Hearing the words "bad hair" can be triggering for many black women with 4C curls — bringing up distressing memories like being told by a hairdresser their hair was "unmanageable," hearing negative comments about their texture from family members, or even being teased at school. It can be especially painful when other people of the same race, but who have looser curl patterns, are praised for having what some black folks have long deemed as "good hair."
Although the second wave of the natural hair movement has been able to reach a global audience through social media, people with type 4 tresses still deal with texture discrimination from their own communities to this day.
But the notion that 4C hair is anything but glorious is in stark contrast to the beauty standards that were upheld in many traditional, pre-colonial African societies, in areas where this hair type was common. "With 4C hair, highly textured hair, it was actually used as more of an art form," Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, assistant professor of psychology and researcher at the University of the District of Columbia, tells Bustle. "Our hair was supposed to grow up towards to the heavens as a way to connect to the spiritual world."
Today, several black women seem to be embracing the magic of their roots. People like Buzzfeed Senior Beauty Editor Essence Gant, The Weekly Reid web series host Danae Reid, stylist Chloe Lucan, along with four other women Bustle photographed, have all ditched the outdated mentalities and straightening products in exchange for their magical, fluffy Afros. And they're more proud than ever to share not only their hair journeys, but also the joys of having beautiful, 4C coils.
Chloe Lucan, 26 — Silver Spring, MD
"I was around 19 or 20 years old — just about to graduate college —when I decided I wanted to stop perming my hair. I started reading a lot about the chemicals in perms and I thought, 'This is not safe for me. I shouldn't need to do this.' On top of that, I started doing some research into Eurocentric standards of beauty, which made me question why I never learned how to take care of my own natural hair. That's when I started transitioning out of my relaxer.
Once I did my big chop, I didn't even know what texture I had. I wasn't sure how to style my hair, and I was using all the wrong products that ended up making my hair look greasy. It was a challenge. But I was still always OK with it and how I looked. I just knew it would take time to learn how to do my natural hair, so I had to be patient when it came to figuring out how to work with it.
But what actually made things difficult for me was when my boyfriend at the time told me he couldn't date a girl with natural hair. That obviously hurt in the moment, but I ended up leaving him and kept doing my hair. I just said to myself, 'I'm gonna figure this out.'
Now that I've been natural for a few years and have gotten my hair routine down, the joy I find in having 4C hair is definitely the flexibility. I can pretty much do whatever I want with my hair. I can manipulate it to mimic any texture, or I can braid it, twist it. I can make it into anything I want it to be."
Arielle Bines, 23 — Bronx, NY
"I first discovered my texture as I stepped away from perming my hair. I was over the chemical burns and the scabs that came with it. It just started to feel gross. I was also getting ready to move to college soon in Plattsburgh, NY, at the time, and I was worried that there would probably be no black hair stylists up there. So I just decided to get braids that could last until I went back home to visit my regular stylist.
One time, I ended up just taking my hair out on my own and saw my texture, kind of by accident. I never really understood how to do my own natural hair, and I didn't realize I had to comb my hair out before I shampooed it. Long story short, my hair got completely matted, and that's when I was like, 'Well, I guess I'm doing the big chop today.'
But I honestly hated my hair at first — I cut it totally uneven. It was also just a pain at first, because I never thought that I could wear my natural hair out anywhere and have it be socially acceptable. My mom had always taught me that certain people aren't going to like my hair, or it's going to be the make-or-break factor for when I get a job. Back then, I always wanted to make sure that my hair was something that was socially digestible for people who may not be exposed to 4C kinks. But now? I'm rocking my natural hair out for job interviews.
Believe it or not, the joy of my hair is the fact that I have to put work into it. But that's because I can do so many things with it; I can style it so many ways. It can be voluminous by just getting it wet, or it can be flat by using a blowdryer. My hair can also easily form into a bunch of different shapes, so of course it's going to be a lot of work to take care of — that's why I love it."
Essence Gant, 32 — Augusta, GA
"I started transitioning in 2009 with braids and weaves. Then in 2010, when I was graduating undergrad and headed to grad school, I went to my sister, who works as a stylist, to cut off the relaxed ends. Of course, I knew what I was getting myself into, but I will say I was nervous leading up to the cut, because I didn't know what my hair was going to look like. Natural hair was unfamiliar.
I really did like my texture a lot once I saw it, so I didn't really have any physical or emotional struggles, personally. But I did notice a difference in the way other people treated me — mainly in my interactions with black men, or boys, really.
This one guy in particular, who I kind of talked to a little bit in high school, was like, "Why did you do that to your hair?" — as if I had committed a crime or something. I also noticed the number of black men who would try to talk to me or get my number declined significantly. I hate saying that, because I love black men and that's my preference, but it's my experience — it's the truth. And the black men who tried to talk to me, for the most part, were always the super "hotep" ones, who would say things like, "What's up my beautiful, African queen, sister girl."
But as far as acceptance goes today, beyond just black men, I do feel like things are getting better. The natural movement has become much stronger overtime — it's so normalized now. We even see 4C hair on shows like Insecure. It's becoming a real part of the narrative around the standard of beauty.
In terms of joy, honestly, I'm going to be real: I just look really good. Wearing 4C hair as my crown is how I'm supposed to look. I've had wigs that cost more than my rent, and they still don't look better than what's growing out of my head. You just can't beat it. 4C is good stuff."
