Why is Afro hair still seen as outside the norm?

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  • Growing up, Ateh Jewel's curls were described as difficult, rebellious and unprofessional. In her role as Marie Claire's new beauty columnist, she talks about colourism - the preference for European-looking characteristics - within the beauty industry and beyond.

    When my daughters were 3 years old, a lady spotted us on the street and told me how beautiful my girls were but that my daughter with lighter skin, looser 3B curls and lighter skin was more beautiful. I informed her that both my daughters were beautiful and swiftly exited. My daughter who is darker with a thicker more defined 4A curl, turned to me and said, “Mama, did that woman think my sister was more beautiful than me because she has peach skin and blue eyes”. I told her the truth, “yes she does think those things, but she is wrong”. That day, my daughters learnt, aged 3, first hand what colourism – the discrimination of people with darker brown skin and the preference for people with more European features – really means in daily life.

    For anyone who doesn’t know, hair is graded by texture within the industry. Starting off at grade 1, is poker straight hair, with a soft wave referred to as grade 2B or 2C. After this are the 3A-C ringlets and curls similar to that of my lighter skinned daughter, and often seen on those of mixed or Irish heritage. Those with darker skin tend to have tight curls referred to as 4A or 4B curls, with my own tight coil curls being known as 4C.

    Ateh’s daughters pose for a photo together

    As a dark skinned, coily haired, juicy, curvy half Nigerian/ Trinidadian woman, my body, skin tone and hair are rarely seen in advertising or aligned with power and luxury. Growing up my hair was described as difficult, rebellious, bush, hard to handle, messy and unprofessional. It hurt and damaged my self esteem and soul.

    No one looked like me in boardrooms or as the leading lady in movies. I had the hair of maids and women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If Julia Roberts with all her curls and charisma couldn’t land her man in ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ when pitted against Cameran Diaz’s wide eyed blonde straight haired ingenue – what chance did I have?

    Equality, talking about colourism and curls and coils is something I have fought for throughout my 20 year beauty career. Twenty years ago, I had to beg to put a deep conditioner for curls into my copy for magazines and now things seem to be finally changing.

    My 4C coils are often seen as the bottom of the curl world. I spent decades torturing and fighting my natural hair texture, so I could advance in my career in the beauty world and be seen and aligned with power. The techniques, tools and ingredients used to nourish and turn up the volume for juicy coils and curls were stolen along with slavery. The invisible poisonous gas of racism works by making you believe you’re less than, for being your most authentic self. Having “good hair” has meant in the past having soft, loose curls, which blows in the wind instead of growing straight up against gravity like my coils.

    Marie Claire’s beauty columnist Aheh Jewel

    It was only after I became a mother to my now 9 year old mixed heritage twin daughters -my husband looks like a Viking, a 6’2 Blonde with blue eyes –  that I decided I had to break my own cycle of hair straightening. From the age of 8 to 37, I was estranged from my naturally tightly coiled hair. My Trinidadian mother had smoother and looser curl texture to me. She couldn’t take the regular screams and tears over broken comb teeth and hours of frustrated detangling. So at 8, she chemically relaxed my hair for the first time. For the next 30 years I developed a love affair with “creamy crack” or hair straightening.

    The visualisation of black women we see around us in the light skinned black models with loose curls akin to a “black barbie”,  is laughable and dangerous.

    Ateh’s daughter poses beside a black barbie figure

    Loving the hair that grows out of your head is about identity and self worth. I have just been appointed to the advisory board for the British Beauty Council, which is so important for younger generations watching me – I want to say your skin and coils is boardroom ready. In my role, I will be fighting for it to be mandatory for all hair stylists to learn how to cut and care for textured hair in the NVQ.  At the moment it’s not and thousands of hair stylists are leaving higher education, with no idea how to look after my hair – why?

    Not all hair is the same. Cutting curls and coils and learning how to make them pop is a specialised skill set. Only salons like Headmasters and Aveda are providing their own education. Charlotte Mensah, Subrina Kidd @subrinakidd and Paulette Blake @blake_paulette are also black stylists and stand outs for coils and curl excellence. Since BLM and Covid-19, the world has changed and people are now opening their eyes to the colourism, double standards, micro aggressions and racism, which has always been there. This is not a moment, but a movement and I look forward to a new beauty world, which recognises the beauty within all of us.

    *To join Ateh’s fight to promote diversity within the beauty industry, sign the petition to include textured hair education in the hairdressing NVQ*

    Ateh’s go-to products for textured hair:

    Flexible Curl Activator and Moisturiser, Revlon Professional, £12.30

    Helps to protect the natural volume of your curl and preserves colour

    Dry Remedy Moisturizing Shampoo, Aveda, £24 for 250ml

    The foundation of healthy curls and coils is a great shampoo to add hydration. I love this one by Aveda for my 4C coils. It’s softening with Buriti and Olive oil and isn’t full of synthetic fragrances which leaves my scalp itchy.

    Medium Paddle Brush, Charlotte Mensah, £22

    Multi Award Winning Afro Hairdresser of the Year Winner, has developed this amazing paddle brush, the air cushioned head protects the scalp and is great at detangling my thick coils and the girls’ curls.

    Avocado Kokum Curl Defining Smoothie, Trepadora £21 for 200ml

    This weightless leave in formula is great for creating definition in the girls hair. I like to apply it when their hair is wet after bath time and do what I call “bedtime plaits” to lock in moisturise and prevent their curls from becoming matted and tangled.

    Shea Moisture Manuka Honey & Mafura Oil Conditioner, Superdrug, £12.99 

    I use this conditioner or a leave in, as it’s certified organic Shea Butter, Mafura and Baobab leaves hair feeling soft and supple.

    *Ateh Jewel’s new book Coils & Curls: The Ultimate Guide to Loving your Hair is out now – check out @atehjewel on Instagram for more details*

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