Breaking the kɔɪli hair myths




I just typed in coily for the heading of this piece and that offensive red line from Microsoft Word proceeded to inform me that such a word does not exist. Google the word too and you will definitely not find it in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I paused and stared at the screen for a second then right clicked. Add to Dictionary:

Coily: /kɔɪli/ adjective A hair texture resembling a very tight spring that is most visible when hair is wet.

That is my hair. Not curly. Not wavy. Not straight.  My hair does not spiral curl. It doesn’t form flowing ringlets around my face. It doesn’t spill over my shoulders when I turn my head. It sometimes chunks up into a soft pillow of zigzags. It sometimes forms an impenetrable wall that has broken many combs.  It loves water but recoils as soon as contact is made. Sometimes I hate it. Most times I love it. That’s my hair.

Ironically, many people have recoiled when I use that word to describe my hair. One friend shifted uncomfortably and laughed nervously, “Wunmi, coily is just…I don’t know…it’s just a funny word” Another reminded me that coily was what uneducated market women in Nigeria said when they meant to say curly. “It’s just somehow razz, shey you get” Somehow unsophisticated. Somehow local. My hair.

But beyond the words we use to describe our natural hair, the assumptions we make are even far more interesting. Some of the ones I have encountered are:

Natural hair is tough: This assumption normally takes two forms. 1) That our hair is so tough and tangled, that it is too difficult to ‘manage’ without the use of relaxers, texturizers and heat.  My ex-hairdresser obviously thought my hair was made of steel given the way she would blow dry through knots without detangling first, yanking my head this way and that and leaving my once luscious coils in a hacked, dry fuzz ball. The next time I visited her and suggested she do my cornrows without blow-drying first, she blatantly refused. She was not about to get her hands into that twisted mess. She was not about that life. 2) We think our hair is so tough that it doesn’t need special care or attention. Pictures of mouldy, dry and breaking hair after the weave or braids take-down tells us otherwise. All hair –irrespective of its texture- needs tender loving care.

Natural hair does not grow: This one is a consequence of of the first assumption. Because we think our hair can weather any storms and fires we throw its way, we tend to leave it uncared for and then, surprise surprise, wonder why it seems to not have grown at all. Truth is our hair definitely grows. The fact that you might have to go for a relaxer touch-up every six weeks is testament to this. That is all new hair that has grown from your scalp. The problem is that we tend to maltreat the longer ends so much that they break off. Black hair actually tends to be very fragile because of how tightly coiled it is. Each coil represents a breaking point because the bend in the strand weakens the shaft. Also our hair tends to shrink in its natural state so that it appears to be shorter than straight or wavy hair.

If you have natural hair that is soft or longer than your chin, you probably have mixed heritage. Maybe your great-great grandfather was Indian or white or you are African-American. So now you understand that your natural hair needs lots of love. You make sure to moisturise and oil your ends, go for deep conditioning treatments, eat properly and drink water and you can now see the extra length coming through. You are happy and proud of yourself. Until you are walking down the road and a stranger exclaims at the sight of your hair. “Wow girl, is that all your hair? It’s so long for black hair! How did you do it? Are you mixed race? Are you African-American?” Normally I would want to proceed into a lecture about my 100% African roots (pun absolutely intended) but now I smile, bite my tongue and keep walking. It is not this stranger’s fault. He or she does not get to see images of healthy natural African hair often enough to debunk the myths. We have become so desensitised from our own hair that it can only be long, beautiful and luscious when it has been mixed with Asian or European genes. As Boipuso once said, we have unlearned how to take care of our hair. It was not a mistake but an active process steeped in history and all those factors that we will not go into here. We had the proper knowledge of how to take care of our hair. Our indigenous butters and oils that are now increasingly popular in the US and Europe, had been beauty staples of our people for years but we, the educated ones now tend to consider these unsophisticated and local until they are imported back for us.

Natural hair is high maintenance. It can definitely be. But that is because of our own lack of knowledge. I have had hairdressers that would not lather my hair because it was too thick and had problems trying to blow-dry it. Others who would charge me for having to use more shampoo and those who rolled their eyes at me if I brought in my own natural products to use. They mostly thought I was high maintenance. Another friend told me explicitly that maintaining her natural hair would be more expensive than her Brazillian weave. Interestingly, I have saved myself a lot of money and headaches since choosing to go natural. I still rock braids and weaves when I feel like it but I do not go into a cold sweat at the thought of styling my own natural hair. I wash and deep condition every two weeks, apply shea butter and water every two days and mostly stick to a bun for work. That's it. No fuss and no unnecessary expense. If I'm feeling less lazy I might attempt a twist out or a different updo but I would not do it if it takes more than 30 minutes from start to finish. Our hair is perceived to be high maintenance because we have not invested enough time and energy in understanding what it needs and what works.

Information on natural hair has become increasingly available especially in the US with a myriad of products on offer to address changing needs. The relaxer market in the US has declined from 21% of the total black hair industry to 15% as more women choose to be natural. YouTube videos from African-American bloggers have often given me more information than any hair stylist or hair dressers closer to home. While the community is slowly growing in Africa, the pace remains slow with many becoming discouraged due to the lack of information and support. The irony of it all is that we once had all the indigenous knowledge right at our fingertips. Knowledge, as always, is power.

By starting this blog, we at team kɔɪli hope to help you break the myths and better understand your hair. We are not on a natural hair crusade but on a happy hair journey. By exploring the indigenous oils and butters that we have right at our doorsteps and the techniques that have been in our midst for centuries, we hope to at least highlight that you have a lot more options when it comes to your hair. 

With love, peace and fro's

Photo credit: keturahariel.com
Article originally published on African Hadith





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