Natural Hair


Woman from the island of Nossi-bé, in Madagascar, ca. 1868


Afro-textured hair is a term used to refer to the natural texture of African American hair that has not been altered by hot combs, flat irons, or chemicals (through perming, relaxing, or straightening).

Each strand of this hair type grows in a tiny spring-like, helix shape. The overall effect is such that, despite relatively fewer hair shafts compared to straight hair,[1] Afro-textured hair appears and feels denser than its straight counterparts.

For several reasons, possibly including its relatively flat cross section,[2] this hair type conveys a dry or matte appearance.[3][4] Its unique shape makes it very prone to breakage when combed or brushed.[4]



In many post-Columbian Western societies, adjectives such as “kinky”, “nappy“, “wooly,” or “spiralled” have frequently been used to describe natural afro-textured hair. More recently, however, it has become common in some circles to apply numerical grading systems to human hair types.

One popular version of these systems classifies afro-textured hair as ‘type 4’ (straight hair is type 1, wavy type 2, and curly is type 3), with the subcategory of type 4C being most exemplary of this hair type (Walker, 1997). However, afro-textured hair is often difficult to categorize because of the many different variations among individuals. Those variations include pattern (coils, springs, zig zags, s-curves), pattern size (watch spring to chalk), density (sparse to dense), strand diameter (fine, medium, wide) and feel (cottony, wooly, spongy).[5]


Different ethnic groups have observable differences in the structure, density, and growth rate of hair. With regards to structure, all human hair has the same basic chemical composition in terms of keratin protein content.[6] Franbourg et al. have found that Black hair may differ in the distribution of lipids throughout the hair shaft.[6] Classical Afro-texture hair has been found to be not as densely concentrated as other phenotypes.[1] Specifically, the average density of Afro-textured hair was found to be approximately 190 hairs per square centimeter. This was significantly lower than that of Caucasian hair, which, on average, has approximately 227 hairs per square centimeter.[1]

Loussourarn found that Afro-textured hair grows at an average rate of approximately 256 micrometers per day, while Caucasian hair grows at approximately 396 micrometers per day.[1][7] In addition, due to a phenomenon called ‘shrinkage’, Afro-textured hair that is a given length when stretched straight can appear much shorter when allowed to naturally coil.[8] Shrinkage is most evident when Afro-hair is (or has recently been) wet.

A hair’s shape is never completely circular. The cross-section of a hair is an ellipse which can tend towards a circle or be distinctly flattened. Asiatic heads of straight hair are formed from almost-round hairs and Caucasian hair’s cross sections form oval shapes. Afro-textured hair has a flattened cross-section and is finer, and its ringlets can form tight circles with diameters of only a few millimeters. Asiatic hair is the most common while Afro-textured hair is the most uncommon.[9]

Afro-textured hair strands can possess “torsion twists”, where the hair strand turns around itself. The simplest analogy is wringing a cloth, where one side is turned clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. These torsion twists may prevent the hair strands from “clumping” together into curls, instead separating them and allowing them to have a fluffier, more undefined look.[10]


Afro-textured hair may have initially evolved because of an adaptive need (amongst humanity’s hominid ancestors) for protection against the intense UV radiation of Africa.[citation needed] Subsequently (and/or additionally), because the relatively sparse density of Afro-hair, combined with its elastic helix shape, results in an airy effect, the resulting increased circulation of cool air onto the scalp may have served to facilitate hominid ancestors’ body-temperature-regulation while they lived in the open savannah.[citation needed] Afro-hair does not respond as easily to moisture/sweat as straight hair. Instead of sticking to the neck and scalp when wet (as do straighter textures), unless totally drenched it tends to retain its basic springiness. The trait may have been retained/preferred among many equatorial human groups because of its contribution to enhanced comfort levels under warm conditions.[citation needed] Sexual selection based on visual and/or tactile socio-aesthetics may have also and/or further contributed to this trait’s ubiquity in certain regions.[citation needed]


Continental Africa

Historically, sub-Saharan Africans, as in every culture, developed hairstyles that defined status, or identity, in regards to age, ethnicity, wealth, social rank, marital status, religion, fertility, manhood, and death. Hair was carefully groomed by those who understood the aesthetic standard, as the social implications of hair grooming were a significant part of community life. Dense, thick, clean and neatly groomed hair was something highly admired and sought after. Hair groomers possessed unique styling skills allowing them to create a variety of designs that met the local cultural standards. Hair was usually dressed according to local culture.

