What is Special Hair? A Black Woman’s Complicated Hair Journey

Irrespective of what anyone thinks, I have decided that the hair I was born with—this coarse, springy, dark hair that grows towards the sun—is special, not because of its length, thickness, texture, or any reason other than because it is my hair and I have decided to love it.

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Benin City, Nigeria

I was fifteen, sitting on a cushioned bench in my small school library, conversing in harsh whispers with my friend. We had wandered into discussing hair, and in the middle of our conversation, she said with awe and longing plastered on her face: ‘It’s true, white people’s hair isn’t like ours. Their hair is beautiful like weave-on; they have special hair.’  Her statement left me with a burning question that I would continue to confront even as I embarked on my hair journey: ‘What is special hair?’  

At that time in secondary school, we all had low haircuts that only extended an inch from our scalp. But before then, I had straight hair that brushed against my back. Caring for it centered around receiving regular relaxer treatments. The process of relaxing my hair was akin to cooking. The hairdressers first lined my scalp with oil or Vaseline before working the relaxer into my hair with gloved hands. After applying the relaxer, they would cover my hair with a polyethylene bag and ask me to wait until my hair was ‘done.  

‘They asked if the hair on my head was my real hair.’

However, whichever way my hair turned out was dependent on my attentiveness, supposedly. The hairdressers would tell me to report to them as soon as my hair started to ‘pepper’ me. It was tricky because if my hair started to ‘pepper’ me but wasn’t ‘done’ or properly relaxed by the time they rinsed off the relaxer, they would scold me for being lazy and not being able to withstand pain. But if my hair came out cooked to the bone—perfectly straight and slick—they would be amazed and tell me how beautiful it was.  

Meanwhile, if I waited too long before reporting to them or the hairdressers made me wait for longer, which was often the case, when the relaxer was rinsed off, my hair would come out not perfectly cooked but burnt: scorched at the edges and falling off with ease. In that case, my mother would be the one to scold the hairdressers while I dealt with the pain and tried to nurse my hair back to health.  

Despite all of that, my hair often caught people’s attention for its length and thickness. Once in primary school, I was about to ascend the staircase that led to my classroom when some girls accosted me. They asked if the hair on my head was my real hair. I told them it was, and they disagreed, insisting that my hair couldn’t be that long and that I had added extensions.  

When I got home, I told my mother about it, and she suggested I should have let them touch my hair so they would be utterly convinced it was mine. The whole thing felt wrong, having to go to such lengths to prove to people I barely knew that a part of me was an authentic part of me. Sadly, this was something I would continue to deal with in the future.  

I was just eleven when I cut my relaxed hair.’

About a year after I started secondary school, the school decided that girls’ hair was a distraction and ordered us to cut our hair as low as the boys’, a decision I never thought to question. At eleven, it was the first time I would feel the quiver of a clipper on my scalp, and I was excited by the prospect of it.  

I followed my brother to the barbing salon. The barber immediately disapproved of my cutting my hair but complied after much urging. I watched as chunks of my hair fell to the floor, and I remember feeling nothing but excitement at this turn of events. I could now pour water on my head every morning when I bathed, something my brother had told me he did, while I listened on envyingly.  

Years later, as I inched towards my last term in secondary school, the desire to grow my hair again became increasingly prominent. It was during that period I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and followed the protagonist, Ifemelu, who, among other things, decided to chop off her relaxed hair and grow her natural hair instead. Inspired, I decided I wasn’t ever going to relax my hair but instead nurture my hair in its natural state—a decision I did not anticipate would come with as many challenges as it did. 

Before I read Americanah, I thought my hair would naturally grow from the tightly coiled teeny weeny Afro on my scalp into the long straight hair I used to have as a child and saw on other Nigerian women. I was just eleven when I cut my relaxed hair, so I hadn’t made the association between relaxers and straight hair. Even when I discovered my hair wasn’t going to grow into straightness, I still didn’t know exactly what it would look like when it grew longer.  

