I began writing this piece by stating that I first got my hair permed when I was eight years old. But I was not so sure so I asked my sister to confirm how old I was. She said she does not remember but she’s sure I was definitely younger than 8 years. The fact that we could barely pinpoint my actual age or hers meant we were extremely young; we were babies when our hair got permed. This also means, my sister and I were not given the opportunity to learn about our natural hair. We grew up being disgusted with our natural hair because even when the perm would wear off, we were teased into continuously perming it.
Our hair was constantly referred to as ‘rough, a lot of work, or a comb-breaker,’ the typical Liberian way of saying ‘you need to perm your hair, ASAP.’
Sadly, those who made me self-conscious about my hair were not strangers; they were my friends and older sisters who braided my hair for school. All my elder sisters have had their hair permed, and even my mother did. Nobody I looked up to kept their natural hair. Suffice to say, the idea of keeping one’s natural hair was not something anyone thought of or considered then.
Although high schools in Liberia mandated girls to braid their hair in cornrows, everyone still had their hair permed. I am sure I did not see any of my classmates with natural hair. Whenever it was a vacation, the norm was styling our hair with any form of fake hair. Styling my hair with weaves made me feel more beautiful. I think that feeling is similar to how I feel today when I put on makeup. But that is a story for another day.
After I graduated high school, I did not have to braid my natural hair for school anymore so wearing my natural hair was never going to happen. As a college student, I could not fathom the thought of walking the streets of Monrovia with my natural hair. This was a norm too. Every college girl then had their hair permed and styled with fake hair. You’d rarely see any college girl without weave in or braids. I am assuming this was partly because there was a tainted narrative about wearing your natural hair.
‘If you had natural hair, you were broke and that made you corny too.’
Hence, the only time anyone would see my natural hair was when I was removing braids or weaves so that I could wash and put another set of fake hair back on.
It was not until I moved to the U.S. four years ago that I learned that my natural hair could be beautiful. I was led to this realization by the fact that maintaining weaves and wigs in the U.S. is extremely expensive. I was a broke college kid who did not have a job, and my aunt who I stayed with at the time refused to pay for braids or weave-ins. I think my aunty noticed how discontent I was about my natural hair and she wanted me to embrace it.
She was the first person who said, “Suma, your natural hair is beautiful. You should wear it more.”
I told her wearing my natural was impossible because I did not know how to maintain my hair. Now, it was true that I did not know how to manage my natural hair, but a bigger underlying problem was that I hated for people to see me without weave-in or braids. As far as I was concerned, when it was beauty related, natural hair was out of the picture.
How could I possibly look and feel beautiful without fake hair?
Sadly, I am not the only one who harbors this resentment about black hair; it is prevalent among many black women. Last summer 2017, when I visited Liberia, one of my friends disclosed that she might never transition to a natural hair, because ‘her hair does not work like mine.’ Even Lupita Nyong’o, the Mexican born African actress who now proudly wears her natural hair as a means of black empowerment, also struggled with these same insecurities as a kid. Lupita explained in an interview with Allure Magazine that most years of her childhood were spent resenting her thick curls. She would beg her mom to relax her hair because she wanted to have straight and curly hair like the girls at school.
For many years, society’s beauty standards rarely included black hair and when it did, afro was left out of the picture. Straight hair was and is still the norm. Lupita, along with a few other prominent black women, has made attempts to break the tainted narratives surrounding black hair. A big attempt to buttress the natural movement was made fairly recently by the female cast in the blockbuster Marvel movie, Black Panther. None of the black women in Black Panther had permed hair. They were either bald, natural or wore protective and traditional hairstyles.
Vox explained that Black Panther “is a crucial stamp of validation for black people hunger for the opportunity to celebrate everything from Afrofuturism to the growing natural hair movement that has often been derided in mainstream media.”
Other examples that prove that black women are taking bold steps to change the narrative can be seen a number of major beauty pageants around the world. Outstanding among them was when Davina Bennet, Miss Jamaica 2017, broke the traditional beauty standards for pageantry by gracing the stage with her afro during the 2017 Miss Universe Pageant. She admirably wore out her afro throughout the competition. Everyone was in awe because this was the first time an afro queen won Second Place in the Miss Universe Pageant Competition. Davina Bennett’s decision to wear her afro at the pageant caused many black women around the world to realize that their natural hair is just as beautiful and probably more elegant. Following the numerous #blackgirlmagic tweets during the Miss Universe competition, Ms. Jamaica 2017 started the trend #AFROFRIDAY with motives to empower young girls to embrace their afro.
The natural hair movement is also thriving in Liberia. America has Lupita, Jamaica has Davina and Liberia has Satta Wahab. Ms. Wahab, CEO of Naz Naturals who is one of the finalists of the famous South African Anzisha Prize and a GET Fellow at SMART Liberia, took drastic steps to ensure that Liberian women can feel a sense of pride in wearing their natural hair.
The launching of Liberia’s first natural hair product company (Naz Naturals) has significantly contributed to Liberia’s natural hair movement. Naz Naturals brand’s tagline ‘it’s natural, you’re beautiful’ inspires Liberian women to realize that their natural hair is beautiful, elegant, and proper.
To ensure that the inspiration stays vibrant, Satta created Afro Kurl Fest to host various natural hair events in Monrovia for women to celebrate and learn more about their kinks and curls. Satta also recently launched the #LetTheFroGlow campaign purposely to promote Afrocentric hairstyles among Liberian women by providing discounts to her hair products.
Other Liberian women striving to promote and embrace the natural hair movement are Letitia Gibson, Sharon Blah, and Lusinetta Kormon. Ms. Gibson is the proud owner and CEO of Dele’s Natural Hair Clinic, a hair salon dedicated to treating and styling natural black hair. If a natural haired black woman walks into most salons in Liberia, she will be told: “I’m sorry, we don’t do your hair here.” However, even if a salon agrees to work on your hair, they have no clear idea on how to style natural hair; they don’t understand the importance of moisturizing or how the different hair types and textures require different handlings to ensure healthiness in your hair. Ms. Gibson got tired of this narrative and created a solution to this problem. Ms. Blah, on the other hand, started a company called Nappy Nations which designs accessories that are natural hair themed, black, fierce, and unapologetically African with the intention of showing us all that loving your hair, skin, and blackness should be the norm. Last, but certainly not least, Ms. Kormon created one of Liberia’s biggest online platforms, Lib Natural Hair Divas that promotes the Natural Hair Movement by posting Liberian naturalistas who wear their hair black and proud.
With women like these to look up to, we will see a change in the narrative as I do strongly believe that role models matter in the natural hair movement. I am optimistic that in just a few years, many black women will finally reach a milestone of embracing their natural hair and feel confident enough to wear their thick and kinky curls any and everywhere. Like India Arie said, I am not my hair but like me, my hair requires respect, care, and a whole lotta love.
Authored by Suma Massaley