When I meet Emma Dabiri, the first thing I notice is her hair. It is beautiful. She has a large black afro that looks brown depending on the direction of the light. It is parted down the middle, so her shoulder-length hair delicately frames her face. Today, seeing black women with their afros out as they walk down the street seems normal, but believe it or not, a decade ago it would have been far from the norm.
“The first time, I put chemicals on my hair [to straighten it] I was 10-years-old. My mum’s friend did it and left the chemicals left in for an extra long time because my hair was really coarse,’” the 40-year-old academic, broadcaster and author of Don’t Touch My Hair tells me.
Having straight hair felt like ecstasy
“When I first looked in the mirror at my newly straightened hair, it felt like ecstasy, but the next day it started breaking off. My hair was wrecked and I didn’t use chemicals again for a while.
“It was years later, during university, when I got my hair chemically straightened again and this time it felt like I had fulfilled a lifelong dream.
“I went to a hairdressers in South Kensington and it was really expensive. When I went in, I spotted a member of the 1990s girl group Honeyz, getting her hair done. I felt like it was a sign that I going to have pop star hair! I came out with straightened flowing hair that swished from side to side.”
We’ve been conditioned to believe that our natural hair must be hidden
For centuries, black women have been conditioned to believe that to be considered beautiful, our natural hair texture must be hidden under weaves, wigs and extensions, or that our hair must be chemically straightened with a thick white substance known as a relaxer. Beyond being told that our natural coiled, kinky hair texture is ugly, wearing our hair naturally was and is to some, still is seen as a political act.
When black women wear their afros out, some see it as an act of rebellion, or even a threat to society – most likely this is why The New Yorker drew Michelle Obama with an afro when it depicted her and husband Barack Obama as terrorists in its now-infamous 2008 cover. Black hair is never just seen as hair and Dabiri’s new book gives readers a detailed history of afro hair, plus through her own personal experiences, she illustrates how black hair can provide a lens into society’s bigger and broader race issues.
Growing up in Dublin, even as young as age six, she explains how she knew her hair was a visible physical trait unfairly positioned her as the other and as a consequence, she didn’t fit the physical expectations attached to young girls.
There was something wrong with me
“Being a little girl in Ireland, so much of femininity was tied up in hair. Lots of little girls I grew up with had long straight hair – so I felt so outside the norms of girlhood because of that.”
In her book, she explains her hair was even presented a problem to those around her.
“There was something wrong with me, like something needed to be cured. It was so different to the hair to everyone around me.”
Black hair is an extremely profitable industry. The US black haircare market is currently valued market at $2.5 billion dollars alone. Furthermore, black women are estimated to spend six more times on their hair, compared to their white counterparts. Emma believes that there is no one singular reason why black women spend so much on haircare routines but she believes that dating and the idea of being desirable may be one reason, due to beauty standards revolving around white women.
Hair has a really big impact
“There is pressure on all women to be desirable and I think more black women do feel that pressure to be desirable. Much of our culture is focused on it.
“I’ve seen the reactions men have towards me based on how my hair is styled or how they think my hair is going to look. It shouldn’t but you hair can have a really big impact on who you attract, who approaches you and the value that society gives you.”
“Also, as black women, we change our hairstyles so much and unless you can do it yourself or have a family member that can do it to that professional standard then it can be costly. Then when you think about the products we buy to treat our afros, the good stuff that contains no sulphates, no parables and all that good ingredients is expensive.
Emma’s book shines a light on underexplored topics attached to black hair. When afro hair is discussed in public spheres it’s usually attached to the topics of cultural appropriation, the rise of the natural hair movement [the global online community of black women who have used social media to share tips on how to look after and style their afro hair textures in the last decade or so], or increase of black female celebrities with visible afros.
Hair’s social and cultural significance in African countries
And while Don’t Touch My Hair discusses these topics in depth, Emma’s research looks at also provides the reader of how afro hairstyles and hairstyling had cultural and social significance in various African countries. Don’t Touch My Hair transports the reader to the 56-country continent before colonialism to illustrate how black hair was seen as art, an indicator of social status and visual language between those from the Yoruba ethnicity in Nigeria.
“I think there are so many ways in which hair is significant in black culture historically and today and there is actually a lot misunderstanding or not a lot of knowledge around that and conversations about natural hair.
It’s about so much more than hair
“I wanted to drive the point home that you can never say it is only hair, it is about so much more. It is so much deeper than that.”
At the heart of the book is the story of how Emma’s worked through her personal feelings about her hair. In her own words, she says: “her hair has been disappointing people since birth.” Yet, by the end of the book and from certainly speaking to her, it is apparent that is no longer the case.
“It’s difficult for me to even remember how much I hated my hair and how ashamed of it I was and what a big deal it was because now it is a part of me that I would not change for the world.”
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ (Allen Lane, £16.99) is out now