Natural Styling

‘Naturalistas’ cause waves in the hair industry

By Bonita Williams 14 December 2018

Barkes and Amanda Cooke who runs a blog called, Cape Town Curly is another co-founder of Cape Town Natural Festival. These women are on a mission to build the natural hair community. Photo: Bonita Meyersfeld

Some believe that natural hair is a movement, others see it as just wearing your hair as it grows. This Sunday the natural hair community will gather at the third Cape Town Natural Hair Festival (CTNHF) in the Mother City. Two Co-founders, Eleanor Barkes and Amanda Cooke, chatted to Daily Maverick about movements, hair politics, prices and growth.

“The journey starts out being about hair, but you quickly realise it is about taking care of yourself,” said Eleanor Barkes, blogger and one of the co-founders of the Cape Town Natural Hair Festival. “I think all over (the world) people are tired of pretending to be something that they are not.”

Barks posed the question: “Why do I keep trying to straighten my hair when I know for a fact I do not have straight hair?”

Hair industry trends show that internationally, there has been a near 20% drop in hair chemicals sales. According to The Clicks group, this trend applies also in SA. And the hair industry is big business – overall in Africa, the hair industry was worth R 6,3-billion in 2015.

The natural hair movement has seen an explosion in South Africa over the past five years, with more products on the market and more people either doing the big chop, cutting their hair off and letting it grow out in its natural state – or “transitioning”- to stop using chemicals and heat on your hair.

This is my authentic self,” explained Barkes.

Amanda Cooke is also a blogger and co-founder of CTNHF. Her journey towards “going” natural started when she watched her young daughter play with her cousin’s hair, which had been straightened. Her daughter felt envious. “She said I wish my hair was like yours.”

Straight hair – even when it is not how your hair grows naturally – is the norm in most Western-oriented societies because the perception of “kinky, nappy or kroes hair” is that it is dirty and that it doesn’t grow. These perceptions inhibited women and men from wearing their hair as it grows.

Many believe it is as a result of these perceptions that wearing your hair as it grows is considered radical or as activism, because no person of colour’s hair “grows out” the same.

Afros, dreadlocks, braids, weaves, headscarves, curls, tight or loose, it is about self-expression and an autonomous choice.

Cooke started relaxing her daughter’s hair when she was only six years old, “because that is what my mother did, and that is just what we do”.

Once they decided on a natural hair journey, both Cooke and Barkes found that they had to do research online. Ironically, it did not come naturally because they had been conforming to societal norms – and pressure – to relax their hair. It was something they had to learn – to take care of their own hair.

We (Cooke and her daughter) were at the hairdresser, doing a relaxer for the very last time, and I told my daughter: After this we are going natural.

We transitioned for about a year and then we did the big chop.” That was five years ago.

The women both started a blog to document their journeys. “We were fellow bloggers and we became friends after a mutual friend put us in touch,” says Barkes.

They found support together and decided to start Cape Town Naturally Support Group – a Facebook group aimed at supporting “naturalistas” and encouraging a healthy dialogue about the movement.

Barkes, Cooke and their fellow C0-founders, Chantal Kock, Kasuba Stuurman and Simone Thomas began their journey of making the CNHF a reality.

The turn-out exceeded expectations. Barkes said: “(In 2016) we booked a venue for about 300 people and 800 showed up.”

We didn’t set out to have the impact that we did.”

And now they realise they have a responsibility to continue to grow the movement and change attitudes.

Their responsibility, according to journalist and author of The Natural Newbie Guide Janine Jellars, is to foster community and to create platforms for small businesses.

Jellars and Cooke are on the same page about the role of the festival:
“We started the festival because we wanted to get women of colour together, there was something happening that had a lot to do with finding your roots, your authenticity. People were becoming more open-minded to this fact. Five/six years ago we started thinking about the festival because we wanted to get like-minded women together and tell them ‘you know what? It is okay! It is fine! It is okay to come with your bossiekop or your kroeskop.” For me, the festival meant a gathering of these “bossiekoppe,” enthused Cooke.

The women recall the first day of the festival three years ago as an emotional day with tears of joy winning the day.

People came up to us and said, thank you. No one ever did this for us,” confessed Cooke, “It was about hair and beauty, but it was deeper, it was for you.”

The festival  at the Cape Town International Convention Centre is a combination of talks, stalls selling local and international products, hair care experts and other fashion and beauty finds.

Jellars believes the movement has had an intensely personal impact of the women. She described the awakening as “immeasurable”.
“So many of us grew up thinking we’re not attractive, we’re not valued, we’re less than. A movement that centres us, our experiences and celebrates us for who we are is such an important part of building self and community esteem,” said Jellars.

Jellars described an insecurity that resonated with Barkes. She begged her mother to straighten her hair. “I was 12 and I asked for a relaxer because I was at a Model C school and everybody at my school had straight hair,” explains Barkes.

Straight hair is traditionally a mainstream requirement to access professional, social and academic opportunities, a legacy from a time when people of colour were treated unfairly and unequally.

Cooke said: “It took the case of Zulaikha Patel, for people to realise that, hold on maybe our rules are archaic and we do need to change, maybe they are still colonial holdovers and maybe we need to accept people the way they are.’’

Patel stood up against Pretoria Girls High for attempting to police her Afro.

Barkes has a solution for how to combat these archaic notions and rules. “Wear it more,” she proclaimed, “and where you can, educate people about the journey.”

She admitted it won’t be easy but, “the more we normalise wearing our natural hair, the easier it will be for naturalistas everywhere”.

Barkes said: “Because it is almost like a stigma, your hair is not neat, but education is key.”

Let’s just encourage the conversation, because it is not a black or white situation. Don’t chase someone away because you do not like their hairstyle.” DM

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