A very personal history of curly hair in Australia
Three women share their hair journey
By Briar Clark
BEAUTYcrew Content Producer / April 14 2021
Hair has always been a symbol of devout femininity for the women in my family.
My grandmother had hip-length jet black hair that she would ceremoniously twist into a low bun every morning and unravel every night to hang loose before she went to bed. My own hair has always received compliments for being ‘shiny’, ‘smooth’ and ‘long’.
My mother, on the other hand, inherited a combination of her mother’s abundant Polynesian hair and her father’s Jewish curls. The latter of which only became apparent when she gave birth to me and her dead-straight, dark brown hair became curly and kinky. Let’s just say the change in texture was an unwelcome one.
I can’t remember a time when my mum didn’t straighten her hair every morning, religiously buying smoothing hair products and having comical meltdowns at the mere mention of humidity. I mean, the amount of times I have witnessed this woman running through the rain with a bag over her head in order to maintain her straight style is truly concerning. And while this may serve as a humorous moment in our family, I am continually reminded through my mother’s behaviour that there are distinct ramifications for appearing ‘unkempt’ in a society rife with Eurocentric beauty standards. Aware even more so how this notion must strike true for women of colour living down under.
As someone who loves curls, I’ve tried countless times to have my mother embrace her texture, bombarding her with a litany of curly care info and products that she has chosen to disregard in favour of a style she knows and covets. And I can’t fault her for it. If she likes wearing her hair straight, she likes wearing her hair straight.
But what about other women? Or for that matter, anyone with curly, coiled or textured hair? Do they still feel the pressure to conform and wear it straight?
We’ve heard of the natural hair movement, but in my own experience, I’m unsure as to whether it’s been truly making an impact in mainstream media in Australia.
Here, three Australian women with textured and Afro hair share their stories about what it’s like to have a naturally curly crown in a country where the hair type is far and few between. From what their hair means to them personally and culturally, to how that relationship has changed over the years and the impact in which society’s obsession with women’s hair has had on their lives.
Introducing Esther Joseph, beauty vlogger and CEO of Dassah Beauty, Rumbie Mutsiwa, founder of the Rumbie & Co Wavy, Curly & Afro Specialist Salons, and model and activist Aiyana Alexander.
What does your hair mean to you?
Esther: My hair is a part of who I am as a Black Nigerian Australian Woman, living in a world filled with most people who aren’t used to seeing my texture. It is also a part of my culture and my roots.”
Rumbie: “[My] hair is an expression of my personality, I can never stick to one thing but I can definitely tell you where I am positioned. Bold, expressive, chilled, experimental and so much more. That being said, I am not my hair, it does not define me.”
Aiyana: “My hair is extremely important to me as it is a part of my identity and what makes me, me. I am an African woman and kinky hair is a part of our culture. Acceptance of my hair is acceptance of myself. I look back on the years I spent conforming to certain cultural norms by trying to tame my natural hair and think of how much further along I would be if I had loved my hair from the beginning.”
How has your relationship with your hair changed over the years?
Esther: “Unfortunately society's definition of beautiful has not included my type of hair for decades and that can impact how a child sees themselves and their hair. This happened to me growing up. So, it was important that I learnt to love my hair as a part of me and I did that by first learning how to navigate it and second, ignoring what society says about my hair. I am now able to walk out of the house in my afro without a care in the world. I am also getting to a level of confidence that allows me to freely tell others not to touch it especially without my permission.”
Rumbie: “Over my lifetime, I’d picked up negative beliefs [like] “I’ll look like a man”, “It’s not beautiful” but all these lies had to be tackled head on. I chopped my hair off and started to affirm myself because I realised until I loved myself as a whole, I'd be reliant on others to affirm me. And that's a no for me.”
Aiyana: “Growing up, I had a very unhealthy relationship with my hair where I tried to fit in with what everyone else was doing. At the age of 15, I relaxed my Afro and had my hair straight for about six years. Towards the end of my relaxing journey, my hair had started breaking off. At that point, I knew it was time to cut my hair off and let my natural texture grow back out. It was an extremely daunting experience as I had gotten so used to the straight hair and was worried about what people would think of my Afro. After the haircut, I cried my eyes out. It took a few months for me to truly feel comfortable with my hair so short and curly again, but it didn’t stay short for long. [After] the haircut, my hair was extremely healthy and grew out to an amazing Afro in under a year. That decision to cut my hair was something that I probably should have done years ago but I wasn’t in the right place of self-love and acceptance to do it until I turned 21. I am now 23 and love my hair. My afro is healthy, happy and thriving and so am I.”
What influence has your family and culture had on your hair?
Esther: “Learning to love my hair and seeing it as a part of me, I would say, was greatly influenced by my culture as embracing my natural hair is embracing my cultural identity and my roots.”
Rumbie: “Hair has never really been an issue in my family. Growing up, I used to do my own hair. Culturally though, I feel that is where I picked up negativity surrounding my and other people's coily afros. The conditioning that it was hard [to care for], unkept, untidy, “not serious”, hot or attractive. I believe this is tied to the effects of colourism and the necessity to assimilate. My mum was a proud woman. She took pride in her appearance. She had her hair in rollers every night, always kept her hair salon visits regular however she chemically straightened it, meaning she didn’t know what to do with my hair other than giving me scarves to wrap my hair to maintain my hair overnight. I feel as though I took on her dedication to taking pride in my appearance and not accepting sub standards in all areas of my life.”
Aiyana: “I come from a mixed culture of Black and white so everyone in my family has different textured hair. All members have gone through having their hair natural vs wearing it straight or relaxed. Being the only member of my family with an Afro, my mum had to learn how to care for it through African protective styles like braiding, twists, cornrows, and through products (for example coconut oil, castor oil, argan oil etc.). I still use those products to this day as well as get my hair twisted or braided at least once a year. My mother and I have vastly different hair. Hers is a soft wavy texture that she can wear in curls or straighten with a brush and blow-waving within 20 minutes. Mine is coarser and could not be straightened without a relaxer. Growing up, I often wished I had her hair because at the time it seemed more versatile and easier to manage. But she has also had her challenges with her hair. Her being able to accept and work with her hair instead of against it has taught me to do the same with mine.”
What impact has society had on you and your relationship to your hair?
Esther: “Society unfortunately persuaded me into thinking my hair was dirty, unprofessional and unkempt in its natural Afro state. I am also seen as an attraction in a theme park when I have my hair out in its natural state, braided and even with extensions which can make me feel unmotivated most times because of the ‘attention’. This greatly influenced (and sometimes still does) how I choose to wear my hair. The feeling I get when I’m preparing for a job interview is gut wrenching and not just because interviews can be stressful but because I might be seen as unprofessional because of my natural hair no matter how ‘tidy’ and ‘presentable’ it looks. But regardless, I am learning to present myself the way I am; Afro hair and all including braids, extensions or whatever I wish to install.”
Rumbie: “On my regular journey of finding the next hairstyle I’d wear, I realised that on numerous occasions, I had disregarded the idea of going natural to wearing hair extensions. I realised I had a problem... I chopped my straight hair with paper scissors on my bed and began to hyper-ventilate, who had I become? Was I now unattractive, did I look like a man? Regardless of what was going on, I had to address this issue and kill it dead. So all these lies needed addressing. I banned myself from manipulating my hair with extensions or anything else that was not my own natural hair for two years… I started to grow a different kind of love for myself.”
Aiyana: “European beauty standards that have been ingrained in society through TV, magazines, and other advertising platforms, definitely had a negative effect on my relationship with my hair. It was the main catalyst for me relaxing my hair from the age of 15, to when I cut my hair off at 21. Being surrounded by those images constantly made me feel like my naturally kinky hair wasn’t good enough and that I needed to conform to what was ‘accepted’ in society. As a model, it was also difficult because hairstylists did not know how to style and manage my natural hair so I thought that by relaxing it would be easier for them. I finally got to an amazing place when I turned 21 and accepted who I was and cut my hair off to grow my natural texture back. And it was the best decision I have ever made.”
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Briar is a Content Producer at BEAUTYcrew. She is a self-professed skin care obsessive, always on the hunt for the perfect mascara, and can't go past a plumping lipgloss.