The way I see it, the ongoing conversation around women of colour and hair is one of the most important conversations when it comes to beauty right now. And the protests at Pretoria High School For Girls helped lay it out for all to see just how much (and how unfavourably) the hair issue still affects women of colour, from a very young age. It is a reminder that we cannot simply carry on and pretend that the all is good and well in the world of hair and beauty.
I had a chat with ELLE contributor Danielle Alyssa Bowler who describes herself as ‘writer, musician, researcher, feminist tiger, BeyHive member and full-time stan of all things yasssssss-worthy,’ about her own hair journey. In addition to that incredible bio (yassssss-worthy in its own right), Danielle also holds a master’s degree in politics and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar, as well as being a regular commentator on politics and popular culture on local and international radio, television, and of course, Snapchat.
How do you wear your hair? Do you strictly wear it in its natural texture? Do you treat it chemically?
I wear my hair the way it grows out of my head. I wouldn’t say I strictly wear it in its natural texture even if that is how I wear mine 99.99% of the time – because I think people should be allowed to play with their hair and explore different ways to wear it in a way that is not hyper-policed. So I suppose I am wary of words like ‘strictly’ in a global context where women are constantly told what they should do with their bodies. Additionally women who are ‘natural’ constantly play with texture, with twists, braid-outs and even blow-outs.
I don’t treat it with relaxers at all - and never will again, but I recently got a curly cut and highlights that I am having so much fun with (which means taking ENDLESS selfies). I love to play around with my hair’s texture and volume, but mostly wear it out or up in a loose high-bun.
Have you experienced negative reactions to your natural curl?
I have experienced both negative and positive reactions. I think that when we think about natural hair, it is often in this polarized, unending conversation of either ‘natural versus weaves’ or ‘natural verses relaxers’. One of the consequences of this is that we don’t explore deeper layers of the conversation. Within the natural hair community there are also politics, which include curly hair like mine being at the top of the hierarchy – considered the most beautiful, acceptable, coveted or ‘the goal’ – especially when it is combined with light skin and light eyes. So there is a proximity to whiteness that still operates when we speak about natural hair. That can result in a dangerously positive reaction to hair like mine, dangerous because on the other side is the oppression of another woman who does not look like me, as Kyla Phil pointed out in her brilliant Superbalist piece. It’s something Sibongile Mafu pointed out on Twitter earlier this week about representation, and it is so important to acknowledge that girls and women like me are the ones on billboards, in magazines and on our screens. Natural hair is not apolitical.
Of course on other levels there is a beautiful positive reaction I get from other women in the community, which is affirming and great in terms of recognition of each other. I love interacting with other women on streets and through social media, particularly when we connect through our hair. So I guess that what I am trying to get at is the complexity of hair, which is less straightforward than our current conversations are considering.
One of the most important things to acknowledge is that different spaces or contexts have their own politics, which influences reactions. In creative spaces, hair like mine is super acceptable and praised. Likewise, in more hipster/youth culture spaces it is seen as cool and the new wave.
On the flipside, in coloured communities, hair like mine is not traditionally desirable or thought to be beautiful. In fact, it is actively opposed in conscious and sub-conscious ways, where it is thought to need ‘taming’ and the texture is effectively erased. This can all be traced to a history of oppressive practices linked to hair and the construction of an anti-blackness. Hair (and other factors) could determine your entire life under apartheid (and before it), with its pencil test practices and other ways of problematically trying to differentiate between races. These ideas still have longevity and today hair can be an influence on who dates you, considers you beautiful or even considers you someone they could marry.
But I have seen shifts in many of my younger relatives, who are phasing out relaxers and coming to me with questions about how to transition to wearing their hair naturally. So something is slowly changing.
Were there times you felt you had to change your hair to fit in?
Definitely. It’s something Donovan Goliath speaks about in his new comedy show – the avoidance of ‘kroes’ in the coloured community. From a very young age I was aware that my hair was not acceptable, often through the many practises that sought to change it, but never achieving the look of the little girl on the Dark & Lovely box or the magazines I read. Throughout school I constantly sought to change my hair and ‘neaten’ its appearance.
Like many women of colour, I got my first relaxer when I was super young. I think around nine or ten. It was always being twined, braided, rolled, set, blow-dried, relaxed, reverse-permed and everything in-between. These acts send subtle messages that changing your hair is necessary and expected (or even demanded). These ideas and messages are internalised until no one has to say anything at all; you do all of the work in maintaining these ideas and practices yourself. I remember getting my hair blow-dried every week in fear that my then boyfriend would see my natural texture, which would influence the way he saw me and thought of me. Throughout school and my undergrad years you could not separate me from my GHD.
Until very recently, I still felt pressure to blow-dry my hair at events like weddings. But last year I did it and some of my curls were heat damaged which made me treasure my hair and be much kinder to it. I no longer change my hair on anyone else’s demand. It’s important to me that I own every part of my body, even if that ownership is constantly challenged in the world we live in.
What would you say to young women of colour dealing with negative perceptions of their hair?
You are beautiful, smart and important: beyond what people tell you, what the media shows you, and what you see on your screens. Your beauty is in every part of you that is declared unattractive, undesirable and flawed. Your hair, skin, mind, lips, nose, thighs, hips and every single aspect of who you are is acceptable, should be praised, and is enough. You are enough, and your existence is important. To paraphrase Warsan Shire it is also important for you to know that it is not your ‘responsibility to be beautiful’. You are ‘not alive for that purpose’. Your ‘existence is not about how desirable’ other people ‘find you’.
Follow Danielle on Twitter: @daniellebowler, Instagram: @dannibowler and Snapchat: danni.bowler
Image credit: Danielle Alyssa Bowler ( slow clap for that strong selfie game)