Why Do African American Women Have To Do So Much For Their Hair [To Grow]?

I apologize for my response being so late; I also apologize for this response being so long.

My Realizaton: I started caring about hair growth when someone close to me started experiencing alopecia. The dermatologist could not find a reason why her seemingly healthy, colored, and relaxed hair was falling out in clumps. Was the problem caused by stress? Diet? Genetics? Tension hairstyles? Lack of Care?

I started looking towards internet forums to help me help her solve the hair problems. I found several resources and started applying those methods to my hair seemingly healthy relaxed hair. The changes in care and approach worked for me; but not for her. Her hair continued to fall out while mine thrived. Out of frustration, she stopped relaxing (perming) her hair. and cut it all off. Soon after, I started transitioning to natural.

Can Black Women Grow Their Hair Long?

The short answer is a resounding yes. However, general human hair cycles, the structure of the kinky, coily and curly follicles, the culture of black beauty, and our socialization of black beauty have greatly impacted the retention of the hair that does grow from our heads. If we understand the structure of our hair and tweak the hair care methods that do not work for kinky-curly hair, we will work with our hair as is and watch is flourish.

Think about it. Wouldn’t it be difficult for a naturally straight-haired person to make their look to be kinky-curly daily? 

Scientifically Speaking

  • The Hair Growth Cycle

The hair on our scalps grows about 1/4 to 1/2 inch per month. At the end of a year, you should have roughly 4-6 inches of new hair. Each hair on the head grows independently of the hairs next to it. People are often concerned that they aren’t getting their 6 full inches each year, but this is okay! Keep in mind that 4-6 inches of hair is an average meaning that it is normal for some to fall just under or above this range and still be perfectly healthy and normal. Black hair tends to grow just under the 1/2 inch per month average so 4 inches in a year (give or take some trimming) is a good place!

All hairs cycle through three different growth stages: anagen, catagen, and telogen.

Anagen is the hair growing stage, and it lasts for 2-6 years. Most of our hair is in an active, anagen growing phase as it is the longest stage in the hair cycle. During this stage, the cells at the base of the hair follicle divide quickly and begin to pile up. As the cells pile up, harden to become our hair, and push upward through the skin- we experience hair growth. At the end of anagen, or the growing phase, the hair naturally sheds from the follicle and is replaced by a new hair.

The length of our anagen phase determines how long our hair can grow, and the length of the stage depends on genetics. Some of us will be close to the 2 year growth stage range where we have 2 years of uninterrupted growth, while others enjoy longer growth stages. Some individuals have stages as long as 10 years of growth before a hair is shed.

Anagen length depends on the area of the body the hair is growing on as well. Arm hair, lashes, brows and leg hair have short, month-long growing phases. So, these hairs never ever really grow long even if they are never cut. Be wary of products that claim to speed up hair growth rates past normal 1/4-1/2 inch ranges. This is simply wishful thinking.

Catagen stage is an intermediate phase, that lasts a couple of weeks. On a given head of hair, very few hairs are actually ever in this a transitional stage. (Roughly 3% of hairs on a given day). During catagen, hair growth ceases and melanin is no longer produced in the cortex. This produces the white tip we associate with truly shed hairs and is the way we can distinguish shed hair from broken hair. 

The Telogen stage lasts for a little over three months. Body hair has a longer telogen phase than scalp hair. A normal head of hair can loose up to 100 telogen stage hairs each day, commonly, the number of shed hairs are much less. Many of us despise telogen phase, but its necessary for the healthy cycling of our hair’s growth cycle. Often people will seek remedies to prevent shedding, but we must remember that telogen can only occur after changes have occurred in the shape and size of the follicle deep in the scalp. A garlic shampoo (a common remedy for shedding) or any other topical product that does not interact with our bodies on a hormonal level will not prevent shedding. Though hair that is breaking may benefit.

At the end of telogen phase, anagen begins again and the cycle repeats. The length of all hair phases is a direct function of genetics, hormonal flux, and our overall health status. - Written by Audrey Davis-Sivasthosy, Author of The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care

  • Hair Strand Shape and Structure

African Hair
hair shapes of various races

Our nappy African hair is almost flat or ribbon like in shape, twisting, turning, bending and zig zagging as it grows. At every twist and turn, the hair tends to be thinner and therefore susceptible to breakage at each of these points along the hair shaft. Because of its shape, the cuticles on nappy hair tend to be raised, and do not lay flat against the hair shaft. As a result, nappy hair absorbs light and does not reflect it. Hence, nappy hair does not shine. Raised cuticles also act like opened doors, causing nappy hair to be very porous. It will suck up moisture like a sponge but will also have a hard time retaining it; hence, nappy hair is inherently dry. Raised cuticles also causes nappy hair to feel coarse to the touch, rub and catch easily on one another leading tangles, knots and even more susceptible to damage and breakage if it isn’t cared for properly.

