Since the day I decided to break up the "creamy crack" (relaxer), I spent years switching between every protective style you can think of—box braids, Senegalese twists, cornrows, and weaves—to avoid having to deal with taking care my natural hair. Then, college happened, and spending $150-$200 at the hair salon every other month didn't quite fit within my $2-pizza-slice-for-dinner college-girl budget. So I took the plunge and wore my natural hair for a few months (fall semester, which, I should note isn't the best weather for natural hair), and even dyed it brown for some added oomph.
I can't even begin to count how many natural hair videos I watched on YouTube at the time in the hopes of finding fresh, quick styles. After months of failed twist-out attempts, countless nights of falling asleep without actually twisting my hair (I prefer the lazy-girl routine), and lots of breakage from lack of care, I came to one sad conclusion: I didn't know what I was doing. I went back to protective styles without hesitation.
But in October 2016, HBO premiered Insecure starring Issa Rae, a comedy series chronicling the life of a modern-day black woman and the beauty and flaws that come with that label. I was in awe of Issa's character, not only because I finally saw someone on the big-screen that looked like me, but because she unabashedly embraced her natural hair in a way I was so desperately trying to do. Frohawks, braided crowns, side cornrows, and more unconventional styles adorned Issa's head throughout the season. "How on earth does she come up with all these different styles?" I thought to myself. Well, she owes it all to Felicia Leatherwood.
"I met Issa Rae about five years ago at a dinner and we ended up sitting next to each other," the celebrity hairstylist told ELLE.com. "I gave her my business card and told her to give me a call if she ever needed help with her natural hair. She made that call and I've been working with her ever since."
Leatherwood cut her teeth in hair styling as a braider in her local community in Los Angeles, but after developing an allergy to perm relaxers, she decided to learn about caring for her own hair. Now, she's helping other women to do the same.
"IF YOU HAVE BEAUTIFUL NATURAL HAIR, WHY GIVE MONEY TO SOMEONE ELSE WHEN YOU CAN LEARN TO WORK WITH IT?"
"No one understood my hair," she added. "I have women who say, ‘Hey Felicia, I don’t know what to do with my natural hair,’ and I have this platform to help you all figure it out, so it was important for me to take the opportunity to use it so women won't feel the need to spend so much money on wigs. I’m trying to help women understand that wigs should only be an option, like if you’re in the entertainment industry where your hair is constantly being manipulated or you’re experiencing something medical like alopecia. If you have beautiful natural hair, why give money to someone else when you can learn to work with your own natural hair?"
Ahead, Felicia Leatherwood breaks down the best way to style your natural hair, regardless of what stage you're in.
Stage 1: Buzzcut, Big Chop, Teeny-Weeny Afro (TWA)
So you've decided to undergo a big chop and restart your natural hair journey. No worries: curling creams and gels will be your best friend. "Don't think about the hair too hard, you kind of have to let it do its thing," Leatherwood advises. "If you want to define your curls, reach for a curling cream or gel and work in the product in little by little. You want to work in small sections and massage the product onto your scalp so it can seep into the cuticle."
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For TWA and tapered cuts like Taraji P. Henson's (above), Felicia recommends a detangling brush to help coat your strands with the product and separate and lift the strands to increase definition. "Your finger can really go through and define all of your hair, but the brush can get to all the strands," she says.
Stage 2: Short to Medium-Sized Afro
"If you go to seasons two and three of Insecure, you’ll see how much Issa’s hair has grown, right down to her chin. But shrinkage is a huge hurdle," Felicia says. One way to combat shrinkage? Clip-ins. "It affords you some volume and length but still lets your hair be free, not completely covered. Clip-ins also allow you to play with style," she continued. "You can do fro-hawks, up-dos, cornrows. I also like to play with those afro-ponytail puffs."
Felicia also suggests protective styling because it "gives you your time back—you can sleep a little longer in the morning and take vacations without having to worry about what you’re going to do with your hair." She continued: "People forget that when you put your hair in a protective style, it's the best time to care of the scalp because the scalp is easier to get to. Oil your scalp and use all your growth products!"
Stage 3: Bra-Length/Shoulder-Length
At this point, many woman achieve their desired lengths but tend to stick to wash-and-gos or twist outs. According to Felicia, this stage is the perfect time to play with accessories and really test your hair's versatility. "I like look at straight hairstyles and turning them into textured hairstyles," she says. "Yes, you can do twist-outs so your hair can hang loose but high-ponytails, especially with a few cornrows or little gold accessories can add to any look. I feel like whatever can be done with straight hair can be also be done with textured hair."
Stage 4: Back-Length
"Doing twist-outs in your hair regularly gives you the perfect amount of curl definition. Let your hair can hang loose, let it do its thing!" she suggests. "But please don't forget to deep condition! Women get to a certain length and just put their hair in a ponytail and leave it alone but you have to condition at twice a month. You can leave it on for 15 minutes or even overnight if you need major hydration."