African vs. African-American Hair Practices

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That’s me with the bandana in our senior year of high school.

by Chy’s Curlz

I’ve been thinking of developing this story for a while now. It is the story of how girls were/are made to wear their hair shaved from grade to high school, both in Ghana and in Nigeria.

A little back story, I was born Nigerian and grew up in Nigeria until I was 10 years old when we moved to start a new life in Ghana. Since I spent most of my formative years in Ghana, that became more home to me than Nigeria was. There are many similarities between the two countries and one is the rule to have young girls wear a TWA until they graduate from high school. I think the reasoning behind it is the same as there is for wearing uniforms. It ensures homogeneity, also, the girls who could not afford to get their hair braided did not have the pressure to spend the money and thirdly, everyone looked “neat” and “presentable.” Now, that is not to say it was right or wrong, just giving the possible reasons.

As far as I can tell, this practice was mostly the case in public schools. I noticed that many (not all) private schools permitted their female students to wear their hair at whatever length they wanted, as long as it was braided up neatly. The only girls who were exempt from this rule (public and private school) were those who were biracial. There weren’t many girls who were biracial, but those who were, got to wear their hair long. Again, as a little girl, you don’t think anything of it. You just knew that their hair was “prettier” and more “manageable” than yours and it wasn’t a big deal. You didn’t read meaning into it (at least not consciously), you just accepted it.

I remember our final year of high school, many girls (me included) will grow their hair out, but will tie it down with a scarf overnight to encourage the maximum shrinkage to avoid being punished (spanked) by a teacher. We did this because we knew that once school was out, we were going to get our first relaxers … good times :).

This practice did not seem like such a big deal to me when I was growing up, but as I get older and upon going natural, I’ve been thinking about how it affected my love, or lack thereof, of my natural hair. You see, most of my friends are Nigerian or Ghanaian and most of them – if not all – sport relaxers and will not let go for anything (although I’ve convinced 7, including my mama, to BC. Yea! #teamnatural). But why is this the case though? Why is it that, after growing up without relaxers, we hold onto it so strongly? Many of the experiences I read on blogs pertaining to natural hair are those of African-American women. They relate how they got their first perm at 4, 5, 6 or thereabouts. The stories go on to say that since relaxers were the norm for them, they just kept getting them until their decision to either BC or transition.

My question is this, why, after having two very different and distinct experiences, do African-American and African woman have this reluctance to let go of the relaxer?

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I love this post! Thanks for sharing your experiences Chy’s and providing many of us with insight into this custom. Hmmm … you know, when it comes down to it, I sometimes think it is still as simple as many of us want what we don’t have. Those with curly hair want straight hair, those with straight hair want curly hair, those with thick hair wish it was thinner, those with super curly hair wish it was looser, those with loose curls wish it was tighter, those with thin hair wish it was thicker, those who are short want to be taller, those who are tall want to be shorter, those who are thin want to be curvier, those who are curvy want to be slimmer … and the list goes on and on and on. Also, I think there is something to be said for personal aesthetic and some just prefer straight, flat, “swingy” hair whereas others prefer curly, full, gravity defying hair! Finally, I also think that we share a common challenge and that is not knowing what our natural hair can really do and not knowing how to care for it in its natural state outside of braids, ponytails and TWAs. When it comes down to it, it seems to me that it might be the “manageability” factor that feeds the reluctance to go natural. For African-American women, it often comes from having relaxers from a young age and not knowing how to care for their hair in any other state. For Nigerian and Ghanaian women, keeping the hair short effectively does the same thing as it’s pretty much wash and go. One is never able to learn how to care for natural hair allowed to grow long, which requires a certain level of knowledge and skill. So, ultimately, for both groups of women, relaxed hair may just seem easier. Just my two … ummm, twenty-five? … cents! Chime in guys! What are your thoughts on this intriguing question??

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10 responses »

  1. I agree. I think it simply boils down to manageability. Also the fact that we’ve been told throughout history that our “kinky”/”nappy” hair is ugly.

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  2. Its sounds like we both have been taught that our hair is unmanageable, just in different ways. Being made to keep a TWA until after high school, I think, is another way of telling girls that their natural hair is unmanageable and even unattractive. Not that I think there is anything wrong with TWAs, its the motive behind it. Maybe getting a relaxer after high school is some sort of “right of passage” for for girls – finally no longer being under the authority that dictates how they were their hair. I don’t know.

    In terms of American girls, I think many of us is just going by what we know. There is the aesthetic myth too – feeling that straight hair is more attractive than kinky/curly hair.

    I never relaxed, but I never fully embraced my natural hair until 9 years ago. I pressed and flat ironed my hair every chance I got. I still had the relaxer mindset.

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  3. I agree with equating natural hair with being too challenging, thus the twa or relaxer as an option. I’ll never forget when I was in Accra in 2005 and I noticed a giant billboard with Kelly Rowland advertising Dark and Lovely relaxer (think that was the brand). While I saw a mixture of hairstyles there – braids, relaxers, wigs, twas weaves etc. – the advertisement struck me as being misplaced. I was used to seeing that in the U.S., so to see it in Ghana just seemed a bit odd. I think that contributed to my transitioning a few years later.

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  4. Great article! I am currently in Nigeria but I grew up in the US and my hair was natural until junior year in high school. I’m currently rocking a relaxer because it’s the easiest thing for me to manage. Since I’ve been in Nigeria though, I’ve decided not to relax my hair for as long as possible. Going on 4 months and I’m putting in double stranded twists. I’ve noticed many young girls with their hair shaved off and older women with weaves and wigs everywhere you turn here in Nigeria. I think it’s because they’re forced to shave their hair when they’re younger that these women see relaxed hair or weaves as a sign of womanhood and affluence.

    I know I’m on a natural hair blog so I tread carefully when when I say that in my world, there should be no stigma to relaxed or natural hair. It’s a choice and we should be able to move between the two with complete ease and clarity. I am not compelled to relax my hair. I understand the implications of the chemicals and consciously choose to use them until I choose something else. I definitely will go natural in the next few years. In the meantime, my priority is and will always remain on ease and presentation. My hair needs to be gorgeous in whatever form I wear it and that’s after washing it day in day out after Bikram yoga class. My routine needs to be simple and mindless. Right now it’s olive oil and conditioner exclusively. I’m lazy. I expect this will translate well when I go natural.

    But I digress, back to hair NIgeria, while it’s understandable to me that women rock certain styles after undergoing the oppressive uniformity of primary and secondary school, I am not feeling the wearing a raggedy weave to wear one or a shoddy relaxer. I suspect that hair maintenance and health using wholesome products isn’t a major focus here. With proper education, I could totally see women rocking gorgeous natural or relaxed hair all of their own. I think if they found out that natural hair can be lush, moisturized and fabulous and they could do it themselves, more women in Nigeria may go the natural way. In the meantime, most of what I see, especially those weaves, just isn;t working. I despise weaves. I also cannot abide with unhealthy hair. One day all women here will have access to healthy, gorgeous hair any way they like it.

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