Caucasoid hair

White folks’ hair is more oval in shape. The more oval the hair, the more likely it is to be wavy. The more round the hair, the more likely it is to be straight. The cuticles on caucasoid hair tend to lay flat, allowing the hair to retain moisture, reflect light and shine.

Asian Hair

The hair of Asians is almost perfectly round resulting in bone straight hair. The cuticles lay flat, reflects light, is very strong and holds moisture.

I’m not going to go into a lot more specifics of these other hair types, and the only reason I bring them up is so you can be aware of the differences between their hair and ours. It’s not better than nappy hair…it’s just different. Learning about these differences can help you make better choices when it comes to taking care of and styling your nappy hair without the expectations that you can make your hair do something that it’s not designed to do. If you’re going to be a happy nappy, the best thing you can do for yourself is to accept what your hair can do and what it cannot do based on its structure and characteristics. -Written by NappyMe of Nappturology101

Summary: Kinky-curly hair grows in a flat, ribbon, zig-zag shape. The numerous bends and twists allow for more points of breakage than that of straight haired people; generally our hair is smaller in diameter and therefore delicate. Because of the kinky-coily cortex, and without the help of our natural sebum to coat the strands, our hair tends to be drier, requiring more moisture from products.

The Coding

But do not be fooled into thinking that black hair can only be nappy, kinky, curly, or coily. Our individual hair textures vary greatly. If you are interesting in hair typing, the Andre Walker system is most generally accepted. However, this system implies a hierarchy valuing straight hair over kinkier textures and does not account for hair density, shape or porosity. For a more comprehensive hair typing system, look to LOIS. The hair is typed based on hair characteristics as well as visual curl diameter. 

The Socialization

One cannot deny that straight, frizz-free hair is valued over textured hair in our society. When one looks at news anchors, magazine covers, commercials, political leaders, etc, we are hard pressed to find a balance of straight and non-straight styles. However, this does not mean that textured hair is not professional and acceptable. It is the hair that grows naturally from your head. Do not fall for this myth.

Black women spend the most money on hair products, weaves and wigs. Take a walk down the street and count the number of black women you see that is not wearing a weave, wig, or hair piece.

”It’s not that I think “natural hair” is now invisible but (weave) has become a way for more people to achieve that “good hair” status if only synthetically,” gleamed Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College.

“The culture surrounding weaves; such as the links between more traditionally white hair textures and the pricing system of weaves, helps to exacerbate the notion of “good hair” as “non-Black.”

Baldwin continued, “Who really knows if “Indian Remi” (a popular human hair weft texture) is a reflection of actual Indian women’s hair or what “Hollywood Italian” (another texture classification) actually means, but in hair weave stores there is certainly a hierarchy of hairs that is also linked to a hierarchy of racial value.” 

The psycho-social ramification of wearing weaves tends not to weigh heavily on the minds of teen-agers who encompass the average age when extensions are first tried. Stacey Clark, a Washington DC professional falls in this category. She first crafted a new look using weave when she was in high school.

“Back then (in the late 80s) I believe everyone tried to pretend (the weave) was theirs,” Clark joked. “Now it’s more of a fashion statement.  Come to work one day with short curly hair, the next day it can be long with blonde streaks.  Changing hair is like changing clothes now.”

But what about when hair placement is more than just a fashion twist? For many African American women, the perception of them as having “Good Hair” is an embedded part of their self esteem. Some can’t and will not be seen without weave despite the cost and the time required to achieve it.

Wearing weave does not mean that the wearer wants ‘good hair’, but it usually does mean that the person wants long-er or straight-er hair, based on the number of long and straight units of wigs, weaves and hair pieces sold. Chronic weave-wearing can also lead to traction alopecia and encourage female pattern baldness if one is not taking care of the hair growing from your scalp.

Back to the Original Question

Black women’s hair has been a hot topic for decades. Are locs acceptable in the military? Are braids appropriate for work? Does wearing weave mean you have no self esteem? Does relaxing your hair mean you want to be white? Can black women’s hair grow at all?

We ‘have to do so much’ because there is little information and products out there geared to our hair strands’ needs. We cannot shampoo with our hair in a pineapple at the top of our head like the woman in the Pantene commercials. We cannot brush our hair 100 times a day to add shine.

In my opinion, the less we ‘do’ to our hair, the healthier and longer it can be. Your hair may not grow to your knees or look like Tracee Ellis Ross’, but your hair can grow long if you take the time to care of it properly.

Need more convincing?







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tagged as: afro. andre walker. coily. curly. hair growth. hair typing. kinky. nappturology101. nappy. natural hair. the science of black hair. natural.

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