It was 2016 in Benin City, and oddly enough, I didn’t know a single woman around who grew her natural hair. I heard women who attended Deeper Life Bible Church didn’t relax their hair. But when their hair wasn’t under headscarves, it was held in rubber threads or tucked away in cornrows. So, I never got a glimpse of it.  

I turned to the internet instead and discovered Black women’s natural hair came in different types. I did not know then that most West African women had the kinkiest and most fragile hair type: type four hair. So I was in awe of pictures with Black women who had loose springy curls that fell down their faces, hoping that my hair, as it grew longer, would turn out that way. But, of course, it never did.  

At that time, it was rare to find someone with natural hair.

A year after graduating from secondary school, a good number of my former classmates had relaxed their hair, and they felt my choice to keep my hair in its natural state was either a joke or a phase. Everywhere I went, whether at home, in the salon, or even on the road, I was constantly asked: ‘When will you relax your hair?’  

Unfazed by my repeated responses that I wasn’t going to relax my hair, people went on to assume I was only waiting for my hair to grow a bit so that when I eventually relaxed it, it would come out long and flowing. To them, the ultimate destiny of every girl’s hair was to end up relaxed, and the idea of keeping the natural coils was purely quaint. 

At that time, it was rare to find someone with natural hair. Interestingly, after I had hopped on a bus one day, I spotted a girl with beautifully styled natural hair through the window. I was immediately consumed with surprise, excitement, and joy. So much so that I wanted to leap off the bus and share an I-see-you-too moment with her, entirely driven by a clear sense of camaraderie. But the bus had already picked up speed, and she disappeared into a blur.  

It bothered me that in a predominantly Black country like Nigeria, growing natural Black hair was so unusual that I would consider jumping off a moving bus just because I saw someone who had one. Why didn’t Nigerian women keep their hair in its natural state but instead turned to straightening it?  

While the answer may be more complicated, I believe colonialism played a significant role. During colonial era, European beauty standards were presented as ideal; there were even instances where African natural hair was associated with a kind of nonhumanity, likening it to wool as in livestock, to further dehumanize Africans. This caused African women to desire to change their hair to gain social acceptance within the perceived superior class. 

Hairstyles, 1968-1975. J.D. ‘OKHAI OJEIKERE/ARTSY

I found pictures of pre-colonial Igbo, Bini, Fulani, Yoruba, and other African women styling each other’s hair with love and care framed on their faces. These women were as brazen as they wanted to be when it came to adorning their hair. They lavished it with dozens of beads, feathers, and shells. When it came to adornment, excessiveness seemed like a distant concept—something I would pick up from them, decorating my hair with myriads of beads, jewelry, or flowers to the blatant stares of many.  

This was the hair I was born with.’

Decades later, even after Nigeria has gained independence from Britain, the self-loathing that I believe colonialism taught Nigerian women to have towards their hair has not disappeared. On getting to a salon, hairdressers would often take this colonial-taught self-hatred that has been passed down from generation to generation and heap it on my hair.  

I remember one of the first times I went to the salon to braid my natural hair. The hairdresser handled my hair with such brutality that it caused me so much pain. Noticing my agony, she advised me to relax my hair, explaining that it wasn’t people like me who should keep their natural hair; growing natural hair was reserved for people with soft hair and loose curls (like the ones of those biracial women I found on the internet). What she said annoyed me. This was the hair I was born with, and she was essentially saying it wasn’t worthy of me. It was like telling someone it wasn’t people like them who kept their own skin or who kept their own hands or feet. But she had done so, mishandling my hair and encouraging me to change it because, to her, it wasn’t special.  

As it turned out, that was just the beginning of my complicated relationship with hairdressers. In my natural hair journey, it feels like for each step I take forward, hairdressers try to pull me two steps backward. I have suffered hair damage because of the harmful hair care practices these hairdressers use. These hairdressers (whether in Benin City, where I live, or in Lagos, where I attend university) have been styling relaxed hair for so long that they are at a loss for what to do with natural hair.  

