Society’s turbulent love affair with the afro

BY: Sabrina Lynch, Huffington Post

I think it’s fair to say that afro-textured hair is the most misunderstood and culturally divisive of follicles. I never thought that in 2015, society would still not know what to make of the mysterious hair that naturally coils from the heads of people of African and African-Caribbean origin. It continues to be both revered and shunned in the same breath, the belle of the Prada catwalk during Paris Fashion Week in February and yet deemed an unacceptable standard of professionalism in the case of Simone Powderley.

Afro hair has many guises – locks, puffs, dreads, braids, bantu knots – all of which are expressions of our multifaceted culture. Despite these styles being historically documented, Afro hair is still waiting to be asked to sit at the proverbial ‘head table’ with the brunette, blonde and red-haired population.

It’s the 21st Century, why is natural hair still so offensive to the peripheral vision? Knowing that you’re genetically destined never to meet conventional standards of beauty or grooming excellence is disconcerting, especially in environments where acceptance is supposed to be encouraged. Just ask the pupil of St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in the UK who was sent home on his first day for wearing braids or the US Military’s efforts to prohibit popular Afro hairstyles. Add to the mix the comments of an E! presenter who said with unfounded jest that actress Zendaya Coleman’s hair looked like she should smell of “patchouli oil and weed”. When natural hair is the cause of outrage among academia, government forces and the unkind punch line in mass entertainment, the fight to make Black curls a commonplace sight becomes frustratingly harder.

There can be underlining pressure to make Afro hair acceptable to the eyes of those who do not understand its nature, an unspoken command to conform to what can be provocatively considered as a tolerable ‘version’ of Black beauty – an unsubstantial and frankly bigoted opinion which pitted Viola Davis against Kerry Washington in the infamous New York Times article that described the Oscar-nominee actress as “less classically beautiful” than the star of Scandal.

For me, our tresses do not come in and out of style, it’s not kale or a superfood – it’s a permanent fixture. An appreciation for natural hair should not suddenly manifest when advocated by prolific luxury brands such as Yves Saint Laurent or Celine; neither should it be an antonym for gorgeous, sexy or presentable. The words unkempt and unsuitable need to be stricken from any dialogue that describes Afro hair in its best state of dress. Yes, it does not fall perfectly to the shoulders and will not blow dramatically in the wind unless naturally stretched or blow dried straight (dependent on your hair texture) but since when does a natural look not equate to having natural, Afro hair?

There is no reassurance that our curls are not being ousted from the definition of elegance. When I was 15 years old and went to my very first work placement arranged by my school, I was told by the person supervising me, “You have to do something about your hair”, which had been lovingly braided by my mother especially for the occasion. Very harsh critique for a teenager who simply wanted to gain some experience in the field of law. I didn’t understand why one of my favorite styles, and it was beautiful if I do say so myself, reflected less efficiency or ability to fulfill the very basic admin role.

What I understand now is what I had been exposed to then – there isn’t a well rounded representation of what black beauty looks like. The truth of the matter is that natural hair is still trying to find out where it stands in social hierarchy. Lupita Nyong’o’s Afro is worshiped whilst Solange’s undeservedly gets a lot of flak.

Our hair is a chameleon – it can be weaved, crocheted, twisted, ‘rested’ under a wig or just left as is, which is just as beautiful. We’re just waiting for the rest of the populace to catch up with this fact.

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