My Thoughts on Women’s Afro Hair

Some time ago (some months as I write), there was a debate (no – not a debate, an unstructured discussion) on Woman’s Hour. The women invited took two popular but unhelpfully extreme positions: “Love the Weave” vs “Only Natural Will Do”.

Clearly Jenny Murray is in no position to comment on her own experience of afro hair and could contribute little (or less) to the discussion and it spiraled into an argument over whether the Weave woman should wear it or not. Useless. On so many levels.  I really desperately wanted to wade into the discussion but I couldn’t properly frame my thoughts at the time.

So I took some time and then almost completely forgot to write them down. The discussion started by comparing Naomi Campbell’s latest (at the time) hairstyle which was “faux naturel” and Lupita Nyong’o’s appearance at the Oscars. Was it a brave thing for Lupita to wear her hair naturally? Some of the discussion seemed to go that way but something nagged at me.

Lupita grew up in Kenya where her hair would not have been an unusual focal point. My experience, growing up in Southampton, though, was likely quite different. My experience may not be true for every Black British woman, but I’m sure there are enough of us who do remember this: “Can I touch your hair?” and before you know it, your head is being patted, pulled and squealed at. It’s not actually a question.

When I did say no, it was often too late – and then you’re accused of being rude; not being any fun; not “playing the game”; or even worse – of being somehow “unfair”. But hang on – since when is it rude to object to someone touching you? Does this sound familiar? What concerns me is anyone who doesn’t wait for the assent – why wouldn’t you wait? We are teaching our young girls to be responsible for their bodies – hair included. We need to teach them to respect others’ as well.

If you don’t need to hear “yes”, do you also presume some sort of authority over that person?   It was this feeling of someone else’s presumption which really made me angry. These girls felt it was OK to treat me like their plaything – did that mean that they thought of themselves as “superior” to me in some regard as well? Was I really just a thing for their amusement? I didn’t think so but something didn’t sit well with me. Then that reaction that my hair in some way wasn’t “right” – or worse that it was icky or scary – formed, for me, a lasting impression. Now when I return to the Women’s Hour discussion, the politics of black hair should really address this aspect of how other people treat your hair – if you’ve had it patted and pulled for years and hated it, why not try to make it less of a thing of interest? I was frustrated that the discussion didn’t attempt to make this point because so many people don’t give it a second thought.

Then my niece wrote this poem, which brought a lot of feelings back – mainly sorrow that she (although living and growing up in a much more diverse area) still goes through this same thing.

No Point

By Ruby Gawe

People keep telling me,

“Can I touch your hair?”

Except there’s no point

because they’re already

pulling my scalp and hurting

my hair.


People keep telling me,

“Can I touch your hair?”

And I can’t say no,

so it’s like my head is stuck

in a crane’s metal jaws


My mum does my hair

and I like it

that way. She does it

really well

then people come

and make it look

like a bramble bush!

Do you think I don’t care?


I wish,

just one day, people will

actually wait for my answer.

F.Y.I it will be no!

The important thing to take from this is – whatever the answer, you need to teach your kids to wait for it and respect it when it comes.  I don’t have any answers to the question of natural or no for Afro hair – and I certainly don’t expect there to be a more measured discussion on this any time soon, but maybe I will have more of these thoughts to hand next time the question comes up!