My skin is too dark to show a blush, but I came pretty close a few years ago when, as a University of Warwick undergraduate, I was turned away from my campus hair salon because of my appearance. “Oh, we don’t do your type of hair,” the blond, Brummie-voiced stylist said, smiling semi-apologetically, in a tone that conveyed her reluctance to even try. “Maybe go to an afro salon in Coventry?”
I was 19 and wore a sweetcorn-coloured, straw-textured, Beyoncé-inspired weave. I’m not sure what the stylist expected to find beneath my wavy 22-inch remy hair extensions, but it became obvious that whatever I was sporting up there was simply too much work for her. I left that salon with my cheeks glowing as close to crimson as is naturally possible and waited until I returned home to London to get my hair sorted (thank you, Peckham).
Even years later, after learning to love the curls I once disparaged, I still find myself on the receiving end of weird hair-care practices in black spaces and discrimination in white ones. Mainstream chains charge more to deal with anything that isn’t silky-straight and afro salons can leave me feeling utterly frustrated. What’s a confused curly girl in a white world to do?
I was brought up in a Caucasian community untroubled by kink, curl or wave. Although my 90s hair role models included Mel B and Angellica Bell, I didn’t know where my own frizz – and the dark eyes and brown skin that accompanied it – ever really came from. When I was a child, my white parents styled my hair without complaint, because to speak about why I was the only one in our family with a thick mass of black ringlets would have risked a colossal upheaval for all of us.
Looking at family albums, I see a smiling white couple holding an afro-haired baby. My curls are the most obvious marker of racial difference between me and them; an unapologetic signifier of African heritage. But growing up, even the most difficult hair-mares weren’t enough of a catalyst to spark discussion about my race.
I remember Mum meticulously picking nits from my head when I was in primary school and as I fell asleep in the bath. “It’s like combing three heads,” she said. I remember going to white salons with her in Croydon, aged 11; sometimes they turned us away because of my hair texture, but we never spoke about why. By the time I was 14, I’d already flirted with honey-blond highlights and begged for a relaxer (a permanent straightening treatment) to look more like my friends. My Irish mum, with her bone-straight auburn hair, didn’t argue and a Caribbean woman came to the house to apply the burning chemicals. I remember how they stung my scalp but also how much more easily the straighteners glided over my hair afterwards. The relaxer sparked a relentless, arm-aching five-year cycle of bleaching, singeing, braiding and sewing.
At 17, I decided to wade into the world of hair extensions. My first weave was installed by a hairdresser in south London, but when it was finished, I felt stripped of a small segment of self. My lustrous new head of hair felt alien and I was embarrassed to go to school and explain my transformation to friends. Eventually, though, I started to look forward to the regular sourcing of Rapunzelesque locks from Peckham, but not to the cost and hassle associated with applying them to my head. I remember my father sewing more hair into my weave as we sat at the dining-room table. “I don’t like doing this,” he frowned, needle in hand, but he always did it anyway.
If we’d spoken frankly about my inherent urge to eradicate every trace of blackness from my scalp, we would have had to address the fact that I probably wasn’t related to one, or both, of my parents. And so despite my questions, any discussion that related to this – including that of my hair – was largely left alone.
By the time I got to 18, I was tired of hiding my natural identity. I was sick of being unable to exercise or go swimming without worrying about my fake hair. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her novel (and my favourite book), Americanah: “Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you.”
A black friend at university had informed me that Instagram and YouTube would provide the hair-education tools I’d been lacking. “A lot of the afro salons won’t even have the information you’ll find on there,” she said. I soon found that social media hosted a booming natural hair movement, dominated by girls who looked just like me. Elated, I dived into a world of online tutorials, product reviews and celebratory forums where women spoke of being “curly and conscious”.
Although not without its flaws (darker-skinned women with tighter hair coils are overlooked), the natural hair movement encouraged me to start probing my family for answers related to my identity. With each deep condition treatment and curly tutorial, the internal battle I fought with myself over my appearance cooled down until I finally discovered I wasn’t related to the amazing father who had raised me. Utterly distraught, I continued educating myself on black beauty culture, but soon found afro hair salons to be confusing spaces.
Although cheap and very accessible, independent black hairdressers often lack the kind of professionalism found in mainstream salons (although I’d argue that this adds to their charm). The south London ones were a frenetic kaleidoscope of activity; stylists and customers swapped stories in different languages, somebody’s baby would always find its way on to my lap, and navigating all the phones on charge, stray bundles of hair floating around and hot takeaway lunches meant the experience was often far from relaxing. I enjoyed inhabiting this new world, but sometimes felt like an outsider. I didn’t know the right names for things, I didn’t know what country to say I was “from”, I didn’t know prices. I also noticed a differences in technique between how the stylists wanted to do my hair and what I’d learned online. Large combs tugged at my curls completely dry, which encourages breakage. Eyes narrowed when I asked to see shampoo-bottle labels or if I protested at having all my hair straightened before braiding to make it easier for them. I felt awkward; there was an invisible sheath between who I was and how I was perceived .
Months of travel last year also exposed me to some frustrating hair-care customs and anti-black sentiment – I had expected to feel more at home with my natural hair in Central America and the Caribbean than I did.
A global cultural hegemony that reflects Eurocentric beauty ideals means straight hair is the default the world over. In 18th-century Louisiana, the so-called tignon law demanded black women hide their hair in public. British colonialists classified afro-textured hair as closer to sheep’s wool than anything else. Fast forward to the 21st century and many black women know that sporting a style that more closely resembles that of their white-looking counterparts grants access to better social and professional opportunities. Failure to conform can result in sacking, bullying and overt discrimination.
I recently called seven high-street salons to compare telephone quotes for a cut and blowdry and highlights with the in-person price. In all but one of the hairdressers’, the cost increased once stylists saw me. One demanded an outrageous £31 extra for the cut and blowdry and £46 more for highlights. The reason? I was told that my shoulder-length curls were “really hard to manage”, “too thick” and “a lot more work”. This, despite the fact that none of these salons asked me to disclose my hair texture on the phone or warned about extra charges for various hair types on their websites.
Afro hair is fantastically diverse and more visible in fashion and advertising than ever. For me, insecurities about my race manifested themselves in the way I fought against my voluminous frizz for years and, like many black and mixed-race women, I’ve learned to embrace my curls through self-education and social media. Thankfully, I can say that nurturing a healthier head of curls has resulted in a far happier mindset, too.
• Georgina Lawton starts a new column in Family next week. She blogs at girlunfurled.com