Communities across the continent invented diverse ways of styling Afro-textured hair. Historically often the head female of the household groomed her family’s hair and taught her craft to her daughters. In some cases, an elder facilitated the transfer of hair grooming skills.

In many traditional cultures, communal grooming was a social event when a woman could socialize and strengthen bonds between herself, other women and their families. Historically, hair braiding was not a paid trade. Since the African diaspora, in the 20th and 21st centuries it has developed as a multi-million dollar business in such regions as the United States and western Europe. An individual’s hair groomer was usually someone whom they knew closely. Sessions included shampooing, oiling, combing, braiding, and twisting, plus adding accessories.

For shampooing, black soap was widely used in nations in West and Central Africa. Additionally palm oil and palm kernel oil were popularly used for oiling the scalp. Shea butter has traditionally been used to moisturize and dress the hair: a yellow variety is popular in West Africa, and a white variety in East Africa. In North Africa Argan Oil was applied to the hair and/or scalp for protection against the arid environment and intense sun.

Hair grooming was considered an important, intimate, spiritual part of one’s overall wellness. It could last hours or days depending on the hair style and skill required. The European slave trade and the height of the Arab Slave Trade disrupted numerous traditional cultures in sub-Saharan Africa.[11][better source needed]



Oceanic, Asian, Polynesian and Melanesian people

Traditional Fijian hair dressing



The United States

Trans-Atlantic slave trade

Diasporic Africans in the Americas have been experimenting with ways to style their hair since their arrival in the Western Hemisphere well before the 19th century. During the approximately 400 years of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which forcibly extracted over 20 million people from their indigenous homeland, their beauty ideals have undergone numerous changes. Imported slaves were mostly young, generally between the ages of 10 and 24. Upon arrival to the Americas, slaves lacked the skills, tools and ability to continue their traditional practices. In addition, they were often separated from people of common ethnicity.

The issue was most particular to women. There was no time for extended hair grooming, as slave masters worked their subjects 12–15 hours a day, 7 days a week. The conditions disrupted their practices and they did not have specialized tools. American slaves sometimes had matted and tangled hair, instead of the well maintained, long, thick and healthy tresses worn by the elite in Africa.

Slaves adapted, finding sheep fleece carding tools useful for detangling their hair. They suffered from scalp diseases and infestations due to their conditions. Slaves invented remedies for disinfecting and cleansing their scalps, such as applying kerosine or cornmeal directly on the scalp with a cloth as they carefully parted the hair. For field work, male slaves shaved their hair and wore hats to protect their scalps against the sun; female slaves wore scarves and handkerchiefs.

House slaves had to appear neat and clean. The men sometimes wore wigs mimicking their white masters, or similar hairstyles, while the women plaited and braided their hair.

In the 19th century, some Southern states passed laws setting aside Sunday for allowing workers to attend church, and socialize in other ways. This might included hair styling, especially among women. They removed their scarves and allowed their curls (formed on cotton rollers), to hang past their shoulders. Men began using axle grease to straighten and dye their hair. Cooking grease such as lard, butter, and goose grease were used to moisturize the hair. Female slaves sometimes used hot butter knives to add curls.

Overloaded with the suggestion that straight hair was more acceptable than natural, kinky/curly hair textures, slaves and freedmen began exploring solutions for straightening, or relaxing, their tresses. One toxic solution was a mixture of lye and potato which burned the scalp upon contact. Among whites and African-Americans alike, those with lighter skin and ‘straighter’ hair textures were better embraced socially, and were offered the luxury of upward mobility. Afro-textured hair was often referred to as ‘wool’, along with darker skin tones, this physical characteristic was generally seen as something bad that ‘needed to be fixed’.{[citation needed]}

Emancipation and post-Civil War

After the American Civil War and emancipation, many African Americans migrated to towns or cities, where they were influenced by new styles. The photos below show 19th-century women leaders with a variety of styles with natural hair. Others straightened their hair to conform to white beauty ideals. They wanted to succeed, and to avoid mistreatment and legal and social discrimination. Some women, and a smaller number of men, lightened their hair with household bleach. A variety of caustic products that contained bleaches, including laundry bleach, designed to apply to Afro-textured hair, were developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as blacks demanded more fashion. They used creams and lotions, combined with hot irons, to straighten hair.

The black hair care industry was initially dominated by white-owned businesses. In the late 19th century, African-American entrepreneurs such as Annie Turbo Malone, Madam C. J. Walker, Madam Gold S.M. Young, Sara Spencer Washington and Garrett Augustus Morgan revolutionized hair care by inventing and marketing chemical (and heat-based) applications to alter the natural tightly curled texture. They rapidly became successful and dominated the black hair care market. In 1898, Anthony Overton founded a hair care company that offered saponified coconut shampoo and AIDA hair pomade. Men began using pomades, and other products, to achieve the standard aesthetic look.

