Celebrity hairstylist Charlotte Mensah speaks on the movement of women who are celebrating the beauty of their natural hair.
It’s an era of rebirth
“Don’t touch my hair”. Singing from the heart, Solange’s words spoke to black women around the world who have felt the humiliation of having their kinks, curls and afros treated as something more than what they are. Routinely cast as political statements, creatures to be tamed or markers of “difference”, the tresses of many black women have acted as a site of personal conflict between others as well as themselves. But, in recent years there has been a resurgence in the movement of women working to reclaim the visibility and power of wearing their hair in all its natural glory. With Solange being just one of the recognisable female voices leading the way, films like Black Panther, which saw a complete cast of black women wearing “traditional” natural hairstyles, and performers such as Erykah Badu are firming the place of a once stigmatised decision into the mainstream. Speaking to Charlotte Mensah, Afro Hairdresser of the Year 2017, and the hands and brains behind Badu’s scene-stealing threaded look, we explore the reasons behind the rise of this movement and ask what the significance is of this fresh new take on beauty.
“Not Long Ago Natural Hairstyles were viewed as political or unprofessional. They were often prejudged and shunned.”
Growing up in Europe and the US, a great number of young black women spent their childhoods watching films and flipping through glossy magazines that fed them a singular vision of beauty. Back then, the face of beauty was predominantly white. It wore sleek straight hair that swished when you walked, dropped past your shoulders and blew in the wind. It was the same hair worn by supermodels, pop-stars and Hollywood actresses and, for the young black girls eyeing it, rarely looked anything like what grew from their own heads. That hair, that grew in spirals and upwards towards the sun, was too often dubbed ‘unruly’, ‘untamed’ and ‘unmanageable’. Sucked in by the European beauty ideals offered by mainstream outlets and presented with little aspirational alternatives, many of these young women soon found themselves in the chair of their local hair salons. Sitting patiently through the pain of searing chemical relaxers and time-consuming weave installations, their minds focused on the nearing goal of long, flowing tresses. “Back in the day there wasn’t any representation,” says Charlotte, “it was all about relaxers chemically treated hair and weaves”.
“seeing other women on social media embracing their natural texture has inspired many women to take the plunge.”
Growing up within Euro-centric cultures that pushed them to the margins, many black women have lacked the knowledge and influence that to help them realise their hair’s beautiful potential. Often, those who undergo the ‘big chop’ (the act of cutting of years of chemically relaxed hair to begin the growth of their natural texture) admit that, as they had been applying relaxing agents to their hair from such a young age, they were never even aware what their natural hair looked like until that moment. While young girls often find beauty guidance in mothers, aunts, and older sisters, years of systematic discrimination against natural hairstyling meant that many of these older women had been unable to develop natural haircare knowledge to pass on themselves. As Charlotte explains, “not long ago natural hairstyles were viewed as political or unprofessional. They were often pre-judged and shunned”. From the exclusion of young girls from their schools to the dismissal of working women from their jobs, there has been a long line of societal intolerance towards the styling of natural hair. Consequentially, many black women have looked towards weaves and relaxing agents simply so that they can participate in the necessities of everyday life.
Referring to the role of the likes of YouTube and Instagram in hosting the burgeoning natural hair movement, Charlotte explains that “seeing other women on social media embracing their natural texture has inspired many women to take the plunge”. With hashtags such as #naturalhairjourney, #curlyhairroutine and #bigchop women from all corners of the globe are using the internet to share words of encouragement and educate each other on how to embrace their natural hair textures. In many ways, the movement can be defined as a distinct display of self-care. Recognising the effects that poorly executed relaxers and weaves can have in the long term, including permanent damage and hair loss, women are now uncovering methods to nurture and nourish their hair to accentuate its natural beauty. In doing so, they are also realising the self-affirming power that accompanies the process of becoming their authentic selves.
“more and more women are embracing the wondrous textures of their natural hair and celebrating its versatility.”
Though, this is not to say that the women who do choose to manipulate their natural texture are doing so in denial of the beauty of their natural features. As Charlotte puts it, “women want options”. The natural hair movement has provided the opportunity for women to be more creative with their appearance. Whether they choose to sport a TWA (teeny weeny afro) one day, or a straight flowing wig the next, black women now have the increasing freedom and knowledge to style their hair on their own terms.
And, as trendspotters and marketers are picking up on this development, coily haired-girls are finally receiving the representation they need, with leading fashion brands and advertising agencies also celebrating a more diverse idea of beauty. When Charlotte began promoting natural hairstyles in 2005 with a regular magazine column titled Natural Fix, she confesses that she was “consistently being told that the movement was a fad and wouldn’t last”. Fast-forward some 15 years and we’re now living in a time where “more and more women are embracing the wondrous textures of their natural hair and celebrating its versatility.”
Charlotte Mensah is an award-winning hairstylist, owner and artistic director of the Hair Lounge salon as well as founder of the Charlotte Mensah Manketti Oil products. Recently crowned Afro Hairdresser of the Year for the third time running, Charlotte’s has become a go-to figure for clients across the worlds of business, music and TV. Since early 2000, she has been at the forefront of the natural hair care movement and is widely recognised as an authority in the field.