Society and Culture

Who’s Afraid of African Hair?

Hair is an emotive subject for many African women (and some African men). When the term ‘good hair’ has been used, it has often meant long, straight, soft and silky, Caucasian-like hair. And hair that isn’t ‘good’ is obviously short, coarse and tightly curled, (or, in African American speak, ‘kinky’ or ‘nappy’).

From the pressing combs to the earlier straighteners, permanent relaxers, jheri (or ‘jerry’) curls and more recent weaves, black women and men everywhere have sought to make their hair ‘more manageable’. But I wonder whether there aren’t other reasons. Maybe ‘more manageable’ is really a euphemism for, well, ‘more like white people’s hair’, you know? I expect some people will disagree strongly with that statement, and that’s OK. The politics of black hair is a controversial subject. Today, ‘natural hair styles’ are increasingly being sported, but most African women (and some men) still have their hair chemically processed in some way. For many years I, like many of my female friends and peers, would have my hair processed at great expense, despite the pain, discomfort and hair loss. But not any longer. Many years ago I decided to stop processing my hair.

I remember when I first started had my hair in locks (formerly known as dreadlocks) some years ago. A few African women made disparaging remarks about my hairstyle and tried to talk me into wearing a more ‘acceptable’ hairstyle. I told them I could choose what I did with own hair. And I changed my hairstyle again a few years later, for my own reasons.

I’m not going around telling other African women who choose to process their hair to go natural. It’s entirely up to them how they choose to wear their hair. But it wouldn’t hurt anyone to find out more about the contents of the hair products they use.

The safety of many of the ingredients in many hair products, particularly those marketed to Africans and African Americans, has not been determined. Clearly, this hasn’t stopped the widespread use and sale of these products. For many African women, having “manageable” hair would seem to be more important than the health consequences of using strong chemicals.

Having ‘manageable’ hair is so important that many African women have their children’s hair chemically processed from an early age. Maybe this encourages the development of rewarding (for the manufacturers and retailers of black hair products) and conflicted long-term relationships between African women and their hair.

You may be interested to know that the Center of Environmental Oncology in Pittsburgh, U.S. has studied the links between personal care products and cancer. Their findings show a possible link between the use of personal care products containing estrogen and estrogen-like hormones and the greater incidence of breast cancer in black women under 40, when compared to white

Just so you know, hair products that contain hormones include the placenta-based products that were very popular in Nigeria many years ago.

OK, I admit to having used these products myself in the past, and I shudder to think that I used them without really thinking about the ingredients. Had I been more informed, I would have asked a couple of questions at least. Like, how was the placenta obtained? And was I encouraging any unethical practices, however indirectly, by my purchase of hormone-containing products?

But I didn’t even think about these issues at the time. I was younger and less knowledgeable at the time – not much of an excuse, I know. We live and learn.

Did you know that regular use of products containing hormones like estrogen has been linked to premature sexual development? No, I didn’t make this up.

The Center of Environmental Oncology has investigated the earlier onset of puberty in African-American girls (when compared to European-American girls). Apparently, many doctors have reported that some African-American toddlers aged between one and three years developed breasts when their mothers applied products containing hormones (placenta, for example) to their hair. If you would like to read more about this, go to

If you found any of this information useful, feel free to share it with the women in your life. They may thank you. Chichi Layor has published two collections of poetry: BREAK EVERY RULE and LEOPARDS, ORACLES AND LONG HORNS. She has also written a weekly column for the Nigeria-based Vanguard. She currently lives in the UK.

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