, no weave, wig, no wig, braids, no braids. I haven’t worn my hair without substantial additions in a year and a half. I now wear it natural in cornrows tucked under a “Yaki textured” remi human hair wig. The wig is super long, but not super thick to mimic relaxed african american hair. I have such issues with my hair, Its so hard to style, it stays dry, and the only time it seems more well moisturized is when i have a relaxer or texturizer. After much debate, I am going to do the texturizer again. Combing my hair is a struggle, it’s extremely coarse and painful, and I like the more natural curls that result from a texturizer (i have gone natural several times in my life, and one of those times i had a texturizer, and my hair was beautiful, thick, shiny, but still “nappy” and i was happy!) I just want to get to a place where i can wear my natural/texturized hair without additions, and just be me. Thank God my husband neither encourages nor discourages my natural hair. He loves it and me as it is.
Dani, Connecticut, USA
Ladies, what is wrong with your natural hair? All these extensions, relaxers, etc are nothing but lack of self worth and low self esteem. We all know that black women are the most beautiful on this planet, so why hide your beauty? why pretending to be what you are not? Show us your beautiful natural hair and please leave the fakeness to others. Let them copy you as they always do, they want their lips, hips, skin, eyes, etc to be like yours.
Here, is a good thing to do for your hair is a Hawaiian old remedie
2 droopd of coconut oil (restore hair)
3 droops of olive oil extracts (if your hair get’s dry) this will moisture your hair 5minutes that’s all you need and your hair will look soft and shine. Here in Hawaii the ocean drys and damage your hair very fast. ALOHA FROM HAWAII!!!
kamalanii, HAWAII USA
I was promising to have my hair done – and have been walking about with a ‘Nigerian’ style head tie for a few weeks – not a cultural statement, but in my case a bad hair week. I finally took a day off work to get to the hairdressers – but the bailif had got there two days before me. Shop closed – no where to go that I can Trust – and my head tie is now taking root!
alex AA, Cheam Surrey
I did not realize how much time and effort I spent getting my hair relaxed, oil treatments, braided etc- until I cut off the perm and went natural- even my lifestyle has changed, I can swim and get caught in the rain and just enjoy it- not so if you have just had your perm redone:) Natural hair rocks!!! Buts its not just African American women that spend time and money- I hear of women spending lots of money and hours on the Japanese straitening, highlights etc- its just not as evident that a change had been made- surely- there cannot be that many people with blonde that have perfect highlights and some of the shades of red I have seen- I am pretty sure dont occur naturally.
Mai, NY, NY
ive had short natural hair for almost ten years. I love the low and tom-boyish look. Even though my kids dislike it my argument is that the older a woman gets she should stop fiddling with her hair. These days you see women in their sixties and seventies with wigs and weaveons. We all know that its not their natural hair and frankly most look ridiculous. I say keep it natural, low and cheap. Basically i just get up and go.
tayo agunbiade, abeokuta, nigeria
When I was a small child, people used to say that my hair was good enough to clean frying pans and panels because I had “bad hair” and they call it “bombril” (wire wool). Yet I never did anything to change it, because I rapidly realised I did not have to feel miserable or tear my heir out over somebody else’s ignorance or prejudices. Being annoyed at somebody else’s taunts would mean that I was giving them the power to define how I had to look like in order to be able to feel “human”. So I learnt how not to turn a hair when people said I had “bad hair”. After all, hair type is merely a question of natural human variety, not bad, worse or better. There is a song in my country which goes like this: “black girl of hard hair, which comb does comb you?” Well, I do not need one, I say, I like my hair the way it is: black, hard and beautiful.
Aenigmatice, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Imagine bumping into a lion spotting the latest in glued hair or wearing wigs shaved from dead human beings ……………Okot P’Bitek was right in his famous “Song of Lawino”.
Margaret S. Maringa, Kerugoya, KENYA East Africa
When I was in secondary school, I used to have the best and longest hair so much that every other student – boy or girl – admired my mane. I could style it in the Commodore or Jackson Five style. As the years slipped by, my hair started thinning out and 50 years on I now have an ‘airport’. So today I have adopted the Kojack style to hide the ‘airport’. I am still enjoying it. It is very airy and easy to maintain. I call it the ‘get-up-and-go’ hairstyle or the ‘wash-and-wear’ hairdo.
