The Hair-Raising Truth Behind The Ongoing Politicisation Of Nigerian Hairstyles

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When you look at just about any other country in the world, hair is just hair. Yet, for Nigerian and African women, what should be a relatively simple aspect of daily appearances has always been more of a minefield, and that’s the case even as acceptance and equality become buzzwords across the world.

There’s just something about the hair choices of African women that still get people riled, as is perfectly illustrated in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, where the main character Ifemelu is continually facing questions about even her most basic of hair choices. Of course, recent protests highlight the fact that hair, alone, isn’t the only decision that Nigerian women are having to justify. That said, with hair still very much treated as a political issue, surely questions need to be asked regarding why we care so much about this simple style choice?

Unfortunately, when you delve into the issue, it’s plain to see that Nigerian hair has always been seen through a political scope to some extent. In this article, we consider why that is, and what changes here could actually look like.

Symbolic meaning is still strong

Perhaps the main reason why Nigerian hair became political in the first place is that hairstyles have always been given great symbolic meaning across Nigerian tribal cultures. From the thick protective clay of the Himba women, thought to represent the beauty of the earth, to the bald heads meant to symbolize belonging amongst the Dora Milaje women, hair has never just been hair for the female Nigerian population. 

Even outside of tribal communities, natural afro styles have always been treated as a brave political move, and have been primary features in iconic civil rights struggles throughout history. Meanwhile, iconic braided Nigerian hairstyles provided at least some semblance of power and belonging to African children in segregated schools.

All of this points to one clear fact which it pays to remember – the politicization of hair has always been an ultimate force for good. However, with iconic individuals like Adichie now claiming that popular and expected hair trends like chemical straightening can feel like cages for many black women, perhaps we have to question when political hair trends stopped being a form of freedom, and instead became yet another way to oppress Nigerian women. 

Women continue to come under scrutiny

While natural styles and braids acted as the sparks that set light on Nigerian hair choices, modern-day politics are more likely to dictate that Nigerian women shy away from their heritage in place of straight, sleek hairstyles. In fact, when weaves rose in popularity back in the 1950s, straight, sleek black hair became the new social status symbol and a must for many Nigerian women. Now, real hair extensions that cost between $300-$800 are prime social symbols across much of Nigeria, despite being both unnatural and unachievable for most, and causing many to opt for potentially damaging chemical straightening processes to achieve the same finish for less.

This trend has so much taken Nigerian culture by storm that one client in a Nigerian hair salon went as far as to state, ‘No rich man will marry a girl with village [unstraightened] hair.’ Statements like these highlight, once again, how Nigerian women still face politically hair-raising questions, even as we move into a supposedly new age of expected hairstyles. Now negative social and cultural connotations with natural hair are especially fuelling an age in which Nigerian women once again have to hide behind hairstyles that, for the most part, mimic the naturally straight hair of white cultures. 

Game Changers are highlighting this discrepancy

While it would be a stretch to say that Nigerian women are anywhere near moving past the political minefield of modern and historic hairstyles, some steps are being taken towards change, specifically by artists in a position to highlight the issue. In the wake of gender equality protests across Nigeria, now has especially become a good time in which to facilitate major changes here. This isn’t to say that notable cultural change is going to happen overnight, especially when you consider the tribal symbolism still hiding behind many Nigerian hairstyles. That said, artists currently fighting the good fight for more freedom when it comes to female hair choices include – 

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: As mentioned throughout this article, much-loved Nigerian author Adichie has started countless conversations surrounding the strict limitations placed on the hairstyles of black women. Claiming this as yet another revolution that she wants to launch, Adichie has especially been quoted as saying that the hair revolution is vital for saving black women from white women’s hair, and the socialised thinking that has seen choices like straightening becoming so much of a norm. 
  • J.D Okhai Ojeikere: Throughout his life, Nigerian photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere captured the ornate and sculptured hairstyles of traditional Nigeria in attempts to elevate the resurgence of traditional hair designs to the world of fine art. This is a goal he achieved through 1000 photographs across his 40-year career and is a hair-based homage which is now being pursued by inspired artists like Medina Sage Dugger.
  • Annie Idibia: Thanks to her iconic short hair, Annie Ibidia is just one Nigerian a-lister changing hair-based norms towards long extensions and weaves, and proving the true benefits of natural beauty. Other celebs also rocking the short hair look right now include Omotola Ekeinde Jalade, Toke Makinwa, and others who are bringing everything from the best french bob hairstyle ideas to fantastic pixie cuts right into the heart of a new Nigeria.


A final word

While we’re some way off entirely removing the long-standing political connotations of Nigerian hairstyles, positive steps are being made by not only Nigerian artists, but also societal norms in a more general sense. As cultural shifts continue to take place, we’re especially seeing an age in which it looks as though political haircuts will once again become a source of cultural pride, rather than another weight for Nigerian women to wear around their necks. 


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