Written by Andrea Nwabuike
On Friday evenings I wash my hair. Sometimes the energy and time required during this weekly hair appointment triggers a hint of dread. My hair is a demanding client.
I lighten the atmosphere with a mix of Afrobeats, gospel, and R&B music. Then the routine begins by carefully undoing whatever braids or twists adorn my head, freeing each strand from stubborn knots and tangles. After two washes, I part my mass of ebony coils into smaller sections to lather with a deep conditioner.
My hair marinates in the conditioner for a few hours before a final rinse, giving me time to do the laundry, clean up my apartment or, on particularly stressful weeks, sprawl out on the couch and binge-watch a series on Netflix. Lastly, I work almond oil and a water-based moisturizer into each section of hair before finishing off with braids or twists. Repetition has ingrained the memory of this routine into my body. As my hands move, my mind wanders from reviewing the events of the week to running through the plans I’ve set for the weekend.
By the end of this process, the bathroom is filled with the sweet scent of honey and pomegranates, the counter is a mess of bottles and combs and my arms ache. It is an exhausting yet deeply satisfying ritual; one that marks the transition from the busyness of the work week to the relaxation of the weekend.
I haven’t always addressed my hair with such care. I used to see my hair as a curse. Unlike friends of other ethnicities whose silky hair ran down their backs, my hair defied gravity.
It took energy to tame and even when I laboured over it for hours, it often refused to conform to the styles I desired. I constantly worried about how my hair would be judged by others, believing its appearance communicated something distasteful about my character and personality.
The animosity I felt towards my natural hair is not unique. In Perception Institute’s 2017 “Good Hair” Study, 29 per cent of Black women reported experiencing “a lot of anxiety” about hair maintenance and their ability to engage in activities that might require re-doing their hair (e.g. swimming, exercise), compared to only 16 per cent of Caucasian women.
Social stigma and disapproval of naturally textured Black hair plays a significant role in fueling this anxiety. The “Good Hair” study found that, “One in five Black women reported feeling social pressure to straighten their hair for work – twice as many as white women.” There are numerous examples of this. In 2020, the Toronto Star reported that a Black woman quit her job as a host at the AGO Bistro after her manager insinuated that wearing her natural hair down would, “…scare the clients away.” In 2016, a Zara employee in Scarborough was told that her box braids did not fit the “clean and professional look” the store was going for, according to an article by CBC News. Two years earlier, Lettia McNickle’s boss at a downtown steakhouse told her to leave because her hair was braided in cornrows; McNickle took her case before the Human Rights Tribunal, and won.
Our culture is filled with damaging standards of beauty and social stigmas around appearance. But God’s narrative for our physical bodies defies these narrow definitions. This includes Black hair. The Lord invites us to prioritize the condition of our hearts above physical appearance, as Peter reminds his readers in 1 Peter 3. God holds precious the imperishable beauty of a gentle heart and quiet spirit.
However, this value of the inward person does not make void God’s intentional design of our outward appearance. In her book, Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey, Sarah Shin argues, “Each of us has an ethnicity that God made for good, an ethnicity that is beautiful in its distinctive particularities. Our ethnic identity is the backdrop in which God displays his goodness and creativity. We are made well in our specific and God-given ethnic backgrounds, not in spite of them. Someone is not beautiful though she is black or African American; she is beautiful in her blackness, in a way that can only be expressed in the shape and shade of her face, skin, and heart.” Black hair as an aspect of Black identity is part of God’s plan for displaying His glory in creation.
Like my own experience of learning to love my hair, Alexis Eke, a Toronto-based graphic designer, has also discovered the negative messages she had internalized. She invited God into the process of challenging these messages about her hair. “If there’s any sense of condemnation involved in those things, it’s not from God because there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ,” she says. “I really had to confront myself and ask: Where did I learn that my hair texture is not beautiful and that my hair texture is not the ‘ideal?’ Sometimes our striving can fall short when it comes to calming our insecurities. I needed God to renew my mind regarding my hair. That was the only way to bring change.”
The change God brought to Eke’s perception of her hair has also given her a new depth of authenticity in her faith journey. “I feel like being more comfortable with my hair has correlated with how I am as a Christian, and being authentic and not performing Christianity in front of people, but being transparent and honest about where I am in my walk right now,” she says. “There’s a lot more fruit in being transparent and honest in comparison to striving for perfection because it doesn’t really help anyone else if you’re trying to look perfect all the time.”
Sharon Hansen, a makeup artist based in the Greater Toronto Area, has also seen the value of embracing her God-given hair as a tool for connecting with and encouraging others. Hansen describes her hair journey as a rollercoaster—dipping into valleys in childhood and rising to peaks in adulthood. She credits the current peak to her mom’s wisdom and encouragement. “My mom always said, ‘You’re fearfully and wonderfully made. God made you the way you are, exactly the way you are, for a specific reason,’” Hansen explained.
Accepting her natural hair has grown in conjunction with expanding her knowledge of how to care for her hair. “One of my favourite verses in the Bible is ‘Be still,’” she says. “Stillness has helped me appreciate my hair. I went from a perm to tapered pixie cut to my hair being back to shoulder length, back to being 100 per cent full, thick and natural. In that stillness I learned to take care of my hair.”
Like Paul’s thorn in the flesh, I once pleaded with God to relieve me of the burden I believed my hair to be. God’s response was not to change my hair but to reform the way I viewed it, allowing me to see my hair as evidence of His favour and presence in my life. The attentiveness my hair requires challenges me to maintain a consistent habit of self-care and rest. Its unique texture reminds me to wonder at the beauty of diversity. My hair is neither a curse nor a burden. My hair is a blessing.
Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.