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Why it took me 15 years to love my curly afro hair
April 20th 2019 / 0 comment
When an endearing nickname turned nasty, Jessica Morgan's life changed forever. Here she tells the story of battling her hatred for her curly afro hair and how she learned to love it again
The first good thing I noticed about myself growing up was my hair. Looking back at photographs I see a small mixed raced child surrounded by big, thick curly hair long enough to sit on. Often I couldn’t walk down the street without strangers stopping to compliment my hair and even going so far as to touch it with their hands (*eye roll*). But I hated the way my hair garnered so much attention.
My brother, Simon, who is 12 years' my senior, used to call me Mophead as a term of endearment. He joked that he could turn me upside down and mop the floor with my hair. He insisted it was a cute nickname, and it was in the comfort of our house with nobody else around - even though I used to storm up to my bedroom after each time he said it. But the private nickname became a public nightmare. My parents invited my friends over to the house for my 10th birthday celebrations. We had a great day playing pinata and terrorising the adults, eating junk food and eating copious amounts of cake. That was great, until my brother let my nickname slip in front of 15 of my school friends.
Word spread at school the next day and the name stuck. I was forever known as Mophead throughout primary school. At first it was a joke that I could laugh and shrug off until it turned insidious. My peers began pulling, tugging and even spitting on my hair. "Mophead, mophead, mophead," they would chant in the lunch hall as I queued up for my spaghetti bolognese and jam rolypoly. One girl even cut my hair with scissors during maths class in year 6; I came home every day after school crying, telling my parents I hated the way I looked. My mother - who also has curly hair - would try her best to talk me into loving my hair, but nothing she said worked. When I asked her to tie my hair in a tight ponytail for school, she did. I didn't want to have it out looking like a "mop" anymore.
In my early teens, my parents uprooted us to Essex where I was sent to an all-girls' private school. By that time, I was trying to embrace my curls. After seeing Scary Spice and French model Noemi Lenoir in my mother's La Redoute catalogue, I began to feel confident again. I was seeing more women who looked like me. But in Essex, a predominantly white area, I fell back into being the "other" again. It was an odd one because while people would still stop me in the street to ogle my hair, they'd also tell me that my hair would look "more beautiful" if I straightened it. And I became jealous of the girls with silky, straight Hollywood hair that could be styled with a fringe, layers or be tied neatly without curly tufts sticking out. I remember going to a local hair salon to get my hair cut with my mother only for the stylist to say: "Sorry, we don't do black hair." It was heartbreaking.
Throughout my early to late teens, I straightened my hair almost every day to fit in. I would die my hair red, bleach it blonde, and attempted to cut my hair like Rihanna's 2007 asymmetric bob. As you can imagine, that didn't turn out well. Instead, I was left with very uneven, dry and damaged hair that was limp and lifeless. I had no other choice but to buy and wear extensions. But with extensions, came risks. The extensions I was wearing required glue and I had to stick the extensions to my hair. I wore these for a good part of two years until I realised the glue was ripping out my hair. Eventually, I ended up with bald patches.
Throughout my early to late teens, I straightened my hair almost every day to fit in
Next I decided a weave was a good idea; rather than sticking glue to my scalp, I would have my hair in braids and the weave sewn into them. I wanted my hair to grow underneath rather than having to straighten it every single day. But this still added to my hatred for curly hair as I longed to have straight hair. When my hair grew long enough to take out the weave and rock my curly hair, I left it out to grow naturally. I also used various hair treatments such as Shea Moisture's Jamaican Black Caster Oil Strengthen and Restore Hair Mask, £12.99 to get my hair in better condition.
But when I began working in the city as an adult, I was constantly told by bosses that my natural hair was 'scruffy' and needed to be tamed. I was told it wasn't professional enough for a workplace. So again, I was forced to straighten it because there was pressure to do so. They wanted me to look like everyone else and what they would call 'presentable'. So I believed the only way I could look presentable and professional was to have my hair bone straight or tied back. And so the cycle continued. My hair started falling out again. I'd watch as hairballs would fill my brush in the shower, how limp and lifeless my hair would look. I was desperate for a solution.
It was only when I joined Instagram a few years ago that I discovered a whole community of curly girls who looked like me. They embraced their curls. I would scroll through the comments to see what people were saying, and was surprised and pleased to see people writing things such as "I love your hair, it's so beautiful", "wow, your curls!" along with recommendations for hair products. I followed Instagram accounts that were dedicated to celebrating women and girls with big, voluptuous curls, such as #CURLSLIKEUS, the collective created by Rochelle Humes, who also has beautiful natural curls. I followed curl influencers Lauren Lewis and Fro Girl Ginny aka Nia Pettit who organised 'Fro Tours' for women with curly hair to meet and enjoy each other's company.
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I decided that enough was enough. I wanted to fix my own mane, so I decided to start again. I researched online for curly hair specialists - I needed a stylist who knew what they were dealing with. I found Unruly Curls, a salon specialising in curly hair where the stylist examined my curls and talked me through each strand and how to treat them. He made me feel beautiful again. I had never heard someone speak so passionately about curly hair before (even though he was bald, he explained that he had curly hair when he was younger and wanted women to embrace them more). He gave me the best cut of my life and finally my curls had their bounce back, and so did I. I gained confidence and I no longer wanted to be Becky With The Good Hair. I wanted to be me.
I'm pleased to see now that high street beauty retailers are offering products suited to afro hair too, stocking brands such as Cantu and Shea Moisture - two of my favourites. I will always remember the first time I walked into the Superdrug on Fenchurch Street to see a whole host of curly hair products; I got so excited I filled my basket and bought the lot. But it does make a difference when the mainstream starts paying attention.
There are loads of brands championing curly hair, such as MoroccanOil, whose Curl Cleansing Conditioner, £26.85 is a staple in my household, as well as the whole of Brio Geo's Curl Charisma collection. I no longer have to strip my hair's natural oils using products that aren't suitable for my hair type. Often I would use Pantene or Herbal Essences, without realising that I shouldn't be shampooing every day, or conditioning once a fortnight. My hair has to be treated differently.
I have now reclaimed my hair as a symbol of beauty, individuality, and empowerment. Learning to love my hair again has been a long, arduous journey but with society changing and with seeing more representation in the media, it has helped me to accept who I am. My hair is beautiful. And I won't let anyone tell me otherwise.