Learning to live Nappily Ever After

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey on the Netflix film that tackles Afro hair politics

03 October 2018 09:48

If you type ‘the big chop’ into Google, it yields 119 million search results. Hashtag it and punch it into Instagram and you’ll get almost 36 thousand. On YouTube, hundreds upon hundreds of black girls filming themselves either cutting the majority of their hair off, or proudly documenting its growth since they did so. Try Netflix and you’ll find Haifaa al-Mansour’s Nappily Ever After (2018).

Defined by the source of all wisdom on contemporary cultural phenomenon and Internet slang, Urban Dictionary, as ‘when a person cuts their hair to obtain the “natural” state’, ‘the big chop’ is a phrase that has been used so often amongst the black community over the past few years, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world might not understand its significance. To many people, hair is just hair; it sprouts out of the top of our heads and can be dyed, cropped and coiffed in a seemingly endless number of ways. But black hair is political – if only Afro hair could be just hair.

The title of al-Mansour’s Netflix film Nappily Ever After isn’t the result of an undetected typo; it’s a play on the word ‘nappy’, a term that has been used to describe Afro hair textures in the Western world since the transatlantic slave trade. Believed to derive from ‘nap’, the cotton ball found within a cotton plant, it was an insult used by white people, degrading Afro hair to a fluffy and wild raw material, while Caucasian textures were praised for being silky. The psychological impact of racism runs deep and manifests in many ways; eventually, under subjugation and constant degradation, many black people began to internalise the cruelty they suffered. Afro hair became bad hair.

On top of this, in part because of the Black Panther activist Angela Davis, the Afro hairstyle became deeply associated with rebellion in the 1960s. And, when stars such as the Jackson 5 began to sport the look, disco music in the 70s. Now a symbol of black power, joy and self-expression, natural hair was now even more off-putting to racists – the kind of racists who might do the hiring and firing at large companies, or judge a person’s ability to run a country based on their wife’s hairstyle.

Since then, hot combs, hair straighteners, relaxers and weaves have practically become synonymous with black womanhood. This isn’t only a consequence of a desire to reject ‘nappy’ hair and adhere to prevailing beauty standards; it’s been a necessity for assimilation into Western society. Just last year, a black woman was denied a job at Harrods for not having chemically relaxed hair; Michelle Obama only wore hair natural hair out publicly after her family left the White House; and lots of people report being sanctioned in both workplaces and schools for wearing their hair in natural styles. For many, embracing their natural hair hasn’t even been viable.

Black hair is political – if only Afro hair could be just hair.

So yes, Afro hair is political – and, despite the fact that it’s a disappointingly bog-standard, predictable rom-but-not-so-com film, this means that Nappily Ever After is too. The plot goes something like this: Violet Jones, played by Sanaa Lathan, has all the components of a perfect life – a high-flying job in advertising, a swish house, a doctor boyfriend whom she expects to propose on her birthday, and immaculately hot-combed hair. A crisis ensues when her hair gets ruined hours before the anticipated proposal, and she’s forced to get a weave to maintain her veneer of perfection at her birthday dinner. Devastatingly, it turns out her boyfriend, played by Ricky Whittle, has bought her a puppy instead of a shiny rock from Tiffany’s, and the couple breaks up at the end of the night. Amid an identity crisis, Violet then tries out new hairstyles in an attempt to find herself and ultimately ends up drunkenly shaving her head after a particularly bad attempt to pull on a night out. Now, about 40 minutes into the film, Violet then takes another hour to really find herself.

The story is pretty standard for a film of its nature, but the fact its framework is based around the shaving of her head is not. There are a lot of things Nappily Ever After does not get right – jokes miss the mark, romantic dialogue often seems forced, and the film is split into chapters that clarify which kind of hairstyle Violet will be wearing in the next scene – but there are moments when its depiction of a black woman’s hair journey is spot on.

Up until about a year ago, I had been chemically relaxing my hair for about 12 years. I was first taken to the salon to get the treatment when I was nine-years-old, and I was instantly hooked. Raised in a predominantly white area, I’d always longed for the Caucasian hair of my school friends, my pop star idols and my mother, so when I first caught a glimpse of myself with poker straight hair in the mirror all those years ago, there was really no turning back. Finally, I was beginning to look how I’d always wanted, I felt more confident and excited about my appearance than I ever had before. This may seem like a skewed set of priorities for a 9-year-old, but when you’re the only black person at a school where it’s likely that the majority of children may have never met anyone of a different race before, your priorities do tend to shift a bit.

Nappily Ever After (Haifaa al-Mansour, 2018)

Throughout my late teens, I began to fall out of love with my relaxed hair: it was expensive, high maintenance, and kind of no fun. At the beginning Nappily Ever After, Violet goes to extreme lengths to ensure that her hair doesn’t get ruined, from emptying the dishwasher at a distance to avoid steam that would make it frizzy, to meticulously analysing the weather forecast before deciding to have lunch outside with her friends. That used to be me. Also me: hysterically crying in front of the mirror while frantically tugging at my hair, trying to work out how to make it look ‘acceptable’ on days when it just wouldn’t lay flat. At this point in the film, Violet reaches for the clippers, but I’d always chicken out.

Since chemically relaxing hair is an irreversible and often extremely damaging process, once it’s been done, reverting it back to its original texture is no mean feat. Even just flat ironing or hot combing it, as Nappily Ever After’s Violet does, can ruin the natural texture of Afro hair over long periods of time.

This brings us back to the girls shaving their heads on YouTube and ‘the big chop’. These videos are part of the natural hair movement, a beauty revolution that has been around for some time, but has only really blown-up over the past few years. Fairly self-explanatory, it is a term used to describe the black people who have decided to stop damaging their hair via heat and chemical processes, eschewing relaxer and hair straighteners for natural styles such as braids, locs and, of course, a left-out ‘fro. To get to this stage after years of hair damage, a person must either transition their hair – letting new hair grow unscathed by the wrath of chemical relaxers and heat tools, leaving the damaged hair at the ends until the new growth is long enough to cut them off – or ‘big chop’, which is exactly what it says on the tin.

Emotionally, in a society that’s mainstream beauty standard associates feminine beauty with neat, long hair, both options are difficult. Transitioning leaves you with two awkward hair textures that don’t want to cooperate and, obviously, ‘the big chop’ leaves you with significantly less hair. I transitioned for almost a year and then chopped, but my new shorter look still felt like a shock.

I should clarify that not all black women who straighten their hair or wear weaves do so out of internalised self-hate or a desire to fit in – like white women who get their hair permed into curls, there are those who simply enjoy the way it looks, and there are also those who, thanks to their professions, may not have a choice. However, it’s naive to assume that this is always the case.

‘We make up 12 per cent of the [American] population, but we buy 70 per cent of all wigs and weaves. What does that say?’ asks Violet’s hairdresser and brief love interest midway through Nappily Ever After. ‘We hate our hair,’ she replies. And who can blame us? A history as politically charged as Afro hair’s is a lot of weight to carry confidently on our shoulders. But things are changing. The natural hair movement is bigger than ever and mainstream media is beginning to embrace it. Models no longer have slick Naomi Campbell weaves that trail down to their bottoms, and stories like Nappily Ever After are being told. Black hair isn’t only beginning to be accepted, it’s being understood, and that’s what’s truly important. There are already enough things in the world to worry about; what is or isn’t done with Afro hair shouldn’t be one of them. After all, if we were white, it would be just hair.