Like other naturals, to protect my hair from the dangers of over-manipulation, I keep it tucked away in braids or twists, and I sometimes use extensions. Hence, the essence of each hairstyle is to keep my natural hair safe and flourishing. On the other hand, to hairdressers, how the hairstyle turned out was the most important thing. It didn’t matter how much of my hair was damaged or yanked off along the way so long as it got replaced with something special, the extensions. This disparity in priority between myself and these hairdressers led to one thing: hair loss, lots of it.  

Perhaps one of the most hurtful incidents was when I went to an overpriced salon where the hairdresser kept wielding the comb like a machete, swinging it with great force and carelessly cutting off my hair strands. In my head, I kept urging myself to speak up, utter something spiteful that would make her fingers recoil from my hair, and to stand up and turn my back to that salon forever. But I just sat there intimidated and transfixed, tied to the chair by a dozen insecurities and whatnot.  

When she finished, I gathered the hair that had fallen off and scooped it into my palms. It filled the hollow both of my palms made when placed side by side. I went to my hostel, sank into my bed, and cried hot tears. That was about a year’s worth of hair growth. A year’s effort of meticulous finger detangling, sleeping in satin scarves, deep conditioning under plastic caps for hours, and slathering my hair with expensive products all dashed in a matter of minutes because my hair was handled by a woman who had little regard for it and obviously didn’t think it was special.  

Another hairdresser who noticed how much I cared about my hair, asked me if I would wear my natural hair on my wedding day. In some ways, the question was understandable because it is rare for Nigerian women to wear their hair (relaxed or natural) for important events. After all, special occasions like one’s wedding day require special hair, and natural hair wasn’t perceived as special.  

‘Beauty was never really a part of my decision to keep my natural hair.’

To my utmost joy, natural hair has become increasingly popular over the years. While spotting someone with natural hair made me want to leap off a moving bus in 2016, now it would get nothing more than a glance from me (which is a good thing). As the popularity of natural hair has increased, people’s sentiments towards my natural hair have also become more favourable. I often walk around with my beautifully styled natural hair receiving compliments and admiring stares from passers-by. I have heard people calling out to their friends to hurry up and come and take a look at how long my hair is as I walked past. And I would feel their stares, heavy with amazement, piercing my back.  

However, even about a decade later and despite my hair being natural and not relaxed, I still have to defend that my hair is actually mine from time to time, like I had done at the foot of the staircase in my primary school. One day, I was sitting on a sofa, with my hair packed into a high puff, and giving out hair advice to a lady when she pointed at the bun on top of my head and said with certainty that it wasn’t mine and must be an extension. I was taken aback for a while at the boldness with which she had reached that conclusion, but I eventually told her it was my actual hair, to her surprise.  

Because I did not want people to be surprised at a Nigerian woman having bra strap-length hair, I created a natural hair care group chat on WhatsApp. It filled to the brim almost immediately, and I had to open a second one. There, I gave advice on better haircare practices ranging from the basics, like how to comb hair properly, to more advanced aspects, like infusing hair with protein treatments. I also dedicated my Instagram page to creating hair tutorials—increasing awareness of the styling versatility of natural hair.  

Since then, I have had people randomly text me, saying they want to start growing their natural hair because of how beautiful it is and want me to put them through. Although I do believe my natural hair is beautiful, beauty was never really a part of my decision to keep my natural hair. It was more about accepting the hair I was born with, regardless of how it looked or what other people thought about it. Seeing from experience how fickle societal beauty standards are, I hope women can come to see keeping their natural hair as not just a trend but a way of embracing themselves completely. And even those who relax their hair would do so for other reasons and not because they consider their natural hair inadequate or unfitting. 

Irrespective of what anyone says or thinks, I have decided that the hair I was born with—this coarse, springy, dark hair that grows towards the sun—is special, not because of its length, thickness, texture, or any reason other than because it is my hair and I have decided to love it

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