In the past few years I have watched the natural hair movement grow exponentially. This is something I am happy to see but also something that I heed with apprehension. Despite having had natural hair for near enough my whole life, and being all for positive representation of black women there is something about the movement that doesn’t sit well with me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it is until natural hair advocate and influencer Nia Pettitt (@niathelight previously @frogirlginny) summed it all up in an Instagram post discussing her choice to cut her hair short. What started out as a journey to self-discovery had become so overbearing that she had ironically, lost herself. After asking Pettitt some questions, I think that in many ways this is a reflection of the movement itself as it becomes more and more commercialised.
I think that hair for all women is such a huge part of their femininity, but for black women, it goes even further than that. The politics of black hair sit in the intersection of race and gender, with natural hair being considered masculine, and European beauty as the standard. The natural hair movement began as a way for black women to relearn themselves, and learn to love themselves. However, it seems that this arguably fundamental element of the movement, is being over shadowed by media campaigns and the aesthetics of it all. This is something Pettitt knows all too well. She says:
“My hair definitely allowed me to explore my femininity as it gave me a boost of confidence. In school, people didn’t pay attention to me because I had acne, braces and I was very skinny. It was also a predominantly white area so I wasn’t the idea of beauty. When I big chopped my hair, I was the only one in my area with big hair so people gravitated towards that and it ended up transcribing to my hair equating to my beauty. It wasn’t healthy and I wasn’t aware of it until my social media grew rapidly because of it. I then felt under pressure to always wear it out and if I didn’t, I had this horrible “feeling on shoulders” every time I didn’t go out with big hair. It was really my insecurities right in front of me that I hadn’t taken the time to accept or love because my hair overshadowed them.”
In light of Pettits’s decision to cut her hair I reflected on my own relationship with my hair. I completely understood where she was coming from. Growing up I had always been told I had “good” hair, and I don’t think I realised how much value this made me put on my hair. I had always thought that I believed my hair to be “just hair” and I don’t feed into this “good” hair = looser curls narrative, but in actual fact, I put more pride in it than I dare to admit.
When the natural hair movement came about I found myself falling into the trap of constantly slicking my hair up and brushing down baby hairs. I became very aware of my hair being sleek and presentable all the time. Once I noticed this I weaned myself out of the need to constantly have my hair in place and perfect. Most days now I don’t even gel my hair back. I just throw it into a loose bun for work or don’t touch it at all. I have considered either shaving my hair or getting locs as a way to practice self-restraint, and stop myself getting lost in a stream of natural hair pages, and product reviews. In a way, it would be an attempt to separate myself from the obsession with my hair, but in actual fact, I still find both styles beautiful so I don’t know if that would really have the desired outcome. I wondered then what it was that finally pushed Pettitt to take the leap. She says:
“I knew from last year that I wanted to do it but I wanted to wait till I was at peace with it. I’m good at making rapid decisions but I mediated on it, prayed on it and the universe showed me it was the right thing to do in so many beautiful ways. Once I knew, I was just excited and began living my life as if my hair was gone. I no longer wore it out and just let my energy speak before I did. I’ve had the same look for almost 5 years now and I believe in evolving and becoming whoever who you want to be. This is who I knew I was. I’ve never felt more confident and more free and less focused on the physical too.”
“I’m going to do more of embracing the now than thinking ahead. If keeping my hair short feels right tomorrow but growing it feels right the next day; I’ll go with those feelings. It’s just hair and the magical thing is, it grows back. If I do decide to grow it out, I am very excited to see how it looks as my curls look so healthy right now. I can’t predict what the journey will look like but I am ready for it. I’m ready for womanhood and evolving into my highest self but for now, I am happy with where I am. Now feels right more than ever.”
The power to reinvent ourselves is something beautiful. We all know about that post-breakup makeover, and power dressing. We can all look back at our younger years (and cringe) and the trends we chose to express ourselves. Its all a part of how we grow into ourselves and this is what the natural hair movement should be about. Being told that our natural hair is ugly and feeling beautiful despite this is liberating, but if we are using our hair as a shield, or putting it at the forefront of our identity then are we really free at all?
I can’t but help but feel as though this is the current state of the movement. More and more people are obsessing over curl patterns; twist outs and the latest products. When I first started taking an active interest in looking after my hair, there was no curl charts or fancy sponsorships; it was just black women in their bedrooms telling me what they had learned about their hair. It was encouraging and it felt real. These days it seems like social media has pushed the movement into a commercial direction that discourages a lot of black women who do not look like the women who are the face of the movement. In true media fashion, the movement presents another unattainable beauty ideal. I asked Pettitt if she thinks that being an influencer played a part in her complex relationship with her hair and she said yes.
“I was always thinking about the pictures and the likes. I was always making decisions based upon content. It’s crazy when I think about it but that is the reality for some people. I think the reason why I cracked was because I’d ultimately escape to this world online that wasn’t what my reality was. I’d be posting bikini pictures in some tropical destination but I was in my bedroom with a breakout and pressures from being a young woman affecting me but I wouldn’t share my truth. I think speaking in my truth allowed me to be free, I don’t need to FaceTune my skin anymore or add details to my hair because I’m totally ok with knowing my pores may be big or I may have a spot reminding me to drink more water but that doesn’t take away my beauty or my light.”
In light of everything Pettitt has said, and my own thoughts about the movement I wondered if maybe the problem wasn’t the movement itself, but the fact that it has gone mainstream. It seems that the good intent is still there, but it’s just getting lost in translation. We all know that money talks, but in this instance is it saying all the wrong things? I can’t help but feel as though the natural hair movement is being held back because of the commercialism of it. Pettitt thinks so too:
“I think the natural hair movement has allowed people like myself to grow amazing careers because of the support system, it’s allowed people to begin their journeys of self love too but ultimately it still has a long way to go. I still feel like there could be a lot more work done to represent every shade of brown and every type of natural hair. I think there is such a focus on women who look like me and have my curls when that is certainly not all there is. I feel like hair brands could make more of an effort to be inclusive because it could do so much for women to make them feel involved and most importantly, loved.”
You may have come to the conclusion that I am against the natural hair movement, and this is not the case. There is no one box fits all for a natural hair journey, and I think that lots of women have found the movement beneficial in so many ways. Just because I don’t identify with where it is at the moment, doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise the amount of good that comes out of it. There was a time I couldn’t even get Shea Moisture from the hair shop let alone Boots! It’s a huge deal that black hair is being presented as equal. What I do not like is that something, which has the capacity to do so much good, is ultimately falling into the trap of superficiality.
Written by Amara Lawrence and Nia Pettitt