Let’s Talk About Hair, Baby
Updated: Mar 11
Journalist, digital marketer and author of The Big South African Hair Book Janine Jellars talks about the elements that inspired her book: natural hair versus straight hair, the association of beauty with straight hair, and her experiences and those of other naturalista women.
Like many black children in South Africa, relaxing her hair was forced on Janine and it’s one thing she never enjoyed. In her book, she details that she must have been seven years old when she got her first relaxer. “It’s strange that I have no recollection of the event, despite it being the stuff of absolute obsession. Growing up on the Cape Flats in the 1990s, the pursuit of style was beyond a trend; it was a sport played at Olympic level,” she wrote.
Janine, however, admits that her hair was soft and easily adapted to the switch from natural to silky straight – something many black women dreamt of back then. I asked Janine why she never liked relaxed hair when it reads that she had it ‘easy’?
Her response: “I didn’t like straight hair and I still have a hard time with it on me. It’s not what my hair looks like, so I’ve never been a fan of it. Even with a straight wig, it’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I like how I look in it. The entire thing [relaxer] is a scam. It may look a certain way, but hair health is a different story.”
Straight is beauty
You work for beauty
Beauty is pain
Ubuhle buyanyamezelwa (translated from Xhosa: to get to beauty you have to endure the pain)
These are some of the lines almost every coiled and curly black child has heard throughout childhood while getting our hair relaxed and having the chemicals eat up on our scalps. “It was an obsession to have straight hair,” Janine recalls.
“Everything we saw [on media] was straight hair; we were bombarded with it. We didn’t have access to information like there is today in terms of understanding that actually no, Beyonce’s hair didn’t grow overnight. It was this bombardment of imagery from a young age that forced this idea that straight hair is beauty. We also need to take into account that we were raised by people who ‘bore the brant’ of apartheid where something as simple as the texture of your hair made a huge difference to the trajectory of your life, basically.”
Apart from media imagery and being raised by parents who lived through apartheid, Janine also explores how formal institutions indirectly influenced the ‘straight hair is beauty’ idea.
“Personally, I don’t have experience with Model C/multiracial schooling, but it’s definitely what my peers experienced [indirectly being told that curly hair needs to be straight] in terms of this idea of conforming to what is deemed neat. I consider an afro puff to be neat and that isn’t necessarily what these rules take into account. I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on that front and not just in schools,” she continues.
“Think about everything else that goes around school; people who were involved in competitive dance or gymnastics… anything that has a standardised look. If you have ever done ballet, as I did as a little girl, you do your exams – an external exam, not via your school – and the rule book states that your hair needs to be gelled down flat in a bun, which is not achievable for all of us.”
Status seeking nation
With many naturalistas embracing and promoting the natural hair community, as a society we still view natural hair hairstyles as ‘cheap’. Janine unpacks one of our nation’s biggest problem that contributes to this, but not after having a great laugh. “You know, South Africa, we are really a special nation. We love status.”
“We need to understand that firstly, South Africans are status-seeking people. Status is incredibly important to us and I think it’s because of our history. So, when we think about success and what success looks like, to us success looks like someone who has invested a lot of money to look a certain way. The long straight wig or weave and long manicured nails – a certain look is considered higher status because it’s perceived to be expensive and difficult to achieve. Not just money expensive, but also time expensive.”
“I think that’s where these things intercept because now there you are with your cornrows, your hair out or whatever the case is, and people will say you’ve fallen on hard times. This was actually said to one of the women I interviewed for the book by a family member when she had returned to wearing her hair natural.” [In Janine’s book, Aisha O’Reilly, digital content creator and founder of Aisha & Life mentioned that one of her family members told her that she looked like she’d had a hard life.]
After exploring colour, braids and three big chops over the years, Janine manages to maintain her hair health well. Though she wishes to have another big chop soon, she advises women to study their hair well and learn what products work for them. “I’m trying to convince myself to hold onto my hair while I’m promoting this book. What I really want to do is cut it off as I could save myself so much time with short hair,” she concludes.
The Big South African Hair Book is available for sale online and at various book stores. Follow Janine on social media platforms @janine_j