Ramla Ali vividly remembers the first time her hair made her feel unworthy. The Somali-born boxer, model, and face of Pantene’s Gold Series was in primary school, excited for the arrival of her class’ annual photo day. “I had a nice dress, woke up early to braid my hair – it was like an event,” she tells me over Zoom. “The kids are queueing up, and I remember the photographer telling all the girls in front of me, ‘aren’t you such a pretty princess.’” But when Ali’s turn in the chair arrived, the photographer's compliment changed. “The moment I sat down I was told, ‘aren't you so smiley’. I was very, very upset.”
Ali believes that shift in language was a reaction to her natural Afro hair. “I had my hair in cane rows and all the other girls – the princesses – just had lovely long, straight hair.”
This experience is one of the reasons Ali has had such a tumultuous relationship with her curls, and why the route to embracing them has been so arduous. “When I was younger, my hair was always tied up and hidden – I asked my sisters to straighten it for me. And this was before hair straighteners even existed. They’d use an iron and a towel to straighten my hair. Those incidences stay with you for a long time.”
Ali’s encounter is hardly unique – new research by Pantene suggests that 93 per cent of Black women in the UK have experienced at least one micro-aggression related to their natural hair. It’s a shocking statistic, but Ali believes the real number may be even higher.
“I'm sure the other seven per cent have experienced [hair discrimination] in some way, but they just haven’t noticed,” she says, spotlighting the insidious nature of these often fleeting comments and actions. “I’m pretty sure most people have suffered at one point in their lives. If that attitude is how you’ve always been spoken to, maybe you don’t realise it’s not ok. If that’s all you hear, you grow up thinking it’s normal.”
Clearly, there is work to do – and Pantene is one of several companies stepping up. In collaboration with Black Minds Matter and Project Embrace, the Gold Series My Hair Won’t Be Silenced campaign aims to help stamp out hair-related discrimination by providing educational resources on the science of Afro hair and the damaging effects of micro-aggressions, while highlighting ways to support the mission.
Together with the Power of Hair Fund, which supports charities and community groups working towards the common goal, the campaign aims to help reach a 50 per cent reduction in hair discrimination in the UK by 2025. Considering that over half of Black people with Afro hair believe their self-esteem or mental health has been negatively impacted by such discrimination, it’s vital work.
Indeed, many headline cases have starkly illustrated the prevalence of hair discrimination in the UK today, from activist and podcaster Simone Powderly being asked to remove her braids in order to secure a job in recruitment, to the case of Ruby Williams: the first student to win an out-of-court settlement against her East London school, after being sent home for attending class with her Afro hair in its natural state.
Such discrimination is an issue Ali has been vocal about for some time, making her involvement in the campaign a perfect fit. She grew up alongside her two sisters, yet often felt alone in her self-esteem struggles. “I’m the only one with Afro hair in my family – both my sisters have quite straight, silky hair and that’s probably from my Arabic dad's side. I took after my mum who has this massive Afro hair. So my sisters haven’t been through the same things I have – my mum would have to wake up early in the morning to braid my hair, while my sisters could just do whatever they wanted. I always used to be jealous of that, of the fact their hair was minimal effort. Mine was always maximum.”
Pantene’s research found that 46 per cent of Black women have been subjected to uninvited hair touching, and Ali too singles it out as the most prevalent micro-aggression in the UK today. “I know any time I have my hair out in all its glory, people always want to touch it, and it’s so bad. I would describe it the same as a man touching a woman without her consent. It’s part of me, part of my body, so why would you touch it?”
Of course, these micro-aggressions often come from a place of ignorance, rather than malice. Certain actions can even be dressed up as compliments, in the form of comments such as "Isn’t your hair amazing!" The intent isn’t necessarily to offend or cause discomfort – and that’s exactly what makes this issue so difficult to unpick.
“A lot of people don’t understand it’s offensive – they think touching your hair or making a comment is a positive thing, but you don’t understand what people are going through inside. So to you it might be positive, but the person that's being affected can be impacted in a negative way.”
Ali also remembers the turning point in her journey to hair acceptance. “It wasn’t until quite recently, on a photoshoot. My hair was getting braided, and the editor walked past and said, ‘you can’t put this hair in braids, you have to let it out!’ It was a cover with a couple of other girls, and my big hair literally took centre stage. I think that was the first time I fell in love with it.”
Ali wants her involvement with Pantene to be a catalyst for other girls learning to love their natural hair. “Growing up, I never saw girls like me advertising for huge hair companies, and I've always said that representation is so important: you can’t be what you can’t see. I’d watch TV and see these girls shampooing their hair under a waterfall and voila, their hair is so silky and straight. And because that wasn’t me I always hated my hair.”
So, how do we begin to end such a well-ingrained form of racism? According to Ali, the path to ending hair discrimination needs to start in schools, with a curriculum that addresses history from every angle. “A lot of people are campaigning for Black curriculum at school, and that’s really important because kids need to understand about Black culture, Black history. Now, when we talk about Black history in school it’s always the negative parts. Education is so important, and it needs to start from the bottom, so as kids grow up, it’ll always have been instilled in them.” For children to grow up relieved of the pressure to conform to white standards of beauty is a powerful thing indeed.
Now, Ali has come full circle, equating her hair-care routine as a true form of self care. “Having a good hair day makes your day. For me, caring for my hair isn’t a chore: if my hair feels good, I feel good. And who doesn’t want to feel good every day?”
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