My ‘smart’phone thinks I’m black! It started when I began to research black culture, and more specifically, black women’s hair and beauty on social media. My search page on Instagram is now filled with people that don’t look like me – for the record I’m a white middle-aged woman of British/Italian descent who is now quite smug because I’ve thrown a spanner into Instagram’s algorithms. The reason for all the research? – an impending visit to the Afro Hair & Beauty Live 2019 exhibition at London’s Business Design Centre.
I’m not part of the curly community so as part of my research I was relieved to find an article by Joane Amay for Allure, who opened my eyes to the world of graded hair types as defined by hair stylist Andre Walker: 1s being straight, 2s wavy, 3s curly and 4s kinky. According to Wikipedia the scale was developed in the ’90s as a way to market hair care products but has since been adopted as a hair type classification system. Over time this has been amended and updated with a-c subsections, but even here there are discrepancies as a head of hair can contain different types all at once – and I thought I was getting somewhere!
White observers might not have given black women’s hair much thought, maybe they’ve gawked at an amazing feat of braided engineering or wondered how a co-worker’s hair suddenly got so much longer. How different can a black person’s experience of hair be? Art historian and author of the book ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ Emma Dabiri, explains the historical context that makes afro hair political, and debunks some of the myths surrounding it, one of them being that it doesn’t grow – which it does. Also never assume it’s ever OK to touch a person’s hair, it is the kind of intrusion that’s akin to rubbing a pregnant woman’s belly.
I recently went to an art exhibition of the Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman called Displaced Choreographies. In her own words, “When I walk into my studio, I realise I am building my own army of women. It is an army”. Key to this ‘army’ is the recurring figure of a woman representing the shared experiences of women, particularly women of colour. Her woman appears multiple times on each canvas, meticulously painted, sometimes naked and sometimes with clothing, but always with thick black hair. One piece ‘The Kawliya Dance,’ 2013 refers to a traditional dance by the Kawliya gypsies of Iraq, always performed by women it is characterised by the tossing of long hair and was performed for figures or authority, such as Saddam Hussein, whose men would often assault them at the end of the dance. It’s hard for women on the outside of these cultures to appreciate the symbolism and meaning behind hair, it’s political message or the history of the struggle that could be associated with wearing hair in a particular style.
Emma Dabiri, describes “the unique texture of afro hair, its tightly spiralled coils, makes it possible to style in a multitude of ways that are hard if not impossible, to achieve with European Hair”. Braids might seem like a simple concept, after all it’s just a bunch of plaits right? No wrong – braids can be crazily complex and styles are infinitely adaptable. Cosmopolitan recently compiled a short list of the main types of hair twists and braids, (check out the link below) as worn by celebrities like Meagan Good in faux locs – a shiny more regular version of dreadlocks, Nicki Minaj in micro braids – a tiny version of box braids, and Yara Shahidi in Dutch braids. Synthetic or real hair can be worked into existing cornrows adding length, texture or colour, not only that you can also add in metallic yarn or decorative rings and cuffs – the possibilities really are endless.
Unless you are part of the black community you have probably not grown up with women around you regularly wearing faux hair or considered the time, expense and maintenance that goes into getting braids done. Braiding is a commitment, it can take from four to eight hours to get long hair braided and they last between six to eight weeks, or longer if you maintain them well and get individual strands redone. Maya Allen, fashion and beauty assistant for Cosmopolitan talks about the transition from straightening her hair to braids “wearing box braids gives me a sense of unity with the black community that makes strangers feel like family…it wasn’t until I tried box braids that I truly understood the power in these styles. It’s about more than just hair. Wearing box braids with pride is my form of resistance”.