During the 1930s, conking (vividly described in The Autobiography of Malcolm X) became an innovative method in the U.S. for Black men to straighten kinky hair. Women at that time tended either to wear wigs, or to hot-comb their hair (rather than conk it) in order to temporarily mimic a straight style without permanently altering the natural curl pattern. Popular until the 1960s, the conk hair style was achieved through the application of a painful lye, egg and potato mixture that was toxic and immediately burned the scalp.

Black-owned business in the hair industry provided jobs for thousands of African Americans. These business owners gave back strongly to the African-American community. During this time, hundreds of African Americans became owner-operators of successful beauty salons and barber shops. These offered permanents and hair-straightening, as well as cutting and styling services, some to both whites and blacks. In this era men regularly went to barber shops to have their beards groomed and some blacks developed exclusively white, elite clientele, sometimes in association with hotels or clubs. Media images tended to perpetuate ideals of European beauty of the majority culture, even when featuring African Americans.

African Americans began sponsoring their own beauty events. The winners, many of whom wore straight hair styles and some were of mixed race, adorned black magazines and product advertisements. In the early 20th century, media portrayal of traditional African hair styles, such as braids and cornrows, was associated with African Americans who were poor and lived in rural areas. In the early decades of the Great Migration, when millions of blacks left the South for opportunities in northern and midwestern industrial cities, many blacks wanted to leave this rural association behind.[11][12]


Scholars debate whether hair straightening practices arose out of black desires to conform to a Eurocentric standard of beauty, or as part of their individual experiments with fashions and changing styles. Some believe that slaves and later African Americans absorbed prejudices of the European slaveholders and colonizers, who considered most slaves as second class, as they were not citizens. Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharp say that they believe the preference for Eurocentric ideas of beauty still pervades the western world.[13]

The rise of Black pride

In the United States, the successes of the civil rights movement and black power and pride movements of the 1960s and 1970s inspired African Americans to express their political commitments by adopting more traditionally African styles. The Afro hairstyle developed as an affirmation of Black African heritage, expressed by the phrase, “black is beautiful.”


Over the years, the popularity of natural hair has waxed and waned. In the early 21st century, a significant percentage of African American women still straighten their hair with relaxers of some kind (either heat or chemically based). This is done despite the fact that prolonged application of such chemicals (or heat) can result in overprocessing, breakage and thinning of the hair. (Similarly, many women of European or Asian ancestry use similar products to curl their naturally straight hair.)

Since the late 20th century, blacks have experimented with a variety of styles, such as cornrows, locks, braiding, hair twists and short, cropped hair, specifically designed for Afro hair. Natural hair blogs include Black Girl Long Hair (BGLH), Curly Nikki and Afro Hair Club. With the emergence of hip-hop culture and Jamaican influences like reggae music, more non-blacks have begun to wear these hairstyles as well. A new market has developed in such hair products as “Out of Africa” shampoo.

Modern perceptions and controversies

A 2009 image of a White House staffer’s African-American son touching President Barack Obama‘s head, checking to see if their hair felt the same, went viral in 2012.[14][15][16]

In 1971 Melba Tolliver, a WABC-TV correspondent, made national headlines when she wore an Afro while covering the wedding of Tricia Nixon Cox, daughter of President Richard Nixon. The station threatened to take Tolliver off the air until the story caught national attention.[17]

In 1981 Dorothy Reed, a reporter for KGO-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, was suspended for wearing her hair in cornrows with beads on the ends. KGO called her hairstyle “inappropriate and distracting”. After two weeks of a public dispute, an NAACP demonstration outside of the station, and negotiations, Reed and the station reached an agreement. The company paid her lost salary, and she removed the colored beads. She returned to the air, still braided, but beadless.[18]

A 1998 incident became national news when Ruth Ann Sherman, a young white teacher in Bushwick, Brooklyn, introduced her students to the 1998 book Nappy Hair by African American author Carolivia Herron. Sherman was criticized by some in the community, who thought that the book presented a negative stereotype (although it won three awards), but she was supported by most parents of her students.[19]

On April 4, 2007 radio talk-show host Don Imus referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, who were playing in the Women’s NCAA Championship game, as a group of “nappy-headed hos” during his Imus in the Morning show. Bernard McGuirk compared the game to “the jigaboos versus the wannabes,” alluding to Spike Lee‘s film School Daze. Imus apologized two days later, after receiving criticism. CBS Radio canceled Don Imus’ morning show a week later on April 12, 2007.

