I Don't Do Afros: 4 Alternatives That Keep My Natural Hair Knot-Free

If I let my hair flow free, it would become one solid dreadlock.
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Malaika
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If I let my hair flow free, it would become one solid dreadlock.

There's this idea going around that black girls should all drop their weaves and relaxers and start rocking afros. When you Google "black girl natural hair" 19.5 out of the first twenty image results are fros of some sort.  

Here's the thing, though: all black hair is not the same! And what I found out, the hard way, is that I will almost never wear a fro. 

I have had natural hair for pretty much all of my 20-*mumbles off into incomprehension* years of life. However, much of that was spent in some sort of kinky twist extensions, braid extensions, cornrow extensions, or whatever. Basically, I rarely handled my own hair without some added -sion. 

My first foray into rocking my own, extension-free hair long-term was when I was 22. Needless to say, that was also the first year I applied a relaxer. There I was, thinking I was all cute with my fros and wash-and-gos and twist-outs. But every time I would visit the salon, they would chop and chop and chop away my ends. My hair always needed the trims due to fraying and breakage. My inability to retain length was frustrating.

Because I prefer the low-maintenance route, my go-to style was a wash-and-go. I didn't mind that my hair would shrink into the tiniest fro, having people thinking I was a rejected (male) member of the Jackson 5. I loved the low maintenance. But the detangling process after wearing my hair out all the time left me with gobs of hair either in my hands or chopped off by my stylist's scissors. Frustration led to relaxation, yet relaxers also proved to be damaging.

Braid extensions were my life until my early 20s, then I experimented with my own natural hair until I got my first relaxer, which never grew past that, until the magic of weaves

Braid extensions were my life until my early 20s; then I experimented with my own natural hair until I got my first relaxer, which never grew past that, until the magic of weaves

After a couple of years relaxing my hair, breakage from the chemicals, and no real solution, my second journey into natural hair came by accident. 

I began weaving my hair when I started training at my dance studio and acting more consistently. I needed something easy and cute that could quickly take me from sweaty dance classes to auditions. But while I was considering the transition from relaxed back again to natural hair, I took too much time off in between relaxers and the choice was made for me. 

After being unearthed from a weave and enjoying a fresh wash, my hair became a tangled, locked mess. I had no choice but to chop off my hair and whittle it down to a two-inch fro. I decided then that I would go natural for real for real. 

To ease me into this process, I've done a combination of weaves and wigs to allow my hair to grow. Two years since that first big chop, and I have learned a ton about my hair. I have also seen it grow longer than it ever has. And one thing I learned, which I realized only after my first natural hair experiment, was that I cannot wear afros if I want my hair to be healthy and retain length. 

In the natural hair community, we call styles like afros and twist- outs "free hair" because it's not braided down, or pinned--it's just out. An afro, unlike what some may tell you, does not, in fact, just grow out of every black person's scalp. What grows out of my scalp is a ton of intensely coiled hair that basically wraps around its own self-destructive ass.  

To achieve the luscious fros my hair sees on Google (it really does see, it has a life of its own) it has to be picked out. To maintain it, you have to keep picking it out, as black hair tends to be susceptible to humidity. But my hair isn't just susceptible--it down right begs for humidity, the little slore (not slut-shaming, you guys, I love my hair's loose ways). 

So I would have to keep a comb on me and constantly pick or tease when my hair was "free." But combs are bad for my hair type and should only be used sparingly. Constant picking leads to constant breakage, no matter how many products you slab on the hair. 

I looove how fros look, and I'm downright envious of girls who can rock their own so carelessly because it just naturally forms that way after a wash. But it ain't for me. And if I really left my hair un-manipulated it would become one solid dreadlock. I mean yeah, it'd be a cool story to have one impenetrable mass of locked hair--I might even get a TLC reality special--but it'd get heavy and like, be gross. 

So I have to keep my hair stretched. This is what has worked for me and is the key for practically every other super-coily haired girl I've seen on the interwebs. 

My no makeup, über natural state as God intended, and apparently he intended a 16 year old Brazilian soccer player. Mom said more like an Australian aboriginal boy. Mom for the burn!!

My no-makeup, über-natural state as God intended... and apparently he intended a 16-year-old Brazilian soccer player. Mom said more like an Australian Aboriginal boy.

Super-coily hair is cool because it’s versatile. It looks much shorter than it actually is, and my hair stretches for daayyss. But because it’s so coily, it is very susceptible to tangling and knotting. 

Magic!

Magic!

So instead of forcing my way into the free-flowing afro club, I've found four simple ways of styling my hair that allows for very little manipulation, keeps my hair stretched, and thereby limits tangles and knots:

TWISTS

Pros: Very versatile; easy to create and style.

Cons: Can lead to breakage at the ends, so not the ideal stretched style for me. 

