Going natural is a hairy issue

I’ve always leaned towards the natural aesthetic when it comes to hairstyles. For five years, I shaved my hair every two weeks because I preferred a bald look. It’s inexpensive and easy to maintain and I relished the indefinite perception people had of me as a result of my androgynous look.

Next, I ventured into the billion-dollar world of synthetic hair with braided extensions that can take up to 10 hours to “install’‘, for lack of a better word. Time is one of my most valuable commodities and the third time I had to find a gap to braid my hair, I didn’t have eight hours (of hair-pulling pain) to spare and so, for the first time in 22 years, I am wearing my hair naturally.

Within black communities in this country, this chemical-free kinky hair is what was and still is gallingly referred to as kaffirhare (said in an Afrikaans accent). No guesses as to the etymology and connotations of that term. It’s not common for a black woman to wear her hair naturally, especially in an urban environment like Johannesburg where we communicate our financial and psychological independence sartorially, particularly through our hairstyles.

Natural hair is much harder—pun intended—to maintain than chemically relaxed, braided, woven, plaited or dreadlocked hair. But does this knotted perception about something as banal as hair contribute to the arguably imbedded negative disposition black people in general have about their heritage?

The first person I revealed my new look to was my Afrikaner neighbour when I went to borrow a plug for my hairdryer. “What happened to your hair?’’ he asked when I knocked on his door. “It shrank because I washed it,’’ I said. “That is what happens to black hair when you wash it.” He was astonished. As was I when I discovered his tub of Black Like Me Crème Relaxer in his bathroom.

The irony. “White people also relax their hair if it’s this thick,’’ he said. I laughed, because his “this thick’’ is not worth the $10-billion it costs black women worldwide to take away the kink and thickness in their hair.

I found myself uttering the words: “God hates black people’’ when I was attempting to comb my curly cap into a neat non-style last week. I had tears in my eyes and the sound of tearing paper in my ears.

I can’t romanticise these efforts for the sake of being aware of the issues. If it’s a case of my being insecure with my identity, then I am one of millions.

Perhaps we are past the time when this could be perceived as self-loathing. Is putting on extensions or relaxing our hair simply about easy maintenance and not about buying into the straight hair-equals-beauty myth?

It’s futile to categorise the relationship black women have with their hair. We all have our reasons for doing what we do. Fortunately, we can choose not to justify them.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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