As a six-year-old, I wanted Janet Jackson’s hair. It was straight. Mine was not. I imagined hers to be beautifully soft. Mine looked stiff. I coveted the malleability of hers – hair that moved, hair that looked like it grew down as opposed to up and out.
One day I unravelled my freshly braided hair and doused it with half a bottle of Comfort. My theory was, it softens clothes, it will soften hair. I ended up with incredibly matted hair and very angry parents. But I smelt nice. One of the most intense and complicated relationships I’ve ever had is with my hair.
Many of my childhood summers were spent in Nigeria, and seeing braidists creating intricate cornrowed styles fascinated me. So I learnt to braid. I practised on dolls, friends, family and pets with lots of fur. But mostly I practised on myself. Initially my handiwork either unravelled immediately or looked less like braids and more like knotted lumps.
Years later, on holiday in Sardinia, I braided a friend’s hair on the beach. Mid-session, some white women came over to ask how much I charged. On the one hand I found it embarrassing; on the other hand, it was evidence my skills were finally impressive.
As a schoolgirl, I owned a plethora of hair paraphernalia – tongs, dryers, steamers, crimpers, grips, clips, creams, gels, sprays… I told people I loved my hair, but I constantly tried to manipulate it into something it just wasn’t. How can you say you love something if you’re consistently trying to change it?
It was a hot comb, aged five, that had first erased my natural curl. This weighty instrument was placed on a stove and, once heated, combed through hair to straighten ‘kinks’. One wrong move and a burnt scalp, ear or forehead awaited. Terrifying but exciting. It only came out on special occasions and was an opportunity to have straight hair that swished. It sounds crazy now, but that was the norm. Every black girl I knew had her hair hot-combed for special occasions. It was a chance to have hair you could run your fingers through, hair you could flick nonchalantly, hair that would blow in the wind.
This desire for a texture that is so unlike anything I could grow has unsavoury roots. Black hair in its natural state has been stigmatised and marginalised throughout history. The hair texture of slaves (along with how fair their skin was) would dictate how highly prized they were.
During South Africa’s apartheid era, a ‘pencil test’ was used to determine racial identity: if a pencil passed through your hair smoothly (only really possible with Caucasian hair), you were classified ‘white’. If the pencil got stuck, you were ‘coloured’ (and had fewer rights), and if a pencil stayed put when you shook your head, you were ‘black’ (even fewer rights).
Discrimination based on hair texture is rife on both sides of the Atlantic (the states of New York and California have recently outlawed it). A recent report by De Montfort University in Leicester found a 66 per cent rise in negative policies against Afro hair in schools, while in New Jersey late last year, a black high-school wrestler was forced by a white referee to cut off his dreads.
For the longest time, people with Afro hair have felt compelled, pressured even, to straighten it in order to integrate into a wider, whiter culture. I was no different. I didn’t see anything – magazines, TV, adverts – that celebrated my natural texture. Afro hair was unruly, unmanageable, rebellious, something that needed to be controlled. Alas, many products for Afro hair still use this derogatory language.
By the time I hit my teens, going through the pain (literally) of pressing my hair once in a blue moon, only for it to revert to my natural look a week later (or sooner if I got caught in the rain) no longer touched the sides. I wanted more. In my mid-teens I began to relax it, a process in which creamy chemical formulas break down your curl pattern so you have bone-straight hair.
When the regrowth peeps up six or eight weeks later, you repeat the process on the roots. It proved even more painful. At best it would leave my scalp sensitive; at worst, with sores that later formed crusts. But I got the silky hair I wanted so I was addicted (this is why relaxers are known as ‘creamy crack’) and stayed that way for years.
Despite wanting Eurocentric hair, I wasn’t inspired by Caucasian women. When US hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa released Push It, I became an unofficial fourth member. I began collecting tongs in a million different barrel sizes to nail those asymmetric styles. If emulating Salt-N-Pepa was a degree, I’d have got a first. But daily use took its toll – every time my aunt visited, she’d greet me with, ‘Still frying the hair?’
I began to relax it more often so it felt slicker and more ‘acceptable’ for longer. Once, I relaxed my hair myself, left the product on longer than the recommended 20 minutes, dyed it jet black straight afterwards, and screamed as clumps fell out into the bath. I began experimenting with wigs, extensions and various hairstyles informed by 1990s R&B stars.
I loved the finger waves I spotted on Missy Elliott. At the time I was dating a totally unsuitable guy, who told me he didn’t like ‘girls with finger waves and gold boots’ because they were ‘just a bit black’ and ‘too ghetto’. I got the hair, I got the boots and I got rid of him. Some time after that I got a Toni Braxton- esque bowl cut. I’ve never invested as much money and time as I did with this. It was incredibly high-maintenance – I was at the salon twice a week – and unsustainable, so I began wearing my hair in braids, inspired by Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice.
For years, I alternated braids with relaxers. What happened next was the turning point. Almost seven years ago, I gave birth to my son very prematurely. He spent months in hospital and I spent every waking hour I could with him. One day I decided to get back a sense of normality by going to the hairdresser’s for a relaxer.
Throughout the process I just wanted to go back to my son. I felt so anxious that once my hair was straightened and washed, I left – with it still soaking wet – and sprinted back to the hospital. I began to question myself. I asked myself whether, when I finally got to take my son home, which happened three months later, I wanted to spend time with him or at the salon getting my scalp burnt? Why was I going to such lengths, torturing myself, destroying my scalp, in order to have straight hair?
I realised I had treated my natural texture as a thing of shame. So shameful that even at my lowest, I still felt compelled to obliterate it. It was the wake-up call I needed. Just like that, the spell was broken. That was the last time I used a relaxer.
My hair is now completely natural; coily, kinky, textured and yes, sometimes it has a mind of its own, but that’s fine. I love it, I’m proud of it and I accept it. It’s a journey many Afro-haired women have been on; the natural-hair movement is so huge, I can honestly say I hardly know anyone who still relaxes theirs. Which is a huge step change.
But then there’s the industry’s ability to cater for Afro hair. I still buy the majority of my products from black hair and beauty stores in areas that are deemed ‘ethnic’ because I can’t find them in major retailers. And I still find most salons don’t know what to do with my hair. But I am happy that so many women now love their hair in its natural texture. Let’s hope the wider industry begins to, as well.
COVER PHOTO: From braids to hot combs, daily tongs to chemical relaxers, author and beauty editor Funmi Fetto spent decades painfully trying to transform her hair. Here, she explains why she now embraces her natural look CREDIT: ELLIOTT WILCOX