I am in awe of the cool shapes of bantu knots and space buns, the gentle tapering of Senegalese twists and the fierceness of braids piled into a dramatic mohawk. I recently went through, my version of a major hair transition, from a glossy black bob to a short grey crop, which in its own way felt empowering. How liberating to be able to reinvent yourself regularly, not just with a re-style or trim but through extensions and hair pieces. The only thing that stops me embracing a different look is that after years of faking my hair colour I feel the need to be more authentic, right now it feels right for me to align my hair colour with my age, so I had the chop to let the grey shine through! Weekly magazine Stylist recently ran a cover story ‘natural beauty, The afro hair movement that’s sparking joy’. Inside Emma Dabiri wrote about the natural hair movement and the new wave of ‘Naturals’, who she describes as “…people who have decided to stop relaxing their hair and embrace its unaltered texture.” She goes on to explain that “Once you chemically straighten your hair, you can’t un-straighten it. It’s an irreversible process. The only option is ‘the big chop’, a term used within the natural hair community to describe cutting off the relaxed or permed ends when you transition from chemically processed to natural hair”
Whatever your hair type moisture is crucial, but it’s not as simple as slapping on some Shea butter or coconut oil, there are specific ingredients and unique formulas to ensure that pores don’t get clogged, and that moisture reaches the hair shaft. Afrocenchix is a UK company that was voted Best Natural Hair Brand 2018 by the BBFA, they use organic and natural ingredients only and their products are now available in Whole Foods Market. The show producers noted a rise in ‘kitchen table businesses’ with brands like Big Nanny and Obonee Oil showcasing their own unique natural hair and skincare products. Some kinky hair types can be teased and worked into springy coils and curls with specialised products from brands like Mielle or Twisted Sista, a London-based company who had the coolest pop-up event at the show.
Skin protection is important too and one of the key messages being voiced by Agnes Cazin, one of the event producers from H73 and host of the show’s live seminars, is that black women shouldn’t leave the house without sun protection. It’s true that darker skin tones do contain more melanin but a common misconception is that they are immune to skin cancer when in fact they could be more likely to develop a melanoma simply because they’re less inclined to go and get a lump checked out early enough. An in-depth study the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, concluded that “African Americans were 4 times more likely to present with advanced stage IV melanoma and 1.5 times more likely to die from melanoma than Caucasians”.
The Afro Hair & Beauty Live is the largest show of its type in Europe and it has been going for 38 years. Around 70 different companies from all over the world exhibit at the two day event. There were motivational and informative talks on everything from looking after the condition of your skin and hair, to stepping up and starting your own business.
On stage were demonstrations of straight wigs which turn wavy with a spritz of water by Dressmaker, while on the stands products to create the perfect edges, or tips on how to customise a closure/parting to make it look real. The exhibitors had expert stylists ready to give customers a new look or offer advice on any problems or issues with the scalp or hair. Many of the visitors, while they might not be professional stylists, know what they want and have the confidence and skills to manage their own hair which explains the emphasis on do-it-yourself product. Atlanta hair-dye specialist Calore Color represented by Lavish Hair Extensions, have some amazing dyes to create your own unique ombre effects, while Wigenius produce hair kits to assemble and personalise your own hairpieces.
The exhibition had it all and I haven’t even touched on the artistry of the barbers, who buzz jaw-dropping designs onto the men’s hair. These guys are one of the highlights of the show, not only do they do meticulous cropped styles they treat hair as a canvas, creating some incredible artwork. I saw one guy at Luster’s S-Curl, doing a complex shaved image on a guy, while girls with mohawk styles were getting a signature looped line razored into the sides. The show closed with the popular Battle of the Barber and Beard Master competitions, this year’s 1st place winners are respectively Sean Immanuel from First Choice Barbers and Jay Jay Linnett from Five Star Barbers, see full list with the credits below.
So what vibe do you want to channel today? Feel like glossy 26″ long hair, or maybe it’s a French braid kind of day? Don’t let anything get in your way, especially not your hair type. It’s fun to experiment and go from straight to curly, or short to long. Give full wigs and hair extensions a try, one of the easiest to pull off is a tie-on ponytail which hugs around a ballet bun, and if you don’t want to live with rainbow hair after the festival season is over – dye your own hairpiece!
The next Afro Hair & Beauty Live show is scheduled for May 2020.
CREDITS & LINKS
EMMA DABIRI – Author & Historian instagram @emmadabiri
LAVISH HAIR EXTENSIONS UK – instagram @lavish_hairextensionsuk
STYLIST – Magazine issue 464, May 2019
Malignant Melanoma in African–Americans – A Population-Based Clinical Outcomes Study Involving 1106 African–American Patients from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Result (SEER) Database (1988–2011)
S-Curl Battle of The Barbers 2019:
1st Sean Immanuel First Choice Barbers
2nd Jay Jay Linnett Five Star Barbers
3rd Kurvin Spence Top Kuttz
S-Curl Beard Master:
1st Jay Jay Linnett Five Star Barbers
2nd Kurvin Spence Top Kuttz
3rd Sean Immanuel First Choice Barbers