During August 2007, American Lawyer Magazine reported that an unnamed junior Glamour Magazine staffer did a presentation on the “Do’s and Don’ts of Corporate Fashion” for Cleary Gottlieb, a New York City law firm. Her slide show included her negative comments about black women wearing natural hairstyles in the workplace, calling them “shocking,” “inappropriate,” and “political.” Both the law firm and Glamour Magazine issued apologies to the staff.[20][21]

In 2009, Chris Rock produced Good Hair, a film which addresses a number of issues pertaining to African-American hair. He explore the styling industry, the variety of styles now acceptable in society for African-American women’s hair, and the relations of these to African-American culture.

The Kenyan model Ajuma Nasenyana has criticized a trend in her native Kenya that rejects the indigenous Black African physical standards of beauty in favour of those of other communities. In a 2012 interview with the Kenyan broadsheet the Daily Nation, she said,

“it seems that the world is conspiring in preaching that there is something wrong with Kenyan ladies’ kinky hair and dark skin[…] Their leaflets are all about skin lightening, and they seem to be doing good business in Kenya. It just shocks me. It’s not OK for a Caucasian to tell us to lighten our skin[…] I have never attempted to change my skin. I am natural. People in Europe and America love my dark skin. But here in Kenya, in my home country, some consider it not attractive.”[22]

In November 2012, the American actress Jada Pinkett Smith defended her daughter Willow’s hair on Facebook after the girl was criticized for an “unkempt” look. She said in a TV interview, “Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be,” the actress said.[23]

In other diasporic black populations


During the 19th century, throughout the West Indies the teachings of Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey encouraged an active rejection of European (or “Babylonian”) standards of beauty. The resulting Rastafari Movement of the 20th century has maintained that the growth of freeform dreadlocks is related to spiritual enlightenment, largely informed by the Biblical Nazirite oath. The Rastafari movement has been so influential in the visibility and subsequent popularity of dreadlocks throughout the Caribbean and the global African diaspora, that the term “rasta” has become synonymous with a dreadlocked individual. Today, dreadlocks of every variety–organic and “cultivated”–are common among Afro-Caribbeans.

Dreadlocked hair is also common among South American populations of the African diaspora. Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Guyanese men and women have worn “locked” hair for centuries. Even thought this is popular in among the diaspora dreadlocks have always worn in Africa, especially by holy man and women. Even now many traditional healers and spirit mediums still wear dreadlocks. The fact that this form of hairstyle is still linked to holiness points to the continuation of this tradition in the diaspora.


The care and styling of natural black hair has become an enormous industry in the United States. Numerous salons and beauty supply stores cater solely to clients with natural Afro-textured hair. Online forums, social networking groups and web-logs have also become enormously popular resources in the exchange of styling ideas, techniques, and hair-care procedures.

The afro is a large, often spherical growth of Afro-textured hair that became popular during the Black power movement. The afro has a number of variants including the “afro-puff” and a variant in which the afro is treated with a blow dryer to become a flowing mane. The hi-top fade was common among African-American men in the 1980s and has since been replaced in popularity by the Caesar hair cut.

Other styles include plaits or braids, the two-strand twist and basic twists all of which can form into manicured dreadlocks if the hair is allowed to knit together in the style-pattern. Basic twists include finger-coils and comb-coil twists. Dreadlocks, also called “dreads,” “locks” or “locs,” can also be formed by allowing the hairs to weave together on their own from an afro. Another option is the trademarked “Sisterlocks” method, which look similar to what could be called very neat micro-dreadlocks.[24]

Manicured locks – alternatively called salon, or fashion locks – have numerous styling options that include strategic parting, sectioning and patterning of the dreads. Popular dreadlocked styles include cornrows, the braid-out style or lock crinkles, the basket weave and pipe-cleaner curls. Others include a variety of dreaded mohawks or lock-hawks, a variety of braided buns and combinations of basic style elements.

Natural hair can also be styled into bantu knots, which involves sectioning the hair with square or triangular parts and fastening it into tight knots on the head. Bantu knots can be made from both loose natural hair as well as dreadlocks. When braided flat against the scalp, natural hair can be worn as basic cornrows or form a countless variety of artistic patterns.

Other styles include the “natural” (also known as a mini-fro or “teenie weenie afro”) and “microcoils” for close-cropped hair, the twist-out and braid-out, “brotherlocks” and “sisterlocks,” the fade and any combination of styles such as cornrows and afro-puff.

