Why Hairstyling Is a Form of Art for Black Women
Like so many of the words in Ghanaian languages, the Twi term “obaasima” means one thing, and everything, at the same time.
Obaasima can refer to a virtuous woman, or someone who is multifaceted, engaged, and well groomed.
As the term relates to hair in specific, pre-colonial African societies used the art of hairstyling and grooming to create distinction amongst several groups, as well as marking a symbolic part of one’s journey through life, one’s growth, and one’s new status. Sculptures from this era showcase various styles and adornments; some extravagant and complicated to denote high status, like the ornaments, hairpins, and metal plates worn by the Luba peoples. While others opted for simple and short looks.
These practices have trickled down to contemporary Africa, and across the diaspora, where in visualizing what seems to be a normal hair day — an experience that many people with African ancestry will resonate with — there is a celebration of the seemingly simple; the forgone, the little dignities in loving and sometimes struggling with hair. And that’s at the centre of what it means to be virtuous, to be malleable, to experience, and to come out still loving, still beautiful, and more resilient.
This is why hair will never just be hair to Black people.
Our hair is deeply rooted in a culture, tradition, and way of understanding the world. And for many women of African descent, hairstyling is about the process.
From detangling, to hours spent choosing a hairstyle, buying deep conditioners from three different brands because your regular one is sold out — these are all a part of the experience of doing our hair, especially when it has not been tended to for a while.
The journey begins before one even makes their way to a salon or welcomes their home-based braider. But the pride associated with the artistry of our hair does not deflect from the reality that this process is not necessarily always enjoyable.
Our delicate strands require gentle care and a specific type of patience. Our arms are guaranteed to hurt after long hours of styling, and the comb you use to separate and part the hair may snap altogether. But once again, even the unfavorable parts of styling reflect the deeper meaning of a new stage of life or new status, despite the challenges.
If you opt for African threading, however, the process can be quick and easy when your stylist’s hands, whether they’re your own or someone else’s, are used to deftly wrap the jet black yarn around the hair shaft.
This style has existed in many Ghanaian and Nigerian cultures for centuries, and today makes a statement for people owning what is seen as “old school.” It’s also a safe alternative for those who want to stretch and grow their hair without the application of heat.
Threading is versatile in how it makes hair sit even more boldly or bend into patterns that almost immediately spark deep interest.
Salons across the continent of Africa and throughout the diaspora are located everywhere from outdoor spaces to high-rise buildings, but there is still a striking sense of instant intimacy regardless of the location.
Whether wedged between stylists masterfully weaving extensions and hair together, or cooped up under the dryer, conversation and opinion both never fail to filter through.
Popular culture gains a whole new meaning in the almost roundtable-like discussions. Humor comes and goes as easily as soft shea butter melts into the kinks and knots of our strands, with local movies becoming the subject of intense debates.
When the hair is ready, these styles can be embellished with gold accessories to finish each look, which have made a huge resurgence in the past few years, and are a continuation of the precedent set in traditional African societies. From delineating family and ethnic association to being passed down generations, adornments are yet again a reminder that nothing simply just is with African hairstyling. Hair is intention re-patterned, community strengthened, and history stitched over and again.
Once it's done, getting up after long hours on a stool is relieving, and everything seems to fast forward as one pays, leaves, and heads to their next destination. You feel new again.
The city you’re in takes on new meaning. Drinks with friends have an extra zing to them that surpasses ingredients or flavor — it’s the joy of looking and feeling good. And that captures what hair can mean, especially to a people still discovering what has been taken away.
Hairstyling is radical care for oneself. It is radical care for the community. Hair is home. It has always been right where we are.
And nothing — not theft, dilution, or barriers — can take away what has always been meant to be for us.
Model: Christell Kattenstroth. Photography: Carlos Idun-Tawiah. Direction: Josef Adamu of Sunday School. Production: Ekow Barnes. Asst. Production: Joseph Abbey Mensah. Styling: Akweah, assisted by Nuzia. Hair: Ebony and Ivory Beauty
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