Kudyahakudadirwe Christopher, Cape Town (RSA)
I have had an afro for the last 9 months or so which is really thick and growing long and kinky, and I love it. Before then, I used to relax or braid which led to my hair falling in abundance! Braiding it too tightly in hair salons when I was as little as 5 has given me a slight ‘balding’ look which is was embarrassing as a teenager. Hair falling out, bald patches and landing strips are just the perils of trying to have that straight hair that is impossible. Ironically, when I went to Kenya to visit my family last year, people were horrified that I had kinky hair. They asked me if it was because I didn’t have enough money (because of being a student) to get it relaxed!
Aisha , London, UK
When I was 7 I found, to my complete joy, a pair of scissors someone had left lying about. I proceeded to cut off all my hair, to my mothers horror & that ranks up there as one of the best days of my life, no more torturous pulling of hair before school. I am African, and proud with it, having no desire to be or emulate a white woman. Its just that our hair tangles & knots up so bad and it hurts to comb. Unless I find a product that actually meets its claims of untangling Kinky hair you will be prying that relaxer out of my cold dead hands. To me its a convenience just like any other 21st century convenience.
Rachel Zimba, Lusaka, Zambia
I finally shed my perm in college when my Eritrean roommate taught me how to have my hair straight without the perm. Yes, it does not last as long but it’s still possible. I do admit that I miss how easy it was to manage but i love my curly locks. I have saved a lot of money and can create diverse hairstyles without too much issue. However, I still do get the comments about straightening my hair (Africans…what can you do?) and my hairdresser still gets horrified when I walk in to get my hair straightened with a mass of curly hair everywhere but i let that go. If I get tired of dealing with it, I just slap it in braids for a while. Losing the perm has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
Wambui, Monrovia, Liberia
They say black hair is political, which is very true. being an african, and knowing this fact, i don’t think Obama is free to grow an Afro. i also don’t think that it is ‘politically correct’ for Michelle obama not to relax her hair. so until African people feel secure with their identities, wherever they find themselves in, African men will have short cuts, while women will relax their hair.
kato lukaija, Tanzania
It is not what’s on the head but what’s inside the head that matters. Keep it natural.
Interesting comments. I must confess that i have very very kinky hair. I shaved of my relaxer after a season in the cold winter ruined my hair. Now I just braid my hair and only go to the salon twice a year for a professional thermal press! Saves me the money and I still have healthy natural hair.
This article makes me laugh when i reflected on my childhood days back in Nigeria, during the christmas period when every kid wants to look cute, there was this day i went with my mother to the open market in my district, i saw a market local salonist (male) took a little girl who stood by watching him advertise his products, and immediately put the relaxer on her hair, i bet you in less than 3 minutes, she started screaming, oga put water, oga put water, my head is burning (WHICH MEANS… PUT WATER AND WASH IT OUT BECOS MY SCALP IS BURNING) but i couldn’t understand it until i tried it myself and reacted like the little girl i once laughed at, in my town whenever we see those guys doing their thing, we just begin to sing, oga put water, oga put water. It was funny then and anytime i remember i just can’t stop laughing. Well for African ladies, dont joke when it comes to hair do, they love it.
Osa Joseph, Cph, Denmark
I used to have long, beautiful dreadlocks for five years but decided to cut them because I felt that I needed to change my hair-style. So I decided that I will just keep my hair natural as I was scared of getting burned by creme relaxers. But to my surprise it was pretty difficult to maintain natural hair because of its course nature. I now have relaxed hair and feel like a different person now. I think that hair says a lot about a person and it would be great to find salons in Gauteng, South Africa that deal with soley natural hair or give advise and treatment to such hair. I think weaves and extensions are great looking but at the same time we should at least have a choice on whether to relax or keep it natural, not just relax because one does not have a choice.
Nkemeleng Nkosi, Gauteng,South Africa
Nine years ago I visited a hairdressers here in Luxembourg to have my hair relaxed – big mistake. After burning my scalp by leaving the relaxer on far too long (and does nobody put a base on the scalp to protect it any more?), she destroyed what was left by blowing my hair dry using a very spiky brush. I vowed I would never do that to my hair again. But making the transition from relaxed to natural hair was not easy. I had to endure well-meant comments from family members about my new growth, disastrous gel twists from a different hairdresser who refused to cut off the straightened bits, people asking whether my hair was some kind of statement, and braids that fell out at inopportune moments and made my neck hurt. But now my natural, healthy, unstressed hair is doing just fine.