I wore twists, and the next two styles, on an epic two-week adventure to celebrate my mom’s birthday on a road/train trip along the West Coast from Vancouver down to Cabo. I deliberately used this opportunity to challenge myself to style my own hair without heat or weave, and to see what would work best, so this is also great vacation hair!

Because my hair is thin, I curled my hair overnight with plastic rollers and pinned it under into a bob to create volume. Neither the twisting nor rolling has to be very exact. I twisted mirrorless on the car leg of our road trip and rolled in an Amtrak bunkbed and woke up to this. 

Here again you can see how far my hair stretches compared to its apparent length

Here again you can see how far my hair stretches compared to its apparent length.

I like twists, but they ultimately wouldn't be the best style for me. Because I'm a busybody, I was constantly doing and undoing my twists. The ends of my hair and nape of my neck, which are both of fine density, were the proof: my hair was knotting and breaking off at the ends thus defeating the purpose of a protective style. People with denser, more coarse hair, however would likely benefit more from twists.

After toying with my hair, and in a simple eureka moment, I happened upon... 

BUNS

Pros: Easy as pie to style; doesn't require a lot of handling or maintenance; the low manipulation leads to growth.

Cons: Not versatile; can pull at the hair and lead to breakage where you tie the bun (unless you use a hair bungee, and boy do I have a love story awaiting for you for the glory that is the hair bungee).

I found buns to be the winner on the very last day of my two week self-imposed, rewardless, everyday protective style challenge. Instead of a high bun, I pull my hair back into its less fabulous sister, the low bun. My edges at the front of my hair need TLC (no scrubs), and pulling my hair up also pulls my edges, and it's too taxing for an every day style. 

A low bun, however, lets me just pin the front edges of my hair (which is the shortest part of my hair) to the side, leaving my edges in tact. I just make a middle part, and tie my hair low to form an afro puff. From there, I just pin the hair under to make a bun or I part the puff, make one twist, and pin the twist under. 

The most protective is doing the latter, as the bun stays stretched in the event of humidity. Because it's all tied up, I'm not inclined to play with it as I would with twists. 

Not fabulous, but answers my low-maintenance prayers. And it gets to play in Cabo’s gorgeous blue waters with relative ease.

Not fabulous, but answers my low-maintenance prayers. And it gets to play in Cabo’s gorgeous blue waters with relative ease.

Vancouver sends its regards, eh

Vancouver sends its regards, eh.

CURL-DEFINING TREATMENTS

Pros: Keeps natural hair smooth and practically frizz-free when your natural hair is flat-ironed.

Cons: Requires heat; may be cost-prohibitive.

When I tell you my hair does not like to be manipulated, it does not like a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. It can revert from being flat-ironed in two seconds flat (it's happened). It throws combs back at me. It spits out my brushes. I mean, I'm 83% sure my hair gave me the finger after detangling it, no lie. (OK, 83% of the time people say no lie, it is actually a lie)

I was surfing the web for hours for random hair advice (y'all don't do this?), and I found out about something called the Nanosmoothing treatment, which is designed for girls with naturally coily hair. I like to occasionally straighten my hair, particularly when I want a trim and to see exactly what is the state of my hair, but it is very, very difficult to find a stylist who can make my press last. Not because of the stylists, necessarily. My hair is simply highly porous and of fine to medium-fine density, so it does not like to be messed with and responds with fits of breakage when it is. I am also a natural-born skeptic. 

So, I dug high and low for reviews of the Nanosmoothing treatment on other black hair blogs, and ultimately took the plunge after about two months of research.

Unlike relaxers or texturizers, it isn't permanent and it wears off over time. And unlike treatments that wear off, like Brazilian keratin, it didn't require chemicals like formaldehyde, nor does it significantly change your hair texture. Rather, it uses an amino acid, cystine, which is an organic compound. 

So while my hair wasn’t drastically different (which I didn’t want because I want my natural hair to remain natural and coily) I noticed my hair was very slightly, but noticeably, more loose. It functioned more as a semi-permanent detangler. On top of that, it kept frizziness to a minimum when I flat-ironed my hair. 

I seriously could not believe that a press that would normally last two seconds (literally) was lasting me two weeks after a) being wrapped up in a wig for a day b) a weekend of Atlanta bachelorette weekend partying, c) enduring New York's spring showers/humidity and d) several ballet classes (yeah, that was an eventful two weeks). 

I will definitely use this again. However, I only sparingly use heat, and the treatment requires heat to "lock-in" every 8-10 weeks. For those heat averse ladies like myself, I suggest just doing it for those times you plan to flat-iron your hair. 

The treatment can run up to $175. This may be costly, but it is a solid staple for my long-term hair regimen.

L & Middle, immediately after the treatment. On the right, a day later after a much needed trim, being cooped under a wig, and a flight. The treatment wears off after 8-10 weeks and it held up very well for me.

Left and middle, immediately after the treatment. On the right, a day later after a much-needed trim, being cooped under a wig, and a flight. The treatment wears off after 8-10 weeks and it held up very well for me.

SEW-IN WEAVES

Pros: Versatile, super low manipulation leads to best length retention; it's like a blanket in the winter keeping this scalp warm- think a semi-permanent snuggie y'all!

Cons: Quality hair is costly; can be bothersome for new weave wearers; you might get dependent on your weave hook up and can be tough to master on your own.

Now some of us are either a) too busy or lazy to consistently style our hair in buns and twists or b) don't want to use heat and know that manipulation of any kind can have detrimental effects on our hair but like to wear hair color and experiment with different styles or c) all of the above (*chorus of Price-is -Right style yelling ensues "pick C! C! C! A! B! Ceee!!!!"*) Welp, C it is. 

The solution for you my friends is my buddy called the sew-in weave. WELCOME TO MY WORLD.

There are a wide variety of weaving methods, but the sew in is the best protective style: little of your own hair is out (just enough to cover the tracks at the top of your head) and your natural hair is cornrowed (hence stretched) under wefts of weaved hair.  

The absolute key is to get hair that looks like your natural hair so that you don't have to heat style your leave out. Keeping my hair weaved has helped me retain length more than anything else I've done. I am weaning myself from full time weave wearing, but the results have been too good to dismiss them altogether even when I reach certain hair length goals.

I am probably going to blow a few people's minds because they thought the fro-ish hair I've been rocking was all God-given (well, it was given to somebody). I'm just an avid researcher--OK, maybe obsessive, and YouTube and hair forums have taught me a great deal about vendors that sell the right texture and DIY weaving. Good hair prompts even professional weaveologists to ask you how you got your hair to grow. Shh! It’s our secret.

OkHair! I'm not saying the last picture is moments after sewing in my kinky curly weave and partaking in a Mac Photo Booth shoot for potential online dating profile pictures. But I'm not saying it isn't.

I'm not saying the last picture is moments after sewing in my kinky curly weave and partaking in a Mac Photo Booth shoot for potential online dating profile pictures. But I'm not saying it isn't.

It was definitely a learning curve since I was spoiled by my homegirl in Atlanta who charged me next to nothing to weave my hair while keeping it laaiid. But I moved and was momentarily lost and confused. I imagine it's like having that one weed man who provides both quality and decent prices and then suddenly losing him. I guess the difference is you could actually hang out with your weave hook-up (cause she's probably your friend in real life) and not feel weird or guilty about it. I mean, I wouldn't know since I don't smoke, so maybe hanging out with your weed man is a thing. And while you have a normal job, your weed hook-up lives like a hippie, but then ish gets real when you witness a crime together, leading you into crazy hijinks while an MIA song plays in the background of your lives--“Paper Planes” perhaps. And then y'all fight, but then hug it out and then star in movies playing different versions of yourselves. 

Yeah, no, wouldn't work. 

Well, since I moved and my homegirl wasn't around to do my hair, Black Hair Media Forum, an extremely popular haircare message board, was a godsend. I eventually learned how to create my own wigs and how to sew weaves. The chicks on there literally have threads dedicated to exchanging pictures of afro-textured weaves and reviewing hair vendors (yeah, I started a thread myself, whatever). 

The highest compliment on those threads is insisting that someone's weave is indeed growing out of that someone's scalp because it looks way too realistic. And that lady on TV who said women don't buy afro weaves? Yeah, she has no idea what she's talking about. There are wide varieties of afro-textured weaves that are pre-made and get sold out quickly. When you get real fancy, you have your own vendor that can source and customize it for you. 

The downside is that quality hair is very expensive. Maintain your investment as much as possible by sealing your wefts and limiting the extent to which you manipulate it. Basically, treat it like your own natural hair. 

Further, afro-textured weaves will undoubtedly shed and tangle more, but some vendors are worse than others, so research carefully. For this frugal chick, this is the one area of my beauty process in which I will cough up the money. Whatever can simplify my hair regimen, maintain my hair's health, and retain my length is a worthwhile investment. 

With all of this, I stress that embracing and styling your natural hair is a very individual journey. Afro-textured hair varies sooo widely depending on its porosity, density, and curl pattern. It really is a science--you have to experiment and find out what works for you! 

So while these tips have been life-savers (OK, they just saved my hair, but totes the same thing!), try different options. But don't give up. And for Colored Girls Who've Considered Permicide When The Fro Wasn't Enough, lay down your burden of Mizani Butter Blends. I was only tempted, once, in my two-year journey to apply a relaxer, but I will never go back to them. 

And so what if the New York Times, like everyone everywhere all the time, thinks afros are sooo cool? I mean I do, too, and they are practically the epitome of natural hair. But they don't work for me, son. 

And then other people are all "Why do you have to wear a weave and not a fro?!!"  since they know allll about black hair after seeing that Chris Rock documentary that one time. But guess what: they do not know your struggle! But I got you, sis, and so does she.