For those of us who have little experience in dealing with ethnic-African hairstyles, some of the concepts can be confusing. In some cases, the general look of the hairstyles are similar, but the techniques used and the desired results are very different. The following terms are used to denote some of the various African hair styles and styling techniques:
The afro is a style created in natural African hair (and among others who have tightly curled or kinky hair) where the hair is styled so that it stands out from the scalp. In many cases the overall shape of the silhouette created is round, although the shape can vary, depending on the individual’s preference. Afros gained tremendous popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s – in most cases as a fashion statement, and later as a symbol of the strength and beauty of black hair.
The style can be created on natural hair as follows: starting with clean dry hair, spritz the hair with a light oil or moisturizer/conditioner and gently massage it through the hair. Use a hair pick with non-metal tines to lift the hair out from the scalp. To prevent possible breakage, work with the ends of the hair first and make your way carefully toward the scalp. Once the hair has been picked through thoroughly, use the palms of your hands to gently pat and shape the hair into a soft, rounded silhouette as needed or desired.
This is a variant of the afro style using natural hair that is secured into an elastic holder in a variety of configurations and styled to “puff out” beyond the confines of the holder. Afro Puffs provide an easy way to showcase and style natural hair. The styling technique is ideal for use with children where a neat and tidy, yet attractive style is desired.
This style is created by sectioning the hair and twisting it into tight, firm coils. The size of the sections of the hair depends on the length of the hair, and the shape of the sections can be whatever you desire – square, rounded, triangular, polygonal, amorphous. The hair from a given section/parting is taken and twisted until the hair tightens into a firm coil. The ends of the hair are tucked under the coil. (In cases of shorter hair, you may need to use an elastic band to hold the hair. Just make sure it is not visible in the finished knot.)
Braids are pretty self explanatory; they involve taking at least three strands of hair and weaving them into rope-like formations. Braids can be created to hang freely from the scalp, or to lie close to the scalp and follow the shape of the head. As with Bantu knots, braids can be created using sections of any size and shape as desired. The hair can be divided into a few large sections and large, soft braids can be formed, or small sections can be created and dozens/scores of smaller braids can be formed to create a mop-top style. The braids can be adorned with beads, bands and jewels if desired, and if the hair (and subsequent braids) is long enough, the braids can be pulled back and gathered into a simple or elaborate configuration.
There have been a lot of arguments about braids and whether they are safe for the hair or not. The thing to remember about braids is simply that while you want your braids clean and neat, they must not be too tight. “Too tight” means that the hair is pulled tightly enough to cause the scalp to be stretched and raised.
This is a braided style that gained popularity among more than just the Black community in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The style is named for the appearance it creates on head, which reminds you of rows of corn growing in a field. Traditionally, cornrow styles were created so that the braids were positioned parallel to one another, and often, the ends were festooned with beads to add weight and make the portions of the braids that hang from the scalp swing freely.
These days, however, cornrow styles are created in elaborate patterns – curving lines, spirals, whorls, zigzag, and other geometric designs. The elaboration of the design depends on the skill of the person creating the braids. The safety of the style is determined by whether the hair is pulled too tightly as described above.
Dreadlocks are a style created in the hair by encouraging sections of the hair to twist, coil and knit together into ropy lengths. There are literally countless methods of creating dreadlocks – building off of twists, combed coils, and even braids. Dreadlock styles can be formed to make any size “lock” you want. The process of growing dreadlocks can take a relatively long time (2-3 years for fully-formed or “mature” locks) and the various maintenance techniques include everything from palm-rolling to yarn-wrapping.
When a person wants to shorten his or her hair she goes to the salon and has it cut. But longer hair takes time to grow, which is why some women opt for hair extensions. Extensions are lengths of natural or artificial hair that are attached to the hair on the head through various means. Some braiding styles involved weaving extra hair into the braids to create longer braids than are possible with the natural hair.
Some extensions are attached to the hair in wefts using an adhesive binding agent, or metallic rings (that are crimped to secure the extensions) to the existing hair. Still, other methods involve braiding the hair into horizontal “tracks” along the scalp, to which wefts are sewn using a needle and thread. (This is called weaving and in some cases can actually be done without creating a track, sewing the extension weft directly to the natural hair.) This “track and sew” method has been vilified as causing damage and breakage to the hair. However, as described in the “Braids” segment above, as long as the tracks are not braided too tightly, they should present no breakage hazard to the hair.
Finally, there are extensions that are attached to the hair in small clusters (usually two to three at a time attached to one or two growing hairs) using an adhesive and special tool to create what is known as fusion extensions. This latter technique is the most expensive, but allows for the creation of the most natural-looking results.
In some cases, women and men with shorter hair styles want to create looks with sleek, controlled wave and texture. In these cases, finger wave styles are just the ticket. A finger wave is created using a styling gel or lotion to hold the hair, and a comb and the fingers to shape the hair into the desired pattern of curves and ridges. Once styled into the desired look, the hair is allowed to dry and set, leaving you a long-lasting style.
A fade refers to a clipper-cut hairstyle that tapers to the skin. In the mid-80’s the “Hi-Top Fade” was popularized by such artists as Kid’n’Play, Will Smith and Bobby Brown. The fade most closely resembles a flat top haircut in which the sides are so closely cropped as to be nearly shaved. The hi-top fade took this style and incorporated longer hair at the top of the head. The length of what qualified as a “hi-top fade” as opposed to simply a “fade” cut was very objective.
Those black men and women who want a curly hairstyle, but not the tight, kinky coils that are commonly found among those of African descent, sometimes opt for a soft-curl perm. This perming process became known as the Jheri curl, named after its creator, stylist and hair product mogul, Jheri Redding. The style was created in a two-stage process of relaxing the hair and wrapping it on perm rods and creating larger curls. The permed hair is treated daily with an activator. The style lost popularity with most people because of the expense of maintenance, and the staining effect of the activator product that had to be constantly applied.
Natural hair among those of African descent refers to any hairstyle or styling technique that uses the hair as it grows from the scalp, without any chemical processing to change the hairs texture or wave pattern. There has been a strong refocus among black women especially in recent years to stop using the harsh chemicals on their hair and “go natural”. Their aim seems to be to emphasize the beauty of natural black hair, whether it’s worn in an afro, twist, braid or other non-chemically-treated style.
In an effort to make the hair smoother and easier to style in different ways, some black women and men choose to “relax” their hair. This process involves the use of chemicals that break the chemical side bonds of the hair (the disulfide bonds) allowing the hair to hang straighter and lay smoother. In most cases, once the hair has been relaxed, it is styled using another styling method (roller set, curling iron, hot rollers, etc.) to create a finished look as desired.
This is a styling technique that is sometimes used to begin dreadlocks. The finished look for a “twist” style depends on the length of the hair and the amount of hair used in each twist. The finished look also depends on whether the hair is sectioned with a comb, or simply separated using the fingers. Using the fingers to section the hair creates a fuller look. Sectioning with a comb creates cleanly defined sections and can be used to make patterned sections in the scalp. The twists can be wound as tightly as desired, and are generally plied with styling creams or gel to secure the look. In some cases, the section is divided into two equal parts and the two halves are twisted around one another to create a more textured twist.