Afros are garnering slow but steady appreciation, as more women embrace their curly hair in a bid to eradicate attitudes of discrimination towards it.
While those with tightly curled tresses were traditionally pressured to chemically straighten it, these days natural hair is being liberated from long-standing societal pressures and allowed to thrive as is. However, embracing afro hair is not just about acceptance; it requires regular maintenance and a healthy dose of TLC, say stylists.
There is a three-step process to maintain an afro during the Middle East summer, says Rym Yessad, founder and chief executive of Curlshop.com, a Dubai-based online platform dedicated to providing natural haircare products for afro and curly hair.
First come deep-conditioning treatments, which are necessary to counter the humidity that wicks moisture from the hair. Second is the use of a leave-in conditioner and a glycerine-free gel that can help the hair retain moisture. And finally, she recommends using a lightweight oil to seal the moisture into the hair.
These haircare products aside, Yessad lists a diffuser, a good defining brush, a silk bonnet or pillowcase, a silk scrunchie and a volumising pick as essential tools for both men and women seeking to maintain their afros.
Yessad says she has personally developed a relationship with her hair by taking good care of it. “The more I leave it natural, the curlier it gets, and I love that,” she says
This hair type should generally be washed once a week – a ritual fondly termed “wash day” for those with ‘fros. Kayleigh Benoit, founder of inclusive workout headwear brand Bind London, adds that it’s important to give your afro space to have a life of its own sometimes – especially in the heat.
“On a very hot day my curls may not necessarily be as defined, but it’s about embracing the different textures and letting the strands just be. Our hair sometimes makes the rules, so go along with it and let it fall however it wants,” she says.
Benoit designs athletic scarves, wraps and durags for textured hair and emphasises that those with afros should not use cotton on their heads, as it takes away moisture. Sweat, she says, also dries up the curls, so hair should be up and away from the face and neck during workouts.
Like Yessad, she also uses a little bit of oil for her afro, especially right before putting on any headwear.
Hydrate your hair
In addition to investing in a good deep conditioner, leave-in conditioner, gel and oil, Benoit recommends carrying around a small spray mist to add moisture to the curls when needed.
“With hot weather, the main thing is hydration, because when heat hits such hair is going to get dry,” she explains.
Helen Debrah-Ampofo, founder of online social media directory Afro Hair UAE, emphasises there is no single way to maintain an afro. “Our hair textures are very individual – the trick is to know your hair so you can figure out what it likes and doesn’t like,” she says.
With more than 1,000 members, the Afro Hair UAE Facebook group recommends salons, barbers and products in the UAE for those with afro hair, while cultivating a community of residents with similar hair care concerns.
Wearing your hair in braids is one popular protective style for afro hair, especially during the summer months, according to model Sajdah Al Riyami, who has Zanzibari, Omani and Moroccan heritage. She says her haircare essentials include a satin cap and heat protection spray.
Al Riyami has been on a journey learning to love her natural hair since 2007. In a #throwback post on Instagram, she writes: “Healing my curls meant healing my inner child. When my roots are nutritious, I intuitively grow an interest for my own roots. I listen to my hair, vibing with my ancestors.”
Sporting your natural hair instead of straightening it can be a way to authentically celebrate your culture and identity. “It’s a way for me to express my heritage and pride for where I’m from, and break beauty standard norms,” explains Al Riyami.
Loving yourself – and your locks
Yessad says seeing more afros in the mainstream media is not only satisfying, but also affirming for children, who are more inclined to accept and embrace their natural hair.
And while she has noticed more men and women embrace their manes in the Middle East, the entrepreneur notes it can still be challenging – especially in the professional world. “I have experienced it myself, when I was working for one of the biggest beauty companies in the world, and was once told to go back home and brush my hair ‘properly’,” she says.
Benoit agrees that while social media and increased visibility help the plight for greater representation, there are some environments that are not as welcoming for people with afros. “There are certain corporate environments where people feel that wearing their hair naturally is going to hold them back from entering spaces or receiving promotions,” she says.
“There still is that beauty standard still lingering that’s linked to whiteness, and I think although we’ve made progress, we’ve still got a way to go.”