A majority of Black hair styles involve parting the natural into individual sections before styling.[25] Research shows that excessive braiding, tight cornrows, relaxing, and vigorous dry combing of afro-textured hair can be harmful to the hair and scalp. They have also been known to cause ailments such as alopecia, balding at the edges, excessive dry scalp, and bruises on the scalp. Keeping hair moisturized, trimming ends, and using very little to no heat will prevent breakage and split ends.



See also


  1. ^ Jump up to: a b c d Loussouarn G (August 2001). “African hair growth parameters”. Br. J. Dermatol. 145 (2): 294–7. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2133.2001.04350.x. PMID 11531795.
  2. Jump up ^ Franbourg et al. “Influence of Ethnic Origin of Hair on Water-Keratin Interaction,” In Ethnic Skin and Hair, E. Berardesca, J. Leveque, and H. Maibach (Eds.). page 101. Informa Healthcare. 2007
  3. Jump up ^ Teri, LaFlesh (2010). Curly like me. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-0-470-53642-1.
  4. ^ Jump up to: a b Dale H. Johnson, Hair and Hair Care, (CRC Press: 1997), p. 237
  5. Jump up ^ Naanis, Naturals. “LOIS Hair System: What Type of African/Black Hair Do You Have?”. From Grandma’s Kitchen. Retrieved 2008-01-18.
  6. ^ Jump up to: a b Franbourg et al. (2007). “Influence of Ethnic Origin of Hair on Water-Keratin Interaction”. In Enzo Berardesca, Jean-Luc Lévêque and Howard I. Maibach. Ethnic skin and hair. New York: Informa Healthcare. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-8493-3088-9. OCLC 70218017.
  7. Jump up ^ Khumalo NP, Gumedze F (September 2007). “African hair length in a school population: a clue to disease pathogenesis?”. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 6 (3): 144–51. doi:10.1111/j.1473-2165.2007.00326.x. PMID 17760690.
  8. Jump up ^ “Shrinkage In Natural Curly Black Hair – How to work with it | – Growing Black Hair Long And Healthy”. 2010-02-14. Retrieved 2012-06-20.
  9. Jump up ^ “Hair Science”. Hair Science. 2005-02-01. Retrieved 2012-06-20.
  10. Jump up ^ Jc. “The Natural Haven”. Retrieved 2012-06-20.
  11. ^ Jump up to: a b Joy Phido (2011-04-18). “Going Back to the Roots of Black Hair”. World of Braiding & Extensions. Retrieved 2011-05-22.
  12. Jump up ^ Victoria Sherrow (2006). Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-33145-9. Retrieved 2011-05-22.
  13. Jump up ^ Byrd, Ayana D.; Tharps, Lori L. (2001). Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-28322-9.
  14. Jump up ^ Boy who touched Obama’s hair: Story behind White House photo is probably in your inbox | The Cutline – Yahoo! News
  15. Jump up ^
  16. Jump up ^ Barack Obama bows to the significance of his ethnicity | Jonathan Jones | Comment is free |
  17. Jump up ^ Douglas, William (Oct 9, 2009). “For Many Black Women, Hair Tells the Story of Their Roots”. Retrieved Dec 29, 2009.
  18. Jump up ^ “1981:Television reporter Dorothy Reed is suspended for wearing her hair in cornrows”. Retrieved Dec 29, 2009.
  19. Jump up ^ Leyden, Liz (1998-12-03). “N.Y. Teacher Runs Into a Racial Divide”. Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  20. Jump up ^ Moe (2007-08-14). “‘Glamour’ Editor To Lady Lawyers: Being Black Is Kinda A Corporate “Don’t””. Jezebel. Gawker Media. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  21. Jump up ^ Kym Platt (2007-09-07). “Glamour Apologizes”. Ask This Black Woman. Archived from the original on 2008-04-17. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  22. Jump up ^ Danielle, Britni. “Kenyan model Ajuma Nasenyana fights skin lightening and European standards of beauty”. Clutch Magazine. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
  23. Jump up ^ Johnson, Craig (November 28, 2012). “Jada blasts Willow hair critics: It’s her choice Headed”. HLN TV. Turner Broadcasting. Retrieved February 8, 2013.
  24. Jump up ^ Irons, Meghan (January 6, 2008). “Black women find freedom with new ‘do”. Boston Globe. Retrieved February 8, 2013.
  25. Jump up ^ “Braiding ‘can lead to hair loss'”. BBC News. 2007-08-24.







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