When hair care and cultural identity are woven together
|“Shug Avery sat up in bed a little today. I wash and comb out her hair. She got the nottiest, shortest, kinkiest hair I ever saw, and I loves every strand of it.”
― Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Raising a child is undoubtedly a rewarding but daunting experience for any mother. There is a lot to learn, mostly from trial-and-error, and along the way a good percentage of failures should be considered physiological. But for transracial adoptive mothers, life can add unexpected challenges on tasks that normally would go unnoticed. How are you supposed to take care of the kinky, curly Afro hair of a 3-year old when for your whole life you only had to deal with poker straight Caucasian hair?
Non-profit black hair school Styles 4 Girlz (currently Styles 4 Kidz) was first opened in 2010 in Chicago to meet the needs for haircare education in transracial families. The founder, black entrepreneur Tamekia Swint, started the company after helping an adoptive mom style the hair of her 3 children; soon other non-black mothers started seeking for her help, and in 2018 the first non-profit salon was opened for foster and adopted kids. As Tamekia states in a video recently gone viral, “Hair is important for African American kids, because your hair is your crown. When you feel good about how you look, that propels you into the world as a productive citizen.”
Let’s take a step back and talk about hair. As we all know from daily experience, hair strands come in different shapes, but what may come as a surprise for some is that said shapes have been studied and classified. I learned it at 35, while looking for reasons why my stubborn “straight” hair won’t stop frizz (Spoiler: it’s because it’s curly. Should have seen it coming).
Actually, several classifications have been proposed, taking into account shape, texture, thickness, and density in variable proportions. At present we will refer to a modified version of the Andre Walker system, which is perhaps the most popular.
This hair typing system sets 3 classes of curly hair, from type 2 (wavy), through type 3 (curly), to type 4 (coily). Type 1 is represented by straight hair. For each of these types, respectively, sub-classes A, B, and C have been defined. So for example, type 3A indicates looser curls, while in 3C the strands are packed in tight spirals. But there are more differences than meet the eye. In types 1 and 2, hair follicles have a rounder shape, and the cuticles on healthy hair shafts are more tightly serrated giving the hair a smoother surface. On the other hand, type 3 and 4 tend to have oval follicles and fewer cuticle layers; hair can appear coarse and dense but it’s counterintuitively more fragile and prone to dryness. These differences, as well as the thickness of the hair and the maximal length it can reach, are determined by genetics; the details of these genetic backgrounds have not been fully uncovered yet and studies are currently being carried on for further clarification.
It looks pretty obvious, at this point, that different hair types need different treatments. In comparison with straight hair, curls and kinks need more hydration, more care, and to steer clear from heat and mechanical damage – that is to say for example choosing products with no silicones and no sulphates, avoiding blow drying and ironing, using satin bonnets for sleeping, etc. But despite products targeted at black hair have been around for more than a century, they very seldom made it to the shelves of regular drugstores. I myself have issues, and I’m a white woman with mildly curly hair! The truth is that if you look around at ads, or at the catalogues in most salons, what you will find is straight hair. The options for products and treatments usually range from “what to use on straight hair” to “what to use on hair to make them straight”. I never thought that much about that until I realised what women with coily hair are going through. Straight hair is the standard, with the variation of super sleek perfect curls added with the iron, so if you want to appear classy and professional you have to conform. Do you think I’m exaggerating? Black girls and women are being told they have to wear a wig because their own hair is unacceptable at school or in the workplace. They go through all sorts of “relaxing” treatments (the name is misleading. Think “torture devices”, not “wellness centre”). They are told that traditional hairstyles like cornrows are vulgar and unprofessional (save when it’s on the head of a white model, then it magically becomes trendy). I don’t want to play the part of the social justice warrior, but if someone told me that a physical feature which is part of my identity and cultural heritage is inherently wrong because aesthetics, I would be really, really pissed off. Wouldn’t you?
All hair is beautiful. And considering also the importance hair has in black culture, discrimination on these grounds should be archived as an embarrassing record of the past. In these times of growing intolerance and political drift towards the far right positions, I sincerely hope that organisations like Styles 4 Kidz become more popular. We need to learn from each other, respect each other, and celebrate our differences instead of covering them or pretending to enjoy the one-size-fits-all approach.
Some additional resources:
https://www.pettymayonnaise.com/black-hair-school-adoptive-parents/ - the article about Tamekia Swint and her company (with video).
https://www.zmescience.com/other/science-abc/how-fast-hair-grows-042394/ - some science facts about hair and hair growth.
https://www.curlcentric.com/hair-typing-system/ - more about curl types, with pics!
https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/madame-c-j-walker - have a look at this truly inspiring story.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_based_on_hair_texture - ok Wikipedia it’s not exactly a reliable source, but the bibliography section has lots of interesting references for a more in-depth analysis.
...or if you are just in the mood for Netflix and chill, search for “Nappily Ever After” by Haifaa Al-Mansour: a journey to self-acceptance, identity, and independence, with a great soundtrack. And of course, hair.