Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Is Natural Hair a Middle Class Pursuit?

This morning, my part-time cleaner of a few months, Annabelle*, walked in as I was mixing up ingredients for a homemade DC.  Normally, I am a super lazy natural and I prefer to just open a bottle/tub/satchet and apply. But, as you may remember, my Creme of Nature DC has fallen from 'meh' to 'urgh!'. So, as I was at the end if the bottle and I haven't yet found an affordable replacement, I decided to mosey into the kitchen and whip up a little something. 

Back to Annabelle.
As she lives near a local market, she does our fruit and veg shopping for us. It works out great because it is a fraction of the price of our regular supermarket and we get fresh, seasonal, locally grown produce.  So today she walks in carrying a variety of produce and among them are two beautifully ripe avocados. I hadn't asked for them so they were a well-timed surprise.  I immediately began chopping, blending, sieving etc and she watched on in surprise and, eventually, her curiosity got the best of her and she asked what I was doing.  'Making my hair stuff'', I explained distractedly. She immediately exclaimed 'You're putting food in your hair??You should save those for the baby!'.  Her dismay grew as she watched me add honey and oil to the whipped avocado.  'Wow', she said 'the way I see it, only rich people can afford to do this natural hair thing'. 


I have to admit I felt quite embarrassed and rather ashamed at being seen to be so wasteful as to put food in my hair. But it also got me thinking, is natural hair, in this country at least, a middle class pursuit?

When I was growing up, it was usual to have natural hair as a child and, in fact, getting your first relaxer was something of a rite of passage.  You had natural hair until you turned a certain age (usually about 13) or when you went to high school and then the day arrived when you could FINALLY get that relaxer you had been dreaming of and you felt like you were taking a step into womanhood. 

Nowadays, I see younger and younger children with relaxers in their hair.  Perhaps parents find it easier to manage. Or could it be that the increasingly fast pace of life means we simply don't have time for the rituals involved in natural hair; oiling, plaiting, going to the salon on sunday afternoon so you could wear fresh cornrows to school come Monday? Regardless, I feel this was not just a middle class thing. Having relaxers and weaves was and still is an aspiration for the working class too. It is not uncommon to have your nanny breeze into work on a Monday with an immaculate, well styled weave or a freshly touched up relaxer.  We were all in it together.

But now a new trend has crept in.  One that confuses my nanny no end. When I first went natural last year, she asked me several times why I would want to wear my hair like that, instead of getting it 'done'. Read, running around like a mshamba (villager) when I could afford to do my hair.  Because natural hair is seen by many non-naturals across the board as a sign of poverty.  Of poor education.  Of an unexposed country mouse. And yet a growing middle class is casting off the shackles of convention and embracing their natural hair. But is it only ok to be seen walking around with uncombed hair becuase you have an expensive phone and  wear nice clothes? If you removed all the frills and tried to access some popular high-end venues would you still receive five-star treatment? Somehow, I don't think so.

Choice is a luxury that money can buy.  If your employer doesn't like your hair, you have the ability to find another job easily.  If your school doesn't like your child's hair, you can choose to move them to another that will.  For me, this goes hand in hand with the perception in this country that naturalistas are predominantly found in the creative industry. And because, traditionally, being artistic didn't pay well, if at all, choosing to follow this career path was was taken mainly by those who could afford not to be well off; ironic really. Before you went down the natural path, if you had a nanny who regularly wore their hair in undefined fros would you have asked her to do something about her appearance? 

would you hire me looking like this if you weren't natural?

Money is also a factor when it comes to the cost of being a healthy natural.  Yes, you can do it in an affordable way, and in fact, most of the products you think you need, you really don't.  But if you are earning minimum wage, buying a good conditioner and an oil every month may work out at 5% of your income. That is a lot to be spending on just hair. 

It is a standing joke that there are more kitchen items in a naturalista's bathroom than in her kitchen but the reality is if you decide to go the whole hog and use unrefined, quality products, you are expecting to pay above average for these and certainly much more than many products made specifically for hair.  Further, you are using products that for many would be considered luxuries, such as eggs, yoghurt, honey and aloe vera.  

Access to facitilites is another deciding factor. I mentioned feeling awful about my water usage when I wash off my henna, for example, let alone those who co-wash daily.  Because my household has had water problems in the last two weeks, we have had to be extra careful with our water consumption.  Using the baby's bath water to flush toilets and wash the car for example.  So how much more so if you have no access to running water and have to buy and store every drop you use. Would having a 40 minute wash day really be viable?

I know this is a controversial topic but I believe that the reason this is seen as a trend is because to many, it seems like a plaything of the wealthy, something largely unattainable by and, indeed, undesirable to the majority of the population.


*not her real name


  1. Lovely article as always Nina but now I feel super guilty!This is really food for thought (pardon the pun! I'll really start trying to be more conscious of my natural hair practices.Am sure it can still be achieved without feeling that extra financial pinch though.

  2. i got no guilt whatsoever, this hair of mine im gonna let it shine, its like a good magazine when im bored, i get to play with it, its my encouragement, it reminds me im all that and a bag of chips.

  3. I saw a post on natural hair on Saturday's paper (Biko I believe) - and I think we've officially begun the 'fad' phase - otherwise natural hair wouldn't be causing such a buzz. That said, whether or not 'natural hair' is a middle class pursuit will come up more often and probably be dissected ad nauseum... but we're not yet there. Those of us who went natural quite a while back would often opt for dreadlocks - low maintenance and the revelation for some that natural afro hair could grow! But as Taiye Selasi calls it, it's black, white girl hair - frees you from the shackles of relaxers, not being able to swim etc - but was mainly most understood/appreciated as a statement of emancipation, particularly if you happened to live abroad. When I wore dreadlocs in the early 2000s we were quite few in Kenya,and back then it was such a statement! For me, natural hair - that's not worn in locs - goes a step further - it's a statement of emancipation, of health and definitely a lot of TLC -- even without exploring those three too far -- it becomes a much easier option for the well to do. However, just like breast feeding, giving birth naturally, giving up costly medication for your good old lemon-ginger-honey mix to cure the flus, these are great trends that can be introduced to those around us who cannot afford to spend a lot - and it's a great sell because it's cheaper. If you read the blogs and the products, it can all get too confusing with people talking about 50 products not even locally available, but honestly, I think if the natural hair story is well told (ie without complicating it) and sold well, it's the cheaper, healthier option for everyone - whatever their background might be.

  4. a well written piece and it does look that way - natural hair is for middle to upper class - esp. if you consider going the whole yard to using organic stuff for your hair. On the other hand, one can still keep natural hair at minimal cost.

  5. I am usually very conscious of putting food in my hair, it feels sinful. But, lets talk about the way I am a store bought product junkie and the cold pressed oils that cost a fortune... So I am in the closet. No one sees me spreading on the food and they probably don't think the products cost too much. Guilty as charged - Middle class afro.

  6. I don't think it's a middle class thing. Lower class will have natural hair coz they have no option. They might not put in as much care and maintenance as we normally do.

  7. Going natural..... products we use....henna....braiding..... all these are choices we make and depending on the reason for those choices then words like class and guilt start to creep in.

  8. I was tired of spending a fortune every month on my head both financially and time-wise. I went natural because I wanted to cut down on those expenses. My regimen is simple wash, condition, use olive/almond vatica oil& dye with heena. All done in the comfort of my home. My hair is African hair, ngumu sana, I dont aspire for it to have curls like somali hair. It coils in a tight mass when it rains and when its dry, its hard to comb...but am fine with it coz thats how God made it to be. No EVOO, EVCO, LOC, natural shampoos etc etc for me and definately no food on my hair or face for that matter. I KISS (keep it simple and straightforward)

  9. Besides the cold pressed oils, I think am a 'cheapy' with my hair. Am not rich but I prefer to keep it simple.

  10. Oh, I wouldn't hire you if I wasn't natural, Nina.