As a teenager Andile Ntombela exchanged her relaxed hair for dreadlocks – a forbidden style in her Durban high school’s rulebook.

But the reason why she succeeded in circumventing the letter of the code of conduct was in all likelihood because she was adhering to its spirit. Dreads notwithstanding, Andile was a committed hardworking student who carried herself in a respectable manner.  When her hair did not block her selection as a prefect later on, younger learners wanted to follow suit. This movement, albeit low key, coupled with a greater openness from the school to embrace diversity contributed to an overhaul of hair guidelines.

At the time Andile was also wrestling to recalibrate aspect of her identity. Through her teen hair experience she began to grasp that physical appearance was an insufficient yardstick to gauge who a person really was.

“I am not defined by my hair,” has been her position ever since.

But she also began to understand that her revolt against chemically forcing her curls to uncoil was more than superficial teenage rebelliousness. She was beginning to connect the dots that showed how, in a society particularly obsessed with distinguishing people based on skin pigmentation and hair type, the lighter your skin was and the straighter your hair the more attractive you were considered to be.

But Andile, who was independent and unafraid to confront conflicting ideas, set off to uncover her own beliefs about beauty, identity, society and how these interface, overlap and align.

As far as hair goes, discarding relaxers in high school forced Andile to venture into unchartered territory. As a child her hair was either straight or braided, often with extensions. She did not learn how to take care of her natural hair, products to do so were scarce and trial and error in hair care takes its toll.

“[I]t has an impact on your hair. You could actually get to a point where you may want to go back to what you know – relaxed hair,” Andile said.

But she has persisted on a road of self-discovery and with only months to go before her 30th birthday Andile, who works in media and marketing in Cape Town, has long reached a point where she is comfortable with virtually any style. This confidence coupled with the fact that she easily gets bored and enjoys playing around with different looks mean that she changes her hair a lot.

“I am not afraid of wearing my hair quite short. My afro is quite short at the moment, but I wear weaves, I wear wigs, but if I don’t feel like wearing the weave or the wig I don’t mind going out with my afro. My beauty is not defined completely by the physical aspects of me. There is so much more…I don’t see myself in one perspective and in one dimension.”

Andile believes acceptance of oneself should be anchored in self-love, self-knowledge and consequently in your own interpretation of beauty. This means steering clear from all the too easy oversimplified comparisons to the next person and an uncritical acceptance of the notions of beauty promoted in the media. “

“When you have love for yourself and appreciation for yourself automatically you break out of that confinement of, ‘I don’t look like that therefore I am not beautiful or I am not inadequate’ because you have come to a point on your own where you embrace yourself. So its identity. If you get that foundation right a lot of chains will break as a ripple effect.”

For Andile beauty is simply authenticity.

“If you own up to who you are and you hundred percent comfortable with it and you embrace it – then to me that is beauty because it is founded in identity, which is so vital,” she explains.

In fact, she believes identity is the scaffolding of the self-knowledge one needs to live a full life.

She encourages young girls and boys who are still finding their pathways in life and who are contemplating the natural hair route to make the transition. But having been there herself she highlights the importance of education – and common sense.

“The point is when you are still at school you have to do it within reason because school emphasises and teaches uniformity. You can’t be too outrageous in how you explore. You have to do it within reason. Keep your hair natural, but keep it clean and neat.”

She also believes that information about hair choices needs to reach schools and teachers.

“I think I was in grade eight, high school, standard six. One of the teachers asked me…I had braids on my hair…she asked me and in front of the class, how often I washed my braids and even if I was allowed to wash them at all. I think she was trying to confirm her own theory that natural hair is not washed and if you had extensions on your hair it is not washed. Imagine that question being posed – it can be extremely embarrassing.”

A long journey still lies ahead to tackle the ignorance and prejudice in South Africa relating to hair as a personal and a political issue, often infused with crass racism.

But Andile is part of a growing number of young women who are liberating hair and beauty from the past.

Her message is clear and unapologetic: “Your hair is a physical representation of who you are. Your ethnic history… I would really encourage young people …if you want to be natural, be natural.”

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