Paigee Keize, 27 — West Hampton, NJ
"I went natural in 2010, during my senior year in high school. I tried the whole healthy relaxed journey before, but it wasn't really working out. So, literally, one day, I just went to my bathroom and just cut all the permed hair off.
When I first saw my texture, I was scared, because I've had relaxers the majority of my life. Going natural was something new. It takes a while to look at yourself in the mirror and feel good, because you're like, 'What did I just do to myself?'
I struggled trying to feel feminine at first. I felt really aggressive with short, natural hair, so I started focusing on accessories — like a good headband, earrings, stuff like that. And keeping my eyebrows done, because once your eyebrows aren't done, it's all downhill from there.
After the cut, I let my hair grow out for a while and I've fallen in love with my texture ever since.
I find joy in the fact that I can do anything I want with my hair, and I don't really have to worry about the same things I did when it was relaxed. Like, sure, I have to worry about the breakage, things like little fairy knots, and my scalp can be sensitive. But other than that, I do like that I can twist my hair, or I could just 'fro it out, or anything like that. I love the versatility. I've cut it, it's been long, it's been short — it's just fun to work with."
Danae Reid, 22 — Philadelphia, PA
"I first discovered my natural texture when I was about 6 or 7, but I didn't start appreciating it until about maybe a year ago, if that.
I grew up in a predominantly white suburb, so it was hard not to notice that my hair was very different from everybody else's; I thought straight hair was the beauty standard. I remember at summer camp or pool parties, specifically, being so embarrassed about having to braid my hair back and wear caps to keep my hair dry when I wanted to go swimming. While my friends, who were mostly white, could wet their hair in the shower and come out with it still looking sleek, mine poufed up and I was really sad about it. I thought my hair was ugly.
I'm not even exactly sure why I thought that about my hair. I just remember when I would watch TV as a kid, no one's hair was like mine. There was no representation. On top of that, kids would joke about my hair, and call me Buckwheat, call my hair nappy. I think I internalized a lot of that, too.
I ended up perming my hair in 2013, my senior year of high school. But I also dyed it within the span of two weeks, back to back, and my hair fell out. That's when I started going back natural to help my hair grow. But even though at that time natural hair was becoming more popular, with my texture, I still worried about being able to get a job, because we're taught that natural African American hair is not professional.
But I've definitely grown to appreciate how different my hair is since. And getting compliments from people who say they love my texture helps a lot, too. These days, I feel like I can wake up and it'll look good if I just fluff it out, I don't even feel the need to do any extra twisting or anything like that to manipulate it. 4C hair looks really good to me.
The joy I've found through my hair is finally being able to appreciate my heritage, and understand that beauty is diversified. One day, I'll probably have a daughter who may have hair like mine, and I'll be able to encourage her to love her hair, too."
Janel Young, 27 — Pittsburgh, PA
"I remember there was a point where I never thought I could go natural. Then one year, I went to Afropunk with some friends, and I saw so many girls with their natural hair out, and I wanted that, too. That marked the beginning of my transition.
Once I had a good amount of new growth, I was finally ready to cut off my permed ends. And ironically, it was New Year's Eve that day — the perfect time for a new beginning. I went to a salon I had gone to a few times in Astoria, NY, to get my cut, and I thought it looked amazing once my stylist was done. It was the first time I was really getting to see all of my texture, and I got really, really excited thinking about all the things I could do with my hair in its new form.
When it was time to get my hair styled, I remember I went to an Afro-Latina woman's chair, who appeared to either have a relaxer or tight curls she straightened a lot. While she was styling my hair, I could see it in her face that she was getting really frustrated. Then she said to me, 'You need to put something in this. You need a treatment like keratin or something, or else it's just going to be Afro-y.' This was all after she just watched me get rid of my permed ends.
I immediately got up out of her chair and told her she didn't need to style me, then I went home and just did it myself. It just sucked hearing those words from another black woman.
But from there on, it was honestly a whole learning process — and at times, a struggle. I couldn't do a lot of the styles I used to do when my hair was permed anymore. I had to find new products, make extra time on weekends for wash day, things like that. I also had to let go of certain expectations I had for my hair, like being obsessed with having a defined curl pattern. Sometimes my hair just does whatever it wants to do, and I'm really comfortable with that now.
The joy of having 4C hair is the fact that it's so strong. My hair can handle a lot of different styles. And once you master your hair care routine, you just are so much more confident."
Jasmine Rose, 32 — Brooklyn, NY
"When I first discovered my hair texture, it was around 2005. That's when I transitioned from using a perm to going natural. I started off wearing braids for about a year to help my hair grow, and then after I took them out, I finally got to explore my hair texture a little bit.
But to be honest, I didn't know how to work with my hair. There weren't many videos online or anyone telling me what to do with it at the time. So I ended up getting locs, and that lasted for about 10 years until 2018, when I finally combed them out. That's when I saw my hair texture again. I still didn't know what to do with it yet, but this time I discovered YouTube.
Once I was finally able to figure out what works for my hair — what didn't, what styles are great for my hair, and all that — that was when I was able to fully embrace it.
For me, the joys of having 4C hair is probably the versatility. You can work it straight, you can rock it in a kinky twist-out, you can sport it natural, flexi rod it up — there's so many different ways to wear it."
Photos by Colette Aboussouan
Hair and makeup by Karla Hirkaler using Amika and Make Up For Ever USA