Everyone seems to conclude that you straighten or relax your hair so you can have long hair. I wear the hijab so it really should not matter since people can’t see my hair. But it does. My hair is like some form of punishment when in its natural form. It hurts so badly that I cry when I try to comb or weave it in its natural form. So I end up relaxing it as it is more comfortable. I’m contemplating cutting it as this could be easier. So, no I am not trying to imitate anyone. I just don’t want to end up in tears before I start each day.
Fatima, Leicester, UK
I used to have my hair natural but later on I was lured to relax it with chemicals. At first it looked so nice that I didn’t regret it. Now it has become so weak and most of the time it’s dry. I’m even thinking of shaving it and going back to natural. But the question is, how am I going to survive especially in this city where hair is what classifies a woman?
Drue, Nairobi, Kenya
I am a 73-year-old man but I look much younger. I have been relaxing my hair with straighteners since 1954. On a trip to the US I had my hair done at a salon and learned that you have to use a mixture of liquid and paste vaseline on the scalp to avoid getting it burned. One has to learn the proper technique to apply the relaxers nowadays that have no lye and to always use Vaseline as a base on the scalp. It results in flowing hair and a week after you can dye it the colour of your choice. The hair will not fall out.
Roberto Lossa, San Jose, Costa Rica
I relax my hair, I have since I was 16 and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I’ve never researched the health detriments, but if I find it to be disturbing, then I have no problems switching to natural…but I anticipate that I’ll have to be creative to make it easily manageable on a daily basis. On that note, I totally reject weaves, wigs and certain hair additions that simply aim at making one look European, i.e long flowing hair. Relaxed short hair, I have no problems with, braids are purely African (or so I assume) so I have no problem with that either, long, if it’s yours, otherwise, I interpret such hair to poor value of one’s self and ignorant self degradation. I say this knowing some think of relaxed hair such as mine in this way also 🙂
After years of braiding, relaxing and a stint where I shaved my hair because I could not handle taking care of it, I now have dreadlocks. Because my hair was short when I started my dreadlocks, I short dreadlocks. But its cheaper, and I get more compliments. Though a man did offer me marijuana on a recent trip to San Francisco. I politely walked on.
Janet, Kampala, Uganda
Its 7 months since I left Nigeria to Singapore and making a new hair style with a weavon is d last thing on my mind because all d Asian and Indians here have bountiful natural hairs. It painful to not see hair straighteners (relaxers), but fixing a good weavon is unacceptable cos there r no weavons 4 sale, we have to order from Nigeria b4 we fix hairs. I miss all d latest hair dos and fixing Nigeria could offer. It is horrible for us (55 persons)
Bad hair story: I went to the hairdressers to ask for a fringe like the picture I showed her. She cut too much far in on the head so I have a fringe much too far back on my head. It’s still there! She said it looked fashionable and she was 50. It had to be fashionable back then! It looked awful.
Julie, Copenhagen, Denmark
It’s not just African-Americans. I also see many Latinas and other women of colour burn the holy-heck out of their hair to go “blonde.” And what about those of us who fear showing our gray hair? I think there is a phobia of just being ourselves in society, and it’s all around, not just in the U. S. I have decided to stop dying my hair and let it go completely gray, much to the dismay of some of the women I work with. Why is it that it’s okay for a man to go grey, but not a woman?
CM, Huante, Lawndale, USA
I had a good hair growth when I started braiding but after using several relaxers on ma hair, it started breaking and dwindling in growth that I had to barb my hair and start all over from the scratch.
Ifure, Uyo, Nigeria
I recently found a relaxer that was able to relax my kinky hair for the first time. Before that though, I had tried to relax my hair with other which simply didn’t do the trick. They would leave my hair brittle and hard, just a day after relaxing the thick, moppy and kinky mass. Thus, after repeated trials and accompanying disappointments and frustrations, the option was to cut it and and keep what we call a ‘perm cut’ in Ghana. Now, it is about five inches long; not long enough to pull a pony tail with, but quite ok. Currently, it is not too expensive to get my hair done, but who knows the extent to which i would go when I finally get sucked into the hair fascism in Africa, where everyday gets born with ‘just the style for us’.
Nana, Accra, Ghana
I actually really like your natural hair.
Alex, Toronto, Canada