So, in my experience as a natural, being “true to myself” has meant growing my hair out to be thick and healthy. But what if you live in a culture where being true to yourself means keeping your natural hair short? Such is the story of Bonolo, our first South African natural…
**This is also a “cool cuts” and “unconventional hair” entry…
“I think I am most like BONOLO than VALERIE with a bald head. I am more connected with the person I was brought up to be, and find my comfort lies in knowing that I am being honest with myself. I think I am at my most beautiful when I have a short afro, because long flowing hair isn’t really me.”
BGLH: Where are you from?
Bonolo: I currently live in London, and I came here for studying and a career in the creative arts. I am originally from a small town called Pietersburg in South Africa and moved here when I was 15.
BGLH: How old are you now?
BGLH: So, tell us your hair story.
Bonolo: My hair story isn’t a complicated one, but I can say for myself, and possibly many others, it sure is hard. I was born in South Africa, a country known for its bald headed, curvy women, and I am no different. From pre school, my mother has always kept my hair natural. My hair never grew more than 2 centimeters because she always cut it. I didn’t have a problem with it, and for I all I knew I looked beautiful. Throughout primary school, I kept the same hairstyle (bald) and it was both convenient and hassle-free. Then high school came.
By this time, I was aware of boys and this I believe was a big factor in my decision to start growing my hair. I started seeing girls my age with long, relaxed shiny hair becoming more popular… I was hooked. I remember my first trip to the hair salon to relax my hair. As I saw all these women with short, nappy hair come out with long, shiny tresses after going through a thick cloud of hairspray, I could not wait to go into my own chair. The hairdresser kept on commenting on my tough hair and its inability to let a metal afro comb go through. All I could care about is what my hair would look like after.
40 minutes of tussling and a spin around to look in the mirror… and I saw my new smooth hair. Everyone marveled at my long hair and I felt myself warming up to this new hair, and thinking this was the end of crying under my mum’s hairdryer and afro comb. Weeks went on and slowly my love affair with this new hair dwindled as I saw my natural hair seeping through. After numerous trips to the salon, and a few (unfruitful) home treaments, I gave up.
My natural bald head back, I walked down the street with the confidence of a new calf taking its first steps. People asked about the whereabouts of my “flowing hair”, and the only thing I could say was that my mum, who has long dreads, forced me to cut it. Truth was, I didnt feel like myself anymore. The pressing, curling and expense of having the “Nia Long texture” was getting to me, and the African heat wasn’t exactly advocating that kind of texture.
Weeks after my 15 birthday, I moved to London with my mother and brother. There I found a mecca of new hairstyles and new attitudes. Nappy hair, bald heads and African braids were a no-no and I was instantly labeled a “freshie”…a term used in British slang for a person fresh from Africa, Asia etc. My nappy afro did not make it easy to make friends. I begged my mum to buy me a hair relaxer and after many refusals, she let me braid my hair. There and then, I started fitting in and making new friends. I also found out what “good hair” was, the wonders of styling gel and the power of the hot comb.
Surprisingly, my self-esteem was at an all time low, and my identity even further down the scale. But I had to keep on with the hair styling because “that’s what boys want…” etc. After meeting my first Afro-Carribean boyfriend, who needless to say didn’t understand my constant need to cut my hair, I realized that this mentality meant people spent their whole life as sheep who did not have their own identities… I decided that enough was enough. I bought my first pair of clippers and felt myself sigh with relief at the first sign of “baldy-waldy” coming through. I felt both relieved and worried, by both the fact that I was myself again and what my then-boyfriend would think. All I got were stares coupled with snickers and shouts of “No Hair walking through the corridor” at school.
Months later my hair was back, and my yo-yo diet of snip and relax was back, and my hair was 5 inches within months. September 2008 came and that all familiar feeling of starting fresh came. This time my current boyfriend helped me cut my hair, and I was screaming with delight at the feeling of walking down the road with my bald head in clear view. However, this was short lived as the dreaded 2″ itch set in, and after hours of warnings from my mum, I gave in…As I walked around smelling like ammonia while the magic cream worked, I caught sight of myself in the mirror, and the feeling of disappointment caused me to run upstairs and wash it all off! True to its nature, my hair was still nappy and tangled, and for the first I said to myself, you go girl!!
I decided to be honest with myself and my scalp and be happy to be nappy. Albeit taunts from my brother callin me Rick Ross and Kimbo Slice, I can walk down the street without worrying about whether it rains (cause heaven knows London is notorious for its unpredictable weather) or whether anybody can see my tracks… I can say to myself that I am Bonolo Valerie and nobody can tell me anything about who I am and who I aim to be.
BGLH: So why do you feel most beautiful when you are rocking the bald head?
Bonolo: I think I am most like BONOLO than VALERIE with a bald head. I am more connected with the person I was brought up to be, and find my comfort lies in knowing that I am being honest with myself. I think I am at my most beautiful when I have a short afro, because long flowing hair isn’t really me. I think the desire for long hair was initially encouraged by white people, because you find that even today those wigs that noblemen and barristers used to wear are still worn. The 16th century wigs still represents nobility and a “thoroughbred” background.… You hear fairy tales that say “the princess had long flowing hair…” and this belief of the “power” and “status” long hair represents. It is now that black people put that pressure on themselves.
BGLH: So how do you feel about the fact that this blog is entitled “Black Girl with Long Hair”, and that I sometimes challenge the notion that afro-textured hair can’t grow?
Bonolo: The fact the blog is called Black Girl with Long Hair made me a bit sceptical at first, but over time, it became an ironic statement loool! For a long time, I never thought my hair would grow longer than 2 inches, but to see pics of other naturals with long healthy hair makes me think with the right amount of patience, maybe it is possible.
BGLH: So in London, how is your hair now received?
Bonolo: People call me brave for cutting my hair or even keeping it natural cuz “it’s only not discriminated in America’s Next Top Model or Face of Africa”. Besides support from my mother and boyfriend, and a few close friends who know my relationship with my hair, I can’t say it’s encouraged. You get stare-till-you-turnarounds a lot and the men are even less forgiving. The attitude of having the “white girl flow” I think is instilled by black people themselves in order to fit in and meet European men’s standard of beauty. I think that this only applies to black men, because I have dated European men who love my head being bald or in an afro. It’s only black men who tell me “grow and perm you hair”. Truth is black and biracial women subject themselves to this kind of treatment because it is “understood” that good hair in the black community, is when it is relaxed and long. A good weave is the holy grail of hair, and the recent introduction of the lace front wig makes that pursuit just that little bit easier. I can say a negative reaction to my bald or afro hair is and will come from a fellow black person, and it does not seem to be changing. L says~So sad!
BGLH: What is it like to be natural in South Africa?
Bonolo: Mostly stress free, a few of my mum’s friends have had bald heads all their lives. I find that South African people do not measure beauty with hair or make-up; in fact most South African men I know do not like fake anything; be it make-up, weave or eyelashes. Even little kids have bald heads because it is seen as neat and clean enough for school. If you have long hair, the usual route as a child is to plait it. I believe that is where I acquired my mentality towards beauty and hair.