I once saw pretence in braids and weaves – now I see choice | Afua Hirsch

Afua Hirsch
‘Braids are an art-form, a fact that is better known than ever this year thanks to Solange Knowles.’ Photograph: JP Yim/Getty Images

“Your hair is fake,” he posted. My trolls usually prefer to lurk on Twitter, but this one found me on Instagram. He thought he was bringing me down a notch, no doubt, after I posted a picture of a joyous day filming in perfect winter sunshine. How could he have known how fondly I would think of this act of malevolence. It showed me how much I had changed.

Paradoxically, my hair in the picture is not, technically, “fake”. I’m wearing crochet braids – devised and manufactured by an ingenious and entrepreneurial friend of mine. Criticising my braids for being “fake” is a bit like criticising my clothes for not being homemade. I never said I sewed them myself, and also it’s besides the point. Braids are an artform, a fact that is better known than ever this year, thanks to the work of Solange Knowles, who went to some lengths to make that point. If 2016 was the year the singer educated millions with her song Don’t Touch My Hair, 2017 was the year she had to tell a magazine off for, really, touching her hair. They guillotined her braid crown. How she acquired it is irrelevant.

I’ve worn braids since childhood, but as for other types of hair extensions, I was far more ambivalent. I admit to being one of those women who judged others. Not because their wigs, weaves, tracks and so on didn’t look good. I questioned their motives. Were they trying to be something they were not?

This was undoubtedly an act of projection. I started out in life wishing I had thick, straight, glossy hair. Many other girls like me – with some variation of afro, kinky, curly hair – experience this at some point, because we are all conditioned from birth, one way or another, wherever we live, into the idea that European features are beautiful. You can never truly look your best until you attain them.

I love my natural hair, but I’m enjoying my options. This was the year I bought my first wig

I first rebelled against this during sixth form. I remember very clearly tying my hair in a bright blue ankara cloth and wearing it to my school-leavers’ ball. It was the late 90s, the era when Lauryn Hill’s natural hair helped her to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and India Arie sang, “I am not my hair”. Natural hair was becoming a celebrated thing. Its onward march ever since can be measured in hair emporium shelf inches, once devoted to post-chemical relaxer treatments, and now reserved for curl butters, soufflés and smoothies.

Like millions of other women, I gained the confidence to embrace my hair’s natural texture. But at the same time, something darker happened. I did it without even realising. When I saw other women wearing “fake hair”, deploying their time and resources to get the thick, straight, glossy hair I’d congratulated myself on having rejected, I began to judge. Were they internalising Eurocentric values? Were they trying to be something they are not? Were they manifesting self-hatred in their hairstyles? And what message did this send to younger women?

This year two things changed. First, the prevalence of natural hair reached a critical mass. There is enough natural hair for two different magazine covers to massacre it in one year – Grazia doing to Lupita what the London Evening Standard magazine had done to Solange. There is natural hair on the news, on the red carpet, at the supermarket checkout, in law firms and at the bank.

This means something greater than the sum of its parts. It means wearing your own hair is now a viable possibility. So the second thing that changed this year – for me anyway – is that if you choose to wear extensions, you are making a meaningful choice. And for people, especially women, having a choice is always good.

I have a friend – I’ve written about him before – a black man who hates weaves, believing them to be a symptom of a woman who is not comfortable with her true self. To make the point about how out of control their prevalence had become, he began photographing “tumbleweave” on the streets of London. If you look carefully, you will see them. Little matted strips of hair extension, rolled up, tossed along by the wind. It’s become a standard part of London debris. The remains of black pride, as he saw it, strewn in the gutter like trash, and probably contributing to a fatberg while it’s at it.

I was pleased to discover, as I wrote this, that he has changed his mind too. Sure, there are people who think they need to look as much as possible like the Kardashians to achieve happiness and success. But who is he, who are any of us, to judge anyone for simply enjoying their options?

I’m enjoying my options, too. This was the year I bought my first wig. I love my natural hair. I also get bored easily, I am filmed outside in unpredictable weather, have too little time in the mornings to always get my own hair right. But I’m not making excuses. I don’t need to. So to the Instagram troll I say, affectionately, and this year, for the first time, with certainty: I can wear my hair however I want.

• Afua Hirsch is a freelance writer and broadcaster

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