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“Natural Hair Is Me in My Rawest Form”: Three Women Talk About Why Black Hair Representation Matters

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Photo: Olivier Yoan

British Vogue has revealed its February cover overnight, with a focus on Black models with an African heritage. Starring nine established and rising models, all with an African background, the striking group cover immediately went viral. While many comments celebrated the representation of Black models, others reproached the decision to style the models in Euro-ccentric wigs, positing that the models’ natural hair should have been used.

While the debate continues on Instagram, three UAE-based authorities share their experiences with their own natural hair, and the continued importance of Black hair representation.

Remi Mobolade is the global PR manager for Huda Beauty, and a Nigerian-American living in Dubai
“To me, the British Vogue February 2022 cover does not disappoint. Edward Enniful has never shied away from bringing Black faces to the forefront of fashion and he’s done just that with this cover. While the iconic models featured are sporting straight hairstyles, which fall outside the typical natural texture of Black hair, that really doesn’t bother me at all. The styling of both the hair and the wardrobe are a nod to a specific era during which the norm was for Black women to wear wigs that emulate a texture deemed more mainstream at that time. So I think this is a beautiful portrayal of that, and it does not diminish the blackness or the power of creating an all-Black editorial moment.”

“With that being said, I do think it’s important to continue to portray Black hair in its natural state in the media. When I was growing up in the 90s, the golden standard for Black hair always leaned toward a straight achieved by a relaxer (also known as a straight perm) or by applying a lot of heat, both of which can be very harmful if done incorrectly or too frequently. So I think it’s really important that not only for the next generation, but also for ourselves that we continue to show and celebrate a variety of hair types, textures and styles which definitely include natural hair in all of its textures and shapes, but could also include braids, which have been worn by people of African descent for centuries, and even wigs which can provide your own hair with the rest that it needs and act as a protective style. For me, having equal representation of hair means that no one style or texture is celebrated over the other while promoting healthy hair, and what makes the wearer feel most beautiful. That’s the most important thing to me.”

 

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Helen Debrah-Ampofo is the British-Ghanaian creator of Afro Hair UAE, an online community and directory for women with natural hair living in the Emirates.

“Firstly, I absolutely love the front covers on British Vogue. Growing up, I never saw anything like this; I would rarely see Black models or models of other ethnicities prevalent in the UK. Diversity just wasn’t celebrated in the way it is today. So, to see all Black models, all African models and all dark-skinned models is a huge deal and I love that their beauty is finally being highlighted and embraced. I recently gave birth to my first child and I love how he will be growing up in a world where being exposed to people of all shades, shapes and sizes will be more of a norm.

Regarding the decision to style with wigs rather than natural hair, it is just that: a decision. Humans have a right to make decisions about how they want to style their hair – or their models – whether people agree with it or not. Choices make us human. Irrespective of my personal preferences and opinions, other people can choose to style their hair as they please. I feel as though people are always very quick to comment on Black women’s hair, whether worn naturally, or in braids or in wigs. Can we just celebrate the fact that we have stunning dark-skinned, African Black women on a cover, rather than commenting on whether they would have looked better with Afros? I am glad that British Vogue have embraced diversity not just by including a range of races, sizes, genders and ages on the front cover of their magazines but also by employing staff from different backgrounds. There is still a long way to go internationally and regionally regarding diversity, and only time will tell whether there will be long-lasting change or if it is indeed just a trend.

Regarding my personal relationship with natural hair – this is very loaded question and there is not enough space in this article for me to answer adequately. But in short, like many other girls with natural hair, I hated it when I was younger. It was undesirable and very difficult to manage so I relaxed (chemically straightened) it until I was in my mid-twenties. This was common for most Black girls and women at the time which meant we hardly ever saw natural Afro hair being represented, let alone celebrated. Natural hair is part of my identity because that is the way my hair grows out of my head – it is me in my rawest form. Embracing my natural hair was part of me accepting myself and recognizing that I did not have to change myself in order to fit in or be seen as beautiful. When I first moved to Abu Dhabi, I had very short hair and was unable to maintain it because the barbershops were strictly for men. I struggled to find products and services which catered to my natural hair and because I was new to the country, I did not know anybody who could point me in the right direction. As I grew my hair, I searched for salons, barbers and natural hair products sold specifically across the UAE and documented them online with Afro Hair UAE so others wouldn’t have to struggle in the same way I did. In the future, I would like to have more events where the community can share their recommendations, advice and experiences whilst also creating meaningful friendships.

As the creator of Afro Hair UAE, I am an advocate for wearing natural hair out. Afro hair has a history attached to it and societal norms have coerced those with natural hair to cover it, straighten it and ultimately hate it. Nowadays, the natural hair community aims to replace shame about Afro hair with confidence and pride; it has taken me a while, but I now view Afro hair as incredibly beautiful.”

Jennifer Kolomoni Bambi is a Belgian stylist and fashion consultant, based in Dubai. Born to Congolese parents, she’s also the founder of accessories brand Toza Mayi.

“When it comes to hair, African woman do wear wigs. It’s a thing, culturally. African women love to change their hair very often with braids, wigs, extensions, and I believe there’s a playfulness in that so maybe it was a hint to that. That being said, I realized we have yet to see a cover displaying a dark skin, black woman with kinky 4C hair, which is the most kinky texture. It’s still a very controlled representation. It’s called texturism. We show the ‘good’ curls, a 3A or 3B, and usually on light skin girls, not so much a dark skin girl with a kinky 4C textured Afro. That’s still rare to see in mainstream media. That’s what is regrettable, we choose to celebrate blackness now but still, not all of it.

For Black women, natural hair is part of an identity, a heritage, and a story towards freedom. See, women had to hide and cover their big curly, kinky or woolly textured hair at the time of slavery. It was a way of imposing submission, but also because Black hair grows with lots of volume and it was intimidating white women who felt Black women were getting too much attention from white men. I recently rewatched a Friends episode of Monica struggling with her hair curling because of the humidity. That episode is loaded with messages of what society has been saying to Black women for decades and centuries. Your natural hair is ugly. Hide it.

For my personal hair journey, I had my first relaxers at age seven. I discovered my real hair texture without chemicals for the first time at the age of 25. It’s been a long journey of ups and downs, love and hate. I had to learn as I aged how to deal with my hair, but most importantly how to love it as it is, as I had never learned. I wear my hair mostly in braids because of my hectic lifestyle, but my ‘fro is thriving. I’m still learning, but I’m at peace with my journey.”

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