Embracing your ‘Fro. But what is Afro ‘hair typing’?

What is your ‘hairstory’? In Ngozi Chakura reminds us that: “Few things beat an African woman who has a halo of kinks and curls”, no matter your “hair hierarchy”.

The natural hair revolution has been in full swing for years now, as increasing numbers of black women all over the world embrace their coils and kinks, rocking their natural hair with pride, leading to a plunge in chemical hair relaxer sales. 

In the age of the Internet, naturalistas have found other natural hair lovers online – they of the sulphate-free and grease-less hair care. African hair blogs are also resplendent with images and testimonials of women and their ‘hairstories’ – stories that have a real power to inspire, motivate and encourage women on their natural hair journeys.

The publication of André Walker’s book, André Talks Hair in 1998 arguably revolutionised the understanding of different hair types. His book details his hair-typing system that uses a number and letter to describe a ‘hair hierarchy’, starting with 1A – very straight hair, and ending with 4C – the kinkiest hair type.

Other hair typing systems include the LOIS system, Fia’s hair typing system and a slew of emerging systems that define the kink in one’s hair (or lack thereof ).

This has been helpful in many ways. Hair typing has allowed black women to look more carefully at their hair, finding out where their texture falls. This has helped us to choose hair products that don’t harm our hair; we adopt more patience when we detangle and know that heat is the devil! Throw in a few pretty cornrow patterns, YouTube ‘how to’ videos and a slew of haircare products, and we have the makings of Afro aphrodites.

But, and allow a little devil’s advocacy here, hair is so personal, How helpful is the idea of a hair type? Hair and the ‘natural hair journey’ are such personal things, how does one even begin to lump oneself together with women whose hair grows from a different head?

Black women are no strangers to classification; can we really say that hair typing is helpful, or does it cast some ‘types’ as more desirable or manageable than others? For decades, anthropologists named and classified the black body, creating labels, reducing human beings to the sum of their parts. One of these parts was their hair.

As a classification system, hair typing hasn’t taken into consideration the hair texture of sisters in Southern Africa – some hair types are ‘untypeable’, according to Walker’s system; they defy the type. Their curl pattern appears to have an even tighter curl than the ‘curliest’, 4C type.

Saartjie Baartman is arguably the most famous African woman in the history of the West – but what was her hair type? As a descendent of the Fist People of the Kgalagadi, her hair type may have defied Walker’s system. My own mother’s hair doesn’t fit into the hair systems that have pervaded the internet in recent years. Hers is a kink that defies description. It coils onto itself, even more tightly than a number and letter can define. It is more resplendent than a ‘type’.

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One of the biggest schisms for black women’s identity came with The Middle Passage. When African women found themselves having to make a life in the New World, their identity was systematically eroded in order to subjugate them. One of the ‘weapons’ that was used was that of aesthetics. The black body was seen as invasive, unnatural, or natural to a fault, equated with flora and fauna – the politics of the world have repeatedly been played out upon the black body. Black women’s hair has been the subject of personal, institutional and political scrutiny for decades.

When black people began to realise that we were the authors of our own identities, we began to adopt and take pride in our natural appearance, using the same signifiers that subjugated us to empower us, making as much of a political statement as a personal one.

Renowned political figures, such as Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver, chose to use their crowning glories as the sites of political warfare; their personal choices affected their own – and the widerblack woman body politic. Their hair became a symbol of protest against certain ideals and ideologies about blackness and womanhood.

The natural hair revolution has been a way for women to embrace the aesthetics of their natural beauty. Black hair is not only powerful as a political signifier, it is beautiful, but many women want to grow their natural hair so that it looks like the Urban Bush Babes’ or the mane of another natural hair darling – this is not realistic because a type cannot define an individual.

Natural hair is seen differently in the West, to how it is in Africa. At least in Botswana, natural hair is not a hindrance to career advancement or even appearing attractive to those of the manly persuasion. The politics of hair doesn’t necessarily permeate our reality the same way it does in the West. In fact, the converse is true – a healthy head of curly, kinky hair is a coveted and revered feature.

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