What About My (Natural) Hair?!
**If you're not in a reading mood, all my hair photos/awkward selfies are at the bottom of the page
Not all of us can have a long and silky braid of brunette majesty swinging past our hips as we go adventuring, à la Lara Croft. In fact, I had a hard time trying to figure out what to do with my hair. There are so many questions and thoughts that went through my mind when trying to decide how to tackle what I felt was a problem.
What will hold up in hot weather?
What if I need to cover my head?
What won’t look “too black”?
What won’t need maintenance over ten days?
What will be comfortable on an airplane?
What looks modest?
What is still self-expressive?
The list went on, but eventually I decided on something that not only worked, but that I actually liked. Though everyone and their hair journey is different, I just want to tell you what worked for me in hopes it may save you the four weeks of stress I endured trying to figure out what to do with all these curly African tresses.
What’s my hair like?
This is what my hair is like.
It is long, thick, and natural. I have had natural hair my entire life and as of right now my curls are a firm 4C. Though I respect the incredible versatility natural black hair has, I haven’t put heat to it in seven years. That said, my hair is trained to retain its curls and works well for twist-outs and high-volume styles . . . two things I couldn’t do for this trip.
So how did you style it?
Taking into consideration all of my many hair-related worries, I decided to go with something simple: Two-stranded twists.
Normally my hair reaches below my shoulder blades, but I decided to put that epic shrinkage to good use and I twisted it while wet. This made my twists stop near the bottom of my neck, perfect for if I had to quickly rally my curls and cover them with a scarf. It was also a hairstyle that was comfortable on all 6 of my flights, didn’t sweat out in 106-degree heat, didn’t poof up in 60% humidity, and didn’t require the unforgiving grip of a hair tie around a thick afro-puff.
Normally at home I alternate between small twists, twist-outs, yarn twists, and a few cornrows here and there. I have fun experimenting with color, twist size, and the power of bobby pins, but I never strayed too far from what I consider a safe style (safe from American judgement, I mean). I wore my hair in styles that I liked, but that wouldn’t garner too much attention; hairstyles that made my predominantly white interviewers, program leaders, educators, and fellow students feel comfortable.
In short, I come from a society with some issues when it comes to “how black” an African-American chooses to present themselves. Let’s face it, even in 2017 a black woman with straight hair is read differently than a black woman with bantu knots. So, with 20 years of experience being subjected to that sort of atmosphere, I simply didn’t know what to expect in Morocco.
So, do you remember when I mentioned trying to figure out a hairstyle that wasn’t “too black”? Well, I had ruled out afros, puff balls, and bantu knots due to practicality. I worried straight cornrows would make me look not only too “ethnic”, but also like a child. I thought yarn twists, though wonderfully colorful, might not be the most modest styling option. Yet the two-stranded twists I had decided on were just so boring. After many weeks of contemplation, though, I finally figured out a solution to the problem I had created for myself. I added in some cowry shells.
Do you remember being a kid and putting those at the ends of your braids instead of the sparkly plastic beads?
It sounds simple, and maybe even juvenile, but I loved having just a few of them twisted into my dark mane. Accessories are often an underused resource in my hair practice, but I’m glad I chose to use them on this occasion. They made me feel myself.
The power of head scarves:
By the end of the trip I was opting for head scarves. After all, I had three planes to catch over a 24 hour period and I didn't feel like being bothered with my hair at all. A scarf meant I could sleep without getting my hair messed up, walk in public without looking like a bum, and travel without the additional stress of bobby pins and hair ties elaborately woven into my mane.
Only two incidents happened as a result of me covering my head:
1) Moroccan TSA had to pat my scarf down. When the woman did it, though, wasn't racially or religiously charged like American TSA sometimes is. In fact, she smiled at me because, well, patting someone's head is universally just a funny thing to do . . . when not steeped in discrimination and disrespect, of course.
2) One of the two men in our group, when discussing my head scarf, made a point to say I should want to look my best because you "never know when you might meet you future husband". I'm quite certain it was a joke. It was a misogynistic joke, but a joke nonetheless and in response I told him that if I met my future husband somewhere between Morocco and Richmond, Virginia then he's going to be meeting me with my head scarf on, damnit. I'm not going to jeopardize my comfort on the off chance I may meet a man somewhere between Morocco, the airport, three airplanes, a New York chain hotel, and Richmond.
While I was there, my overall appearance—including the hair—was well received by locals; the stares and comments I got weren’t negative or judgmental in any way. Of course, other aspects of my appearance played a part in the way I was received, however it’s impossible that the hair didn’t contribute to people’s (positive) interpretation of me.
I couldn’t say for certain which hairstyles in Morocco work best socially; most women there covered their hair, and even if they didn’t, what works for them may not work for you. Heck, even if you did cover your hair—and I am a full supporter of a good head scarf—there are other qualities about you that could make you stand out. Natural hair is a canvas of possibilities, but societies are all different; there will always be different social stigmas associated with different looks and you may have very little control over that.
Don’t stress it.
First and foremost, style your hair in a way that is practical for your adventure and that you feel comfortable in. Don’t worry about what a foreign culture may think because, no matter what, it won’t be exactly like what you may be used to experiencing in the States. When in doubt, though, pack extra hair ties, a large scarf, one hat, and a fistful of bobby pins. Anything can be accomplished with those bad boys in your carry-on.