As a perky little girl Nthakoana “Nthaks” Maema hated her frequent visits to the hairdresser. The brutal chemicals used to straighten her curls set her sensitive scalp on fire.
“They would get halfway and I would start burning…Then they would have to lather it on faster and comb it through to at least have some effect. This would open the pores and it would burn even more,” recalls the 32-year-old business coach from the Cape Town-based youth-focused social enterprise Salesian Lifechoices.
Switching brands, products and salons made no difference. The in-between hair mayonnaise, hot oil treatments and hair food were inadequate defense systems against the powerful alkaline agents in the creams that were used.
“After the relaxer I would have to put on Vaseline, and I would have scabs, but as soon as my skin started to heal I had to go back because the relaxer did not work in the first place. I did not object because I wanted to look like the girl [pictured on the bottle of relaxer] with the flowing, straight hair But it was better for me to plait my hair because then I would not have to go for a relaxer so often,” she says.
At the time Nthaks was growing up in Lesotho and later Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, and the societal convention that African hair had to be relaxed was in full force – and unaccommodating of deviants. Moreover, the effect of the chemically induced controlled damage of hair’s protein structure and the consequences of the process – brittleness, breakage and hair loss – was not always considered.
But for Nthaks her hair experiences set in motion a slew of questions about hair, beauty, fashion, pain, identity and politics. When these issues confronted her virtually at once, many years later as a first year student at the University of Cape Town, she decided to go natural.
“I was wearing braids and I took off the braids in the evening. I did not have time to make it ‘pretty’, I just washed it. I went to campus with my hair as it was… I was wearing a peak cap and people were so shocked – and that shocked me so much. How, just by simply taking off the braids and taking off the pretty hairstyle, people changed their perception of me and of beauty and the way that I looked and this was crazy. At the time I had a friend who was natural and her hair was beautiful and I decided I was going to be natural.”
Today, Nthaks, as a single Mom of two young boys, has not
regretted the decision she made 15 years ago. But she admits that it has not always been easy to take care of her natural hair.
At the time there were not many salons that could support her choice, there were not YouTubers and vloggers who showed and shared and there were hardly any products available.
“And because of the sensitivity of my skin I had to be very careful about what I was using. I literally would go to the shop and would get caught by an ingredient –something that would not even mean it is for ethnic hair or that it is a natural product because it also became apparent that there were a lot of products we use at home that are full of toxins and I started to question the products that I use,” she says.
“Sometimes I would google and ask other people and make up my own concoctions using natural ingredients to look after my hair. Because it was not optimally formulated my hair was not at its healthiest. But I persisted with being natural. I would still keep it in braids to protect my hair,”
For Nthaks one of the many positive spin-offs of the natural hair movement is there is now pressure to have a healthy head of hair. There is ample information to make sound hair decisions and there are a growing number of affordable products such as My Natural, which she uses and loves because, “it makes my hair feel alive”.
Similarly, Nthaks has been sensing that the societal expectations of what African hair should look like are shifting.
Although relaxers are still an option for women (and men) with textured hair and advertisements of black girls with straight, flowing hair are still marketing these products, Nthaks is not judgemental of people who make this choice and as a social change maker, she tries to understand what motivates youngsters to consider a natural hairstyle.
“Is it purely a beauty thing, coming from external pressure because we ought to be careful that being natural is not just a fashion but something you want intrinsically. What is driving you to do it? Normally when you want to do something you just do it. So when you are undecided, there is a concern somewhere and you must dig. If it’s a black young girl [who wants to go natural] the important thing is to first embrace herself as a beautiful African woman, this is the inner healing that can transcend the identity crisis we are facing at the moment, then the natural hair is an external expression that tells the world that I am okay with who I am. I am beautiful.”
Nthaks hopes that the natural hair movement is not a passing fad, but that it is creating an opportunity to delve deep enough into the many intertwined and complex issues men and women have to confront around identity, politics and beauty.
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