How did your journey lead to the creation of an NGO promoting self-love for African hair, and what inspired your mission?
Having faced racism both as a child and adult in England, including being laughed at when I was about 5 years old for the colour of my skin, I decided, the best way to deal with racial bias is to love everything about myself. It took me decades to come to this realisation. Decades of me trying to conform to the single idea of beauty. On my journey of unconditional self-love, I realised the one area of beauty that hasn’t quite shaken off the shackles of Western beauty standards was hair. I said to myself, if I was going to love and embrace the shape of my eyes and nose, the size of my hips and lips, and the colour of my skin, why wouldn’t I love and embrace the texture of my hair? It just didn’t sit down well with me to hide or change my hair texture and still declare unconditional self-love.
My daughter inspired me to create Project Embrace. By age 3 she was already showing signs of colonised beauty standards. She would say to random black women we met that she liked their hair, but she only said it to black women wearing straight weaves or wigs. To me, that was the first sign of the huge influence of the one-sided beauty standard that of course didn’t include the hair of African people. I didn’t want my daughter to go through decades of learning how to embrace her own beauty like I did. I didn’t want her to go through years of feeling unsatisfied and insecure about her natural hair, so I decided I needed to do something that would raise awareness around hair bias and discrimination as well as celebrate Afro-textured hair as beautiful on a large and respected platform, and that is how the Afrovisibility billboard campaign, Project Embrace’s first initiative started.
Could you shed light on the common stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding African hair that your organization aims to debunk?
So the common stereotype around Afro-textured hair is that it doesn’t give a professional look and certainly not a sophisticated beautiful look. Myths include, it’s unmanageable, unruly, unprofessional and it doesn’t grow. All these are untruths. Unmanageable means there is no way to manage Afro-textured hair but if you think about it, our ancestors have been managing their hair beautifully for centuries, how come we cannot do so? Are our ancestors more intelligent than us? Or were they simply more ‘in love’ with their own hair type and appreciated it to the point of nurturing it? Could it be that no one had taught our ancestors to hate their hair, so they knew it deserved time and effort to look after it?
What constitutes a professional look, is decided by your fellow human being, so if someone can decide that straight hair is professional, then we can also decide that natural Afro-textured hair is professional too. The same as deciding what is beautiful too. No one is born with an idea of beauty, we are taught where to look for beauty, and what to see as beauty from childhood. Beauty is a social construct, so we have to be aware of who is constructing the beauty we see.
What are the key challenges African individuals face when it comes to embracing their natural hair, and how does your NGO address these issues?
The main challenge I would say is not seeing enough positive representation of Afro-textured hair both through the screen and in real life. The saying, ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’, really applies here. When women of African descent look around them, all the depictions of feminine beauty involve straight mostly long hair. This is because feminine beauty as proscribed by Western ideology is based on the white woman. So to be a beautiful woman or rather to be seen as a beautiful woman, all women are expected to be as close to the white ideal as possible, so while it is not easy to change our skin colour to resemble the white woman, it is so much easier to change our hair to the white ideal. As we can get this type of hair from other non-white individuals whose hair is similar to a white Woman’s hair, this is what we opt for.
So Project Embrace addresses this by creating images with black women sporting their natural hair – this is the idea behind the billboard campaign. We also share images from other sources that feature black women proudly wearing their natural hair. We are creating as much visual representation as possible from a small not-for-profit organisation.
Another challenge is the long-held idea of what constitutes beauty. Again as mentioned, it is the hair that belongs to the promoted beauty ideal that is seen as desirable. Westernised beauty ideals have been so ingrained, first with force and later with propaganda, into our systems and psyche over a very long period of time, that now it is being accepted as the norm. And to deviate from the norm means punishment from society, whether it is through taunts, people ignoring you, or even not getting jobs. We all like praise and when you are rewarded by praise for looking in a certain way, you’ll try your best to keep up that look. It has now become a habitual way of seeing beauty and we know how challenging it is to change habits. Hopefully, with the education we share through our socials, presentations and workshops, we hope to help people see differently, challenge their beauty bias and form a better habit of seeing beauty in their natural physical self, of course, that includes their natural hair.
In a world where chemical straightening and extensions have been prevalent, why is it essential for Africans to reconnect with their natural, God-given hair and the dangers of these chemicals?
As you’ve mentioned, the danger to our physical health has prompted a lot of women to ditch chemical straighteners, but it does nothing to change the way we see beauty in general and beautiful hair in particular. So you will find many women who have never used a chemical relaxer but also hardly ever wear their natural hair out, at least not to places where they want to look their best like work, or special occasions. But back to the dangers of chemicals for a bit. The fact that something is bad for us, is not a strong deterrent when the said thing gives us a high level of satisfaction. If that were the case no one would be smoking cigarettes for instance, or even wearing high heels :-). The satisfaction of being seen as beautiful, and being praised as looking good is far stronger than the idea that relaxers can harm our health, especially as that harm is not immediately felt. But even the immediate effect of having a burnt scalp is not enough. At least not for when I was using relaxers! Wigs and weaves can also damage our hair, but the satisfaction we get from wearing them far outweighs any damage they will do to our natural hair especially when we do not get the same satisfaction in wearing our natural hair out.
Why should African girls embrace their natural hair and what advice would you give a young naturalist?
If you feel dissatisfied about your hair, that means you have a preference for something else, something else you have compared your hair to. That preference obviously belongs to someone else, so imagine people knowing you prefer their hair over your own, how does that make them see you? More importantly, how does that make you feel when you are in their presence? You cannot feel like an equal to someone if you feel something of theirs is better or superior to yours, something that they didn’t create or invent, something that comes naturally to them. This is to say, if we believe we deserve to feel equal to others we have to embrace all of who we are. We were not created inferior so why behave like we are by buying other people’s hair and hiding ours under theirs? Placing ours below theirs?
Keep reminding yourself that our hair is as beautiful as anyone else’s. Also, remember if you are just learning to nurture your natural hair, it is going to be difficult at first. Any new skill is always difficult until you have mastered it, and mastering comes with time and practice. So please do not give up on the first few hurdles.
You also have to realise you are training your mind to see beauty in your afro-textured hair, so give it time.
Do not compare your hair to anyone else’s. Your hair is unique, your beauty is unique, you are unique and your beauty standard is how you look. You are enough. Every time you feel some negativity or someone says something ignorant about your hair, remember the Project Embrace tagline, “I am enough” …. tell yourself that.
What’s the general problem faced by African women; British, American, and the like when it comes to their hair?
Most people will say the general problem women of African descent face with their hair is difficulty in managing it, emphasising how tough it is to comb for instance. However, I believe the general problem is the way we see our hair and the criteria in which we use to judge our own hair. Unfortunately with the advent of colonisation, we have been persuaded (including forcefully) to use European-type hair as the yardstick to judge African-type hair. So we expect brushing or combing of our hair to be like brushing or combing of straight hair, and when it’s not the same, we conclude our hair is problematic. Our type of hair doesn’t need constant brushing or combing. We also forget that because of our unique hair texture putting it in plaits for instance means it can stay in those plaits for days even weeks, even if you swim with it – something straight hair cannot do.
How have society and structures aided these lasting concerns and what can be done to make things better?
As I have mentioned before the single story of beauty has become a habitual way of looking at beauty, and this habit has been fed with images we get from media, whether it’s via advertising, movies, TV, or magazines, the narrow beauty ideal continues to be perpetrated. And since it is easier to just go with the status quo, since it is simpler to just conform, we do not challenge it. What can be done, is to start being conscious of the kind of narrative we are putting out there and the consequences those narratives have on us as individuals and as a collective. If we expect the rest of the world to respect us as fellow human beings, we have to show them who we really are. Our behaviour should show that we are proud of our looks and that we respect ourselves. We cannot expect others to give us respect first without first giving it to ourselves.
Sometimes it may seem that we have the respect of others when we conform, and uphold their own beauty narrative. But that’s not genuine respect. Other people’s actions and thoughts towards Africans till today show that there isn’t yet that genuine respect. The various forms of discrimination still show that people of African descent are not seen as equals. The good news is we can change that, and we can start with our crown… wearing our natural crown with pride.
How do you think stylists can help in changing the narrative of kinky hair and do you think they contribute to making women love or hate their hair?
Yes, hairstylists definitely contribute to making women accept or reject their hair type. You get some stylists complaining while doing your hair. Unfortunately, many stylists have not learnt to handle afro-textured hair properly and style it according to its unique texture. The impatience stylists have with our hair is reflective of the way natural African hair is regarded. When you respect and appreciate something, you will treat it with care, and if you don’t know how, you will learn. Imagine going to a hairstylist who loves afro-textured hair and all it comes with, imagine that stylist lovingly nurturing your hair, probably saying nice things about your hair – it would be difficult to not love your hair when it generates such a positive reaction from your hairstylists.