Hairstyles are a fundamental part of self-expression. They’re often our most defining physical feature and can be a manifestation of our personalities. But for black women, hair is about more than just style and beauty.
The way black women wear their hair has often been dictated by politics and social history instead of self-expression, thanks to both a global history of colonisation — and more recently, the lack of diversity in popular culture.
“Pop-culture praises straight hair as the norm,” says Dr Kathomi Gatwiri, a lecturer in social science at Southern Cross University.
And so people with Afro-descent, with curlier and more prominent hair, are continually made to feel like outsiders or abnormal. As a result, many feel they may face overt or subconscious discrimination should they wear their hair naturally.
Dr Gatwiri explains this puts pressure on black women to chemically relax or alter their hair in financially costly ways. It also helps instil a culture that prioritises a Eurocentric standard of beauty as the norm.
However, the last decade has seen a resurgence in the natural hair movement which encourages black women to give up relaxing and start wearing their hair naturally.
“The last decade has been powerful in people rejecting the really insidious ways racism shows itself in being told the way your body must be,” Dr Gatwiri says.
There are no strict rules or styles, but the idea is that, finally, black women are respected in their decision to represent themselves as they choose.
Lou, Becky, Saskia and Kirsty have all had to traverse the complicated territory of managing their natural hair. They’ve shared their stories with ABC Life.
Actor Kirsty grew up in South Africa, where her mother would relax her hair every six months.
“Relaxing is about $600 a pop and my mum would take me every six months for most of my childhood, and my parents weren’t well-off.
Becky, 23, is a radiographer at Nepean Hospital in NSW.
“In the hospital it doesn’t really matter. People walk around with purple hair and no-one really says anything.
“I remember going to an African hairdresser and the lady there told me I should keep it because it looked beautiful. That was the only time I hesitated about relaxing it, but I went through with it anyway.”
“When I was 17, I got a job as a concierge and wanted to know how I was allowed to wear my hair, so I asked my boss,” Saskia recalls.
“I just wanted to know what the rules were. They decided I had to tie it back. And because I was so young and needed the job, I went with it.
Lou, 22, says her decision to start wearing her hair naturally was driven by her desire to be “liked just as who I am”.