Black hair is A. Big. Deal.
As a brown skinned woman, I can tell you this for sure; we are serious about our hair. Our hair can affect our moods. It has its own vocabulary. It bonds us together in the style successes and struggles. Yet, something so essential to our identity is often misunderstood by people outside of our culture. But clearing up small misunderstandings about hair can go a long way to clearing up the big misunderstandings about race! So please allow me to share a few basics when it comes to a brown skinned woman’s hair, starting with definitions:
Natural hair is hair whose texture hasn't been altered by chemical straighteners, including relaxers and texturizers. Some take it a little further by not using any chemicals at all or anything that does not occur in nature.
Nappy hair is historically used as a derogatory term to describe the hair of brown skinned people, especially women, many of whom have re-appropriated the term.
The Afro, sometimes abbreviated to 'fro is a hairstyle worn naturally outward by people with lengthy or even medium length kinky hair texture or specifically styled in such a fashion by individuals with naturally curly or straight hair. The hairstyle is created by combing the hair away from the scalp, allowing the hair to extend out from the head in a large, rounded shape, much like a cloud or ball. Natural black hair can be worn in many other styles besides a short 'fro.
Perms, weaves, and extensions are all options for brown skinned women, and sometimes simultaneously. But what are all of these things? Great question!
Perm: When non-brown skinned women refer to a perm, they are often talking about adding a permanent curl to their hair through a chemical process. But brown skinned people's hair is already curly. So when we say “perm,” we are referring to permanently straightening our hair (also known as relaxing.)
Weave: For a weave, the woman’s real hair is braided into cornrows or other scalp braids. Then the extra hair is woven to those braids with a needle and string made especially for hair weaving.
Extensions: Extensions are like weaves but they don’t usually require the cornrows as a base. Depending on the type of extensions, the hair may be added through braiding or even specialty glue.
Shrinkage: Natural hair shrinkage means your hair has shrunk in its appearance.
Brown skinned people's hair in its natural state can shrink up to 80 percent of its actual length. It's important to note that natural hair shrinkage is not just about appearance. Lots of hair shrinkage means you have got a healthy mane on your head!
Now that that’s done, I need to re-emphasise how important hair is to most women, specifically brown skinned women because of all the cultural rules around it. It can represent everything that is challenging about straddling two cultures and the competing beauty standards that come with them.
For brown skinned women in particular, a hairstyle can often be viewed less as an aesthetic choice than as a political one.