I started my locs in the middle of the 2000s, so like all teenage girls, having terrible highlights was a rite of passage. I was (unfortunately) always on trend in those days - I aspired to dress like every female actress on the Disney Channel, all at the same time. Every awful red-carpet look you saw in those days was probably emulated by me, doing the best I could with Edgar's, Mr Price,* a sewing kit and a bedazzler. I was once called into the school office because my outfit (a two-piece denim getup à la Britney Spears and JT, complete with a few choice bedazzles and a frilly aqua blouse) was too ostentatious for school. They said it wasn't considerate of the students from 'less fortunate families.' Boy, did that teacher get an earful when my mum told her all my clothes were from Jet*.
My highlights were no less 'flashy.' First they were blonde, then a worryingly bright red. At one point they were midnight blue, but as a fourteen year-old, subtlety was a foreign concept, so I went with a shocking plum colour immediately afterwards. Of course, I didn't just dye my locs. No, no, I had to perfectly match my braids to each coloured strand of loc so that it looked 'natural.' I took a firm 'no retreat, no surrender' approach when it came to my personal style, and even had the glittery-pink camouflage-print butterfly shirt to prove it (complete with a poem in French printed in glittery ink on the one side). Can you even imagine.
Although amusing, my hair choices were understandable - ultimately all I wanted was long and wavy hair with highlights just like my favourite stars. The people I looked up to looked nothing like me. I was fourteen and convinced I would be the next Cheetah Girl and someday marry Cole Sprouse, because that was my world. "Rockstar" was my anthem, and I truly believed that someday 'I might even be a rockstar' like Hannah Montana. I falsely believed that in order to do so, I had to change everything about myself. I daydreamed about getting a nose job, a thin one like all the girls on TV. I secretly rejoiced every year that my skin seemed to become lighter, a phenomenon that was thankfully just a result of my mum's genes rather than any bleaching creams.
For a long time I didn't have icons or role models that looked anything like me (except perhaps That's So Raven, and you can imagine how annoying I must have been with a psychic teenage fashion designer as a role model). The only famous people with locs I can think of were Stevie Wonder, Whoopi Goldberg and Lauryn Hill, and I couldn't even spell her name right at the time. In my naïvety, I concluded that it was because the rest of the world didn't care about people who looked like me.
It wasn't until later that I began to 'embrace my blackness,' as the saying goes. My parents introduced me to Lira, Zamajobe and Freshlyground. I began to see more black girls on television, and in Seventeen and Saltwater Girl magazine. I began to open myself up to the idea that I didn't need to look like a Disney star to feel good about myself, which in turn helped me to fully embrace my black hair without needing to hide it under braids. I had lost a lot of the confidence I had as a child, confidence that thrived before I knew what it meant to live in this skin.
One might say that my natural hair journey was a two-part saga. The first part began when I used Dark & Lovely* for the very last time, and the second began when I gained the courage to stop hiding my locs. I hardly used to talk much about them, or make a big deal about the fact that I had locs because I didn't want to draw attention to something so stigmatised. It was a confusing time because within Southern Africa, locs are revered and coveted. Long and luscious black locs are a sign of refinement and culture, and so thoroughly desired that they can be sold for astonishing prices (apparently you can even be mugged and have your hair sold on the black market). However, popular culture was largely dictated by the US, so I was cognisant that their attitude was the exact opposite. I still remember the day my friend shaved her locs in preparation for university in the States. It was a sobering reminder of how the rest of the world felt about my hair.
I kept quiet about them outside of my circle. I especially never engaged in much conversation online because in the natural hair community, locs are the minority and can still be stereotyped as the dirtiest or lowliest version of natural hair. Sure, they're stylish when everyone has pastel-coloured faux-locs, or when Zoë Kravitz and Rihanna take them for a spin, but all that does is highlight the same double standard that the natural hair community fights against.
However, I think the responsibility is ours to increase the representation of locs in the natural hair community. I recently I wondered, what if someone like me - a black girl with locs - had been there when I was growing up? What if I'd had something to aspire to with my hair? Someone to show me that they can be beautiful and feminine. Perhaps I would have embraced them much sooner. The truth is, locs are perhaps the easiest natural hairstyle to have - they're low-maintenance and easy to style, but they take a lot of patience to grow. It baffles me why so few women want to have locs, but then again, how can someone aspire to something they hardly see?
My cousin is a well-known hair blogger who embraced her natural curls and created a movement that has inspired so many young girls to go natural. When she first told me of her plans, long before she became Fro Girl, I never would have imagined how many people it would unite. With people like her being visible and vocal, young girls have something to aspire to. It's something present and tangible, and it makes people realise they're not alone. However, I do still feel alone sometimes because I'm not a 'curly girl,' and afros are not the only style of natural hair. The poster-child for natural hair has become mixed-race women with highly defined curls, which makes one wonder if there's truly room for unruly- and kinky-haired, darker skinned girls in that world. The fact is that we still need more role models and a greater diversity of them.
You might think this is the point where I announce that I'm going to become a hair blogger. I'm not. It's not my calling. I have my own fight for representation, and I promise to tell you about it sometime. However, I do want to be able to connect with people like myself and be a tangible presence for women and men alike who have locs, or might consider having them someday soon. I want to be vocal about these things because I've been lucky enough to create a platform through this website, which has reached over 72 000 views. That's not something that should be taken lightly. With great stats come great responsibility. I didn't want to make this blog all about the fact that I'm a black African woman with locs living in Singapore, but that is a huge deal. I do have to step up and speak out about all of this. I couldn't avoid it even if I tried - my name 'Iwani' literally means 'speak out.'
And thus I've decided that it's high time for me to start being more visible and vocal, and proudly talking about these issues without the fear of being stereotyped as an 'Angry Black Woman.' In the next few months I'm going to be starting a series on this blog called Singapore Stories, in which I will write very real stories about my life here - the good and bad. I'll also be taking part in a panel discussion on Friday 7th April 2017, so stay tuned for details! I hope that if you're in Singapore you will come learn more about black hair, and ask every question you've ever had without any hesitation. If you're in another country, comment on this post, or send me a message via email or through my Facebook page and I'll make a Q&A video! In the meantime, you can always catch my #blackgirlmagic on Instragram at @iwanimawocha.
Lots of love,
Pepper & Söl
Mr Price: a low priced retail chain. Approximately half the price of Cotton On
Jet: an even lower-priced retail chain. Approximately half the price of Walmart
Dark & Lovely: a common hair relaxer treatment