“You have beautiful hair, Loretta. You don’t want to put that rubbish on it.” Nothing my mum said would have made a difference. Growing up in a small town in Essex, I wanted long, straight and manageable hair exactly like my non-ethnic friends. Instead, I saw my hair as thick and fuzzy, so I wore it braided. At 15, I had my afro chemically straightened (relaxed) by Serena, our family hairdresser (and I’m pretty sure the only afro hairdresser in Essex). The result was silky, shiny straight hair all the way down my back and I loved it.
The upkeep, however, was relentless. Having to have my roots re-straightened every six weeks, I would travel back home to Serena throughout my years at university and even when I moved to London. When Serena relocated to Scotland, I assumed (naively) I’d have no problem in finding a reasonably priced and trustworthy new hairdresser in London. Instead, I embarked on a 10-year slog of terrible experiences that left my hair dry and broken.
I’ve got a scar on my forehead from a carelessly wielded hot comb, I’ve been given an electric shock from a shoddy hairdryer and been left alone in a damp basement for hours while the hairdresser “popped to the shops”. Once, I was even taken in a taxi to my hairdresser’s mum’s house because her mum had locked herself out. The hairdresser finished my treatment by bending me over the bath while she washed the burning relaxer out.
But I never complained. I never asked for my money back. I just accepted it.
The final straw came in October last year, when a seemingly dependable hairdresser (who had carefully weaned me off the damaging relaxer and on to a less toxic but more expensive keratin straightening treatment) raised her prices for the fifth time in a year. No longer able to afford it and scared of going back to my previous hairdresser, I decided to stop the straightening treatments altogether and go completely natural.
I’ve got a scar on my forehead from a carelessly wielded hot comb, I’ve been given an electric shock from a shoddy hairdryer and been left alone in a damp basement for hours while the hairdresser “popped to the shops”
The process was laborious; it takes time to understand how to look after afro hair properly and that knowledge is not something I already had. But I spent evenings looking at natural-hair blogs, YouTube and Instagram and discovered a few useful tips along the way.
I also realised that, aside from my salon visits, the way I treated my hair was causing damage. Roughly detangling knots when I was in a rush, pulling it into tight ponytails, throwing on whatever product I could find, regardless of ingredients, and using straightening irons – I have items of clothing I treated better.
I needed to change everything. So I did.
Every day, I moisturise with a leave-in conditioner (Jim + Henry’s Eight leave-in conditioner is my current go-to) and then seal in the hydration with 100 per cent argan oil. If I sweat or swim, I’ll be sure to condition again. I wash it twice a week using conditioner only (I found shampooing unnecessary and drying). I use Charlotte Mensah’s Manketti Oil Conditioner, which I scrub on my scalp and through my hair and rinse out. I apply it again and gently detangle with a wide-tooth comb. On the third application, I let it sit for a few minutes, before washing it out with cold water (which closes the cuticles, traps in the moisture and adds more shine). To dry, I wrap my hair in a cotton T-shirt instead of a towel, as this prevents any friction damage. Then I section my hair into braids, allowing them to dry overnight. When, I carefully undo them, I’m left with shiny, frizz-free curls and zero heat damage. It’s not a short process (washing alone takes 50 minutes, though it used to be longer), but the payoff is that now I retain length. My hair has never looked or felt better and, for the first time in my life, I really enjoy the texture.
Finally, I like to put on a deep conditioning treatment once a week. For years, I’ve struggled to find one that’s rich, but lightweight, and doesn’t have a sickly fruit smell (a bone of contention between me and afro-hair products). With a limited range readily available, I started to make my own. My deep conditioner will be released this winter and I couldn’t be more excited. My countless bad experiences (which I know I am not alone in having) have at least led to something positive.
I’m sure there will be a time in the future when I’ll want to visit the hairdresser’s. For instance, I don’t trust myself to cut my own hair, and although my braiding skills have definitely improved, I wouldn’t be confident in putting in canerows. Thanks to social media and more conversation around afro hair, it’s now a lot easier to spot the salons I would put my trust in (I found salons I like, such as Radiant, Hype Coiffure and Zateesha Barbour, through Instagram). But a visit is not essential and there is a great sense of freedom in that. For anyone else in a similar situation, my best advice would be to listen to what your hair is telling you – it’s the only voice that matters. And, perhaps your mum’s, too.