The Afro-Modernist: Identity, Architecture & Sexuality (Part Four)
Sexuality and Hair
We are now on essay number four in the series, The Afro-modernist: Identity, Architecture, and Sexuality. The first essay explored architecture in the African space while the second and third addressed the idea of being African through ‘identity’. We now delve into sexuality via beauty through hair.
I want to examine us—we; African women. How do we perceive our beauty in the context of modernity? What does beauty mean to us particularly our hair? As I write this series, I go on a personal journey on identity, what it means to be African, and how to translate this into my everyday being, within a modern context.
Let’s look at our understanding of beauty through hair. Almost every African female child born in the age of modernism has been conditioned to believe that her hair is “difficult” to manage. In the first article, I discussed Erykah Badu; a bohemian Black-American artiste who is known to carry threaded hair as a one-off fashion statement, as well as is celebrated for her daring and exceptional beauty. Meanwhile, at a certain time in our history, this same hairstyle was a common standard.
We live in a time when generalised notions of beauty mean ‘straight hair’. But why straight? To the African woman, this translates as permanently straightened hair, wearing a wig or sewing on a weave. Women spend the equivalent of hundreds of dollars to project this standardised ‘perception of beauty’, with little consideration for their natural kinky curls, which in many cases are badly damaged in the process.
Recently, I was a guest at a wedding in Marbella, Spain and wore my hair in a traditional ‘Didi’ hairstyle, which elicited a few intriguing stares. ‘Didi’ has become the hairstyle of choice to be worn as an underlay for a wig, so I was encouraged to receive from a friend who also attended the wedding, a message on Instagram from ‘her friend’:
On your last trip, your friend had cornrows, please let her know that she inspired me to go wigless on my holiday. Like her, I am getting hair accessories to jazz up my look; I can’t describe the joy of breeze on my scalp.
It’s the irony, and not necessarily the thought of inspiring someone that really interests me; I think it’s important to understand that our post-colonial society is brainwashed with the myth that Black hair is difficult to manage. Artistic representations remind us that a thousand years ago, before the European invasion and on-set of slavery, we did not all shave our heads. As evidenced by the varieties of hairstyles on African sculptures, there were methods and procedures in place for proper hair maintenance, which lend further support to my argument that this has been a ‘learned unlearnt’.
Relating this to today’s corporate Nigeria; it is uncommon to see women who work in the banking sector wear their hair natural. Owing to my awareness and self-celebration, I now wear my natural hair. I have been reminded severally at the salon, “It’s because you work for yourself, that is why you can afford to carry your hair like this.”
How has it become so common-place and an acceptable disposition to wear a wig or weave-on? From the pitter-patter on one’s head to the out-right scratching because of the irritation to one’s scalp, can we consider this another by-product of colonialism? Why can’t we accept our hair as African women?
Do women wear wigs for men, other women or for themselves? Without any conviction, I am unsure of the answer to this question, nor can I understand how a man knowing full well that it’s not her real hair, thinks that it is beautiful. However, I can see how a woman may want to fit in with others, it’s much the same way she carries an expensive designer bag knowing her friends will recognise its value. Her satisfaction is based not on a personal contentment but on her peers acknowledging her status. If one’s happiness is based on the perception of others, then that is quite unfortunate. It simply means one is not content with how one came into the world. We should celebrate more of what we have.
At the time of writing this article, I had just threaded my hair for the first time since I was twelve-years-old. I don’t recall being that uncomfortable, but I have to admit that it was quite painful I had to use a travel pillow to sleep the first night. However, I felt beautiful so it didn’t matter. Like many African girls, I had my hair chemically straightened as a child. I remember when I was six; my mum was convinced at a salon that permanently straightening African hair was the right thing to do. No one also advised her to ensure my hair was re-touched every 8 weeks; they never mentioned the hazards of scalp burns when hair was over processed, or that it would become brittle and break. I have worn my hair natural for two years now and no longer experience breakage. My twin-sister’s chemically straightened hair was always limp but seven years ago, she locked it, which was then quite radical. Now it is over 18 inches long and people do not realise it’s all hers, they think they are faux locks.
Indeed, the perception that our kinky, curly, sponge-like hair is difficult to manage is formed from our predominantly Eurocentric ideas of beauty. These perceptions are also made manifest in the growing pleasure in skin lightening, which has constituted a crisis in West and Southern Africa. It betrays our perplexing notion of beauty in fairer complexion, skin tone, slimmer noses, and straight hair; all Western features.
For a true African identity to take shape, we must look back to enable us move forward. In popular culture, the Marvel movie Black Panther has contributed to a celebratory African identity but we need to move past the hype and establish pride in ‘who we are’ as a people by looking inwards. We live in a global world and there is much to be learned from other cultures. However, it is important to be well informed without losing sight of our identity and uniqueness. Through our understanding of hair, culture, language and the idea of knowledge transfer, we have witnessed a re-orientation with Africans returning to their roots. A quick search on YouTube reveals a variety of examples on how to treat, maintain and beautify African air. Technology is giving us back the opportunity for knowledge transfer.
I recently viewed a Bruce Onobrakpeya work completed in ivory and bronze; it celebrates African hairstyles and depicts African society in the 1800s when women wore their hair proudly. As early as the 15th century, Africans – male and female – have used artistically designed hairstyles as symbols to indicate their marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity and even social status, in terms of wealth and influence. Moreover, the strict adherence to hair maintenance among African societies was not only an expression of natural beauty but also a supernatural means of communicating to gods and ancestors.
I asked the hairstylist who threaded my hair, ‘how did you learn this?’ and she replied, “It’s my work.” But on further enquiry, she recalled observing her grandma or someone else do it when she was a child. I can only presume that though she wasn’t taught, she was able to master the skill based on a set of principles. Perhaps, just as we all learn how to cook African food without ratios and portions, skill can be passed down subconsciously. It’s the idea of subconscious knowledge transfer. Language gives us the most realistic insight into this notion of hair. Our racial features have not changed through civilisation, though our attitude towards our hair has. How can we map our culture through these consistencies in our biological make-up? What lessons can be taken from the YouTubers who enlighten us every day on the right ways to manage African hair?
I now wear more African influenced hairstyles because I am comfortable and confident to carry them. Without inner confidence, one will always do things expecting validation from others, after all, this is human. I don’t think I look bohemian like Erykah Badu, or like I stepped out of the 1930’s. I am a modern African woman because of what I do and how I carry myself. We shouldn’t let corporate Nigeria dictate/impose an abnormality on normal hair? I am not asking anyone not to wear her hair in a variety of styles, but to not deviate from its natural reality and justify it as beautiful.
During the Renaissance period in Europe, from the 13th – 14th centuries, small breasts, wide hips and a small bulge in the stomach region were considered as the epitome of beauty. Today, the notion of global beauty is big-breasts, tiny-waists with long eyelashes and a mass of ‘not-possibly-human’ hair. The idea of beauty will continue to evolve but there are certain standard elements in every race. We should all pay more attention to trying to accentuate and celebrate these elements instead of changing/suppressing them.
Archival images: https://face2faceafrica.com
April 13, 2021