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Hair is more than just hair; it is a bonding experience



Hair is more than just hair; it is a bonding experience

The Big South African Hair Book by Janine Jellars

Hair is just hair, right? No, it is more than that. It is how society views you. It is a currency – from long luscious locks in shampoo commercials to a natural hair movement that has found itself in South Africa, through books, hair protests and a generation of women who are now comfortable showing their natural hair.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

When I was nine years old, my mother and I sat one Sunday afternoon to wash my hair for the school week ahead. Once we had finished, she set it in an array of blue and green rollers so that I could sit in the sun for it to dry; once finished, we brushed out the dark shoulder-length hair and styled it neatly into a beautiful bun.

Then I went outside, walked under a tree and a bird promptly pooped on my hair. I was deflated while my mother wiped the poo out of my hair.

I was reminded of this incident while reading The Big South African Hair Book by Janine Jellars. It focuses on the natural hair movement and, most importantly, on the relationship between women and their hair. Most of the hair influencers and experts featured – and the author herself – speak of their earliest hair memories: a Saturday or Sunday afternoon spent with a mother, aunt or another woman, doing their hair for either church on Sunday or the week ahead.

The well-written book focuses on the natural hair movement in South Africa and how we got here, and touches on issues of texturism, commercialisation of the movement while also providing a go-to list of things we should be aware of while doing our hair.

Natural hair refers to hair that is free of relaxers, or straightening with chemicals or flat irons. It is often worn in loose curls, Afros or various other styles. A woman (and in recent years, men) who wears her hair in a natural state is referred to as a nattie.

I went natural at the start of 2019, following experiments with blue, pink, red and green hair. My hair was damaged from years of flat irons, hair dryers and chemical straightening. Through a long process of trial and error, I finally decided to do the big chop and start growing out my hair in its natural state. Being a coloured woman, I immediately let go of my beloved swirlkous, ditched the flat iron and came to terms with being a kroeskop.

A few weeks ago, my mother and I decided to once again dye my hair, this time in shades of red and pink – it’s what I needed after a dark year dealing with the global pandemic. Through this process, with my mother by my side as always, I’ve learnt that hair is a bonding experience: you sit with a woman, usually your mother, while she does your hair. My mother, a newlywed, did the same with my fathers’ sisters when my parents married in 1980.

Now, when I am with my two nieces, hair becomes a bonding experience when we joke about who my brother (their father) calls Macy Gray.

Hair has become a bonding experience for women in Facebook groups such as the Cape Town Naturally Support Group or Curlies of SA, where people exchange tips about hair and life in general. Hair is a bonding experience in salons – like when the entire salon looked at me in February 2019, while my faded green hair was exchanged for a simple black pixie cut to kickstart the natural hair process. Hair is a bonding experience between those deemed dry and damaged by Clicks advertising – as women with natural hair are often in the aisles of shops like Clicks, exchanging hair tips with strangers with natural hair. Hair is also a bonding experience between Native American women, as I recently discovered. In a video, a young Native American woman on TikTok relays her hair experience: hair is only trimmed and not cut; when a mother does her daughter’s hair, she provides words of affirmation about her culture. Only specific people can cut or trim your hair and they only do so when they are in a positive mindset because your head (and hair) is part of your body and needs positive energy around it.

In Jellars’ book, media personality Kemond Mopedi describes her hair experience with her mother as “that was the Sunday ritual”.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I sat with my mother, wrapping my now pink-and-red hair into tight orange roller sets. My four-year-old niece came in to watch us. When she touched my hair, she smiled and in that moment I knew: it was her time to start the bonding experiences with her mother, her aunt and her grandmother.

However, this time she would be free of relaxers, straightening creams and damaging flat irons: her hair texture, shape and colour would be accepted just as it is. DM168

Suné Payne is a Daily Maverick reporter.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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  • I was a bit teary eyed when I read this – thinking about those interminable Saturday afternoons locked in battle with my natural hair, my mother, the brave general, with her trusty weapons of comb, Sheen Straight, and large green rollers…and the ratty swirlkous to keep it all in check…

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