When I made the decision to journey to Colombia for a months-long fellowship in early March, I tried my best to mentally prepare myself for the many cultural adjustments I knew would likely be in store. Out of all the new customs and realities I’ve experienced, from buying “recargas” at random markets or street vendors to re-up the minutes on my phone to the no-flush policy for toilet paper, the lack of products and spaces for Black hair care has been the most startling and challenging of them all.
Although Colombia is reported to have the the second-largest Black population in South America, it seems the natural hair care movement has yet to reach its shores. Actually just about any semblance of products targeting very curly to kinky hair textures is obsolete. I must have been too caught up in the process of settling into a new environment to notice the lack of fros and twists outs during my first few weeks here, but once I set foot in a few hair care aisles in desperate need of a good conditioner and hair oil after I lost my two favorites, things became very clear. Of course I didn’t expect to see the latest Carol’s Daughter line, but surely Cartagena – a hub of brown hues and a range of hair types – of all cities, would have something of the sort I assumed.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.
My eyes were met with row after row of products aimed at locs of the long, straight, and silky persuasion. And in the same way that “nude” has been used to suggest Euro-centic norms, the shelves lined with labeling and ads for blondes and brunettes were a similar hint that hair textures outside of these types are not considered ideal or worthy of the same attention. The local Peluquerías (hair salons) all advertise relaxers and blow outs, and with one look at the photos adorning their walls, it’s clear they’re not targeting anyone with hair in the 3C to 4C range. When speaking to women in the community, the question of where I can find “our” products seems somehow inconceivable and is usually met with pause and confusion.
Already slightly dismayed at the lack of open recognition and celebration of African ancestry and Black identity here, this almost sent me on a one-way ticket back to Philadelphia, where I could walk into just about any store and at least find some Luster’s Pink Hair Lotion and a pomade.
Until now, I didn’t realize just how trailblazing it is for us to have such a wide range of styling options, salons, and lines that cater to Black hair in the U.S. We often get into unnecessary bickering about the best way to wear our hair, when the simple fact that we have so many options is applaudable when compared to other countries. Truth is, there’s a huge need around the world for similar accessibility and awareness, even in many African nations. Everywhere White beauty standards have dominated, you find a disconnect in the way we approach our hair care; and as I’m learning, Colombia is among those countries that are largely out-of-touch.
Even though hair discrimination exists in the States, we can still turn on the TV or walk down any street and see a sister proudly rocking her hair in it’s natural state, which is far from the case here. Walking through Cartagena, you either see perms or a few heads of braids, and on television newscasters and actresses are all seen with straight, blow-in-the-wind tresses.
As someone who’s been finding my way through natural hair care all my life, I don’t necessarily agree with the black-and-white notion that choosing to relax or wear hair extensions automatically indicates lack of self-love. I recognize there are some decisions we make out of convenience or preference, and I personally have no problem alternating between straightening my hair with heat, wearing it curly, or wearing weaves as protective styling or