Growing up with coily 4c hair, I always felt as if I’d been cursed. Why did I have the hair of losers? Why did I have the hair that wasn’t glamorous? It was the hair of slaves, maids, and prostitutes. Every time I looked at TV, media or read a history book, anyone who had no power looked like me. It was so sad, the way I felt growing up, all based on the negative noise and toxic racism, which still exists in society today. The unspoken narrative was so clear. No one on red carpets looked like me, no knight in shining armour wanted to rescue girls with 4C coils – the whole narrative was so toxic, which is why I’m so glad things are changing, and I was determined to break this cycle when it came to my children.
“My mum put a chemical relaxer on my hair aged 8 and it wasn’t until 37 that I fell in love with my coils. I have my mixed heritage children to thank for the love affair with my hair. I had been completely estranged from my hair, my hair was always treated and viewed as if it was a problem and I remember being told my hair was bush, if there was any type of root growth showing I was told to rush to the hair stylist to get it fixed. I fixed my hair with chemically straightening, blow drying, heat damage, bonding, or weaves – anything so I could look something other than my authentic self.”
‘To be a princess you must have straight, yellow hair’
“When my mixed heritage twin daughters were born, they had very different hair to each other. Ola has 3A/3B curls and Adanna, has a tighter 4A/4B curl pattern. When they were three years old, it shocked me how the toxic noise of racism had already infected them when in 2015 they told me, ‘Mummy, it’s such a shame we can’t be princesses, we can only be maids because we have curly brown hair. To be a princess you must have straight, yellow hair.’ It was then I knew I had the break the cycle. I had to break the chain of the self-loathing that I had been brought up with so I wouldn’t pass it onto my girls. It was then that I decided I needed to learn how to nourish and really care for their hair. This was something I never grew up with as there wasn’t much information. I went to some of the best hair salons in London, but how to care and love my natural hair was something that, even as a professional beauty journalist, was still a bit of a mystery to me. I was so lucky that this was the start of the #TeamNatural hair revolution and the explosion and birth of social media. A new cohort of websites, bloggers and influencers starting to talk about natural hair, which was so healing for my soul.”
Embarking on a mummy hair journey
“Step one, for me, was all about products and techniques. It was about how can I give my children’s hair everything that will help it flourish that’s not based on a style that society thinks looks neat, prim, and proper but gives the nourishment the curls need to thrive. It was as basic as hydration, hydration, and more hydration. I had to relearn that water was not the enemy. I spent so many years avoiding water like a cat because it would reverse hours of heat styling, blow drying, tonging, silk presses but getting water and locking it in the hair with a great moisturising conditioner was so key for loving curls.
“I went about finding as much information online and looking at women doing their hair in Atlanta online in their bathrooms, talking about their home-made whipped shea butter, it was a golden time. I really felt that there was a broken circle of learning in how to love coils and curls and techniques which was being healed through learning how to love my children’s hair. During the process I fell in love with my own hair and I thought, ‘what’s so wrong about me? What’s so wrong about my 4c coils?’, so I decided to be a better example to my children, and I stopped chemically relaxing my hair. I did this in baby steps by getting box braids with the fantastic Aisha Ibrahim (Feme brand ambassador), who is an expert braider and part of the Spell Magazine family. And then I slowly transitioned my hair into a TWA (teeny weeny afro).”
“It wasn’t until 37 that I fell in love with my coils”
“When it comes to learning what your hair loves, it’s such a personal journey and it’s about your individual curl pattern. Each person and each head of hair could have anywhere from three, four, five or more different curl patterns so it’s learning about what your hair loves and what it needs. Sometimes you could have a tighter curl pattern in the nape of your neck compared to the front and it’s just learning and being really bespoke and prescriptive about your curls. When it came to Ola and Adanna’s curls, I had to throw away everything I knew and start from fresh. I had to think in a very prescriptive, bespoke way for each of their individual hair types and curl patterns, so it was so important to use shampoos and conditioners which were sulphate free, petroleum free, with ingredients that didn’t strip the hair.”
Cancelling all the negative noise
“I think the biggest thing that I learned when teaching myself to care for their hair was having to get rid of all my demons and the negative noise that I grew up with about being less than. I don’t blame my mum or the older generation who were all spoon fed on empire, which taught them that they were less than because of their melanin and curl pattern, but it’s about deprogramming and getting rid of that negative noise and recognising that your hair, curls, and coils are professional, luxurious, aspirational, central and everything in between. As a mother you will do anything for your kids and me wanting to deprogram and help them love themselves was a major motivation and I thank them because they helped me fall in love with my hair too.”
Ateh’s A-team for curls
Follow Ateh on Instagram @atehjewel