African Women Don’t Have Hair??!
I’m in a cab in India. The Indian driver speaks English and is quite chatty. Once he learns I’m African and Nigerian at that, he’s doubly excited. “Would you like to buy Indian hair and sell to women in your country? I know African women don’t have hair. In fact, if you’re serious, I can help you get the hair at a good price.”
Most of the human hair types sold in Africa and other parts of the world are Indian or Chinese. Marketers may call them Peruvian/Malaysian/Brazilian or whatever; but I’ve learnt that they’re mostly the hair of Indian or Chinese women. Indian women shave their hair voluntarily, as religious sacrifice or as yearly rituals. In China, women (mostly poor women in villages) sell their hair for economic reasons. These are then exported to various parts of the world as processed hair or untreated human hair.
Africa is the largest market for human hair, no kidding. The numbers show that this market is worth about 6 billion dollars; and it’s growing rapidly. Apart from the fact that human hair sells like crazy in Africa, it seems African women (black women within and outside the continent) spend a lot more money than other women on hair and beauty products generally. The statistics present an assumption that African women just love to spend heaps of money on their hair because of vanity. But the truth that lies just beneath this shield of figures is that the mainstream beauty industry is not particularly friendly to black hair and skin. Black women have to go the extra mile to find a combination of products that may just be right for them without bleaching their skin or perming their hair. Now that more African women are going natural, beauty industries have started investing in hair products for African hair; but they remain quite expensive. So statistics will tell you that African and Black women spend a lot more money on hair and beauty products than white women do. What it will fail to tell you is that, these women do not spend so much money just because they want to, but because products suitable for their kinds of skin and hair are much harder to come by and more expensive too.
Why does human hair sell so much in Africa? Why are weaves and wigs a huge part of fashion for black women and black femininity? Non-Africans seem to think that it’s because African women don’t have hair; as our Indian friend obviously does. But Africans know the truth. Black people have kinky hair, different from all other hair textures and kinds. This hair is beautiful, like nothing you ever saw and not at all inferior. The culture of weaves and wigs was introduced by a beauty industry that taught that beauty was white, skinny and with straight hair. But way beyond that realm, African and black women have redefined weaves and wigs, owned it, and made it part of black femininity/fashion.
On the whole, African women’s hair in an exercise of the power of choice: to wear kinky hair, braids, weaves or wigs, or all. In the world today, the versatility of the Black woman’s hair is unmatched. She really can do anything with it. Weaves and wigs are no longer about feelings of inferiority but are grown out of an ability to change hairstyles and adapt many different and suiting looks.
In addition to the power of choice Black women wield to pick different hairstyles, an underlay of factors promote the choice of weaves and wigs over natural hair. For instance, there is a bias in many African institutions against black, natural, kinky hair. I worked at a banking firm in Nigeria where women were told not to wear hairstyles that “defy gravity”. The nature of African hair is that it defies gravity! Kinky doesn’t lie down unless you make it (with a lot of products); it’s impulse is to grow straight up out of your head. So women in this firm- and others like it- cannot wear their natural Afros. Guess what? They have to wear wigs and weaves. I was told by my supervisor to wear my hair better so I just took my sister’s weaves. Some universities in Nigeria don’t like natural hair either. My friend and classmate was called a ‘Calabar Street Girl’ because, afro. Another person was not allowed into an exam hall because, ‘We don’t allow this kind of hair. I don’t care if it’s your real hair. We don’t allow it.’ It was way easier for these girls to just wear a wig. At my law school dinners girls wearing tightly packed natural hair were sent to the back because permed hair looks better, more fit and proper.
In some Nigerian churches where you have to use some form of headscarf, it’s not a problem if your hair shows through or under the scarf, except of course its kinky hair. Just this Sunday in church, I was picked out of the numerous girls showing hair and repeatedly told to re-tie my scarf. I asked the warden, why me? Look at all these people showing hair. Why are you asking me to cover my hair better? I pointed out the woman standing right in front of me with the huge, curly weave of probably Brazilian hair to her. My sister was beside me with a transparent scarf and Indian hair! My mom’s own curly weave was showing. The previous Sunday I had been in the same church wearing a weave with a tiny transparent scarf I draped over it, just like many of the women now before me. Nobody paid any attention to me until I came back with my 4c kinky hair.
As much as African women choose to wear weaves and wigs, sometimes our society leaves them no choice. You want to get a job, better wear a good weave for the interview. You want to write an exam, with twist outs?????? Think again, maybe. You want to go to church, please calm down and tie it well. This does not happen in all institutions or churches or schools, but it happens in enough places to create a problem that we must solve.
We must get past the stage where hairstyle affects employability or reflects spirituality. We need to re-own kinky hair in all its different forms and textures. We must grow, defying gravity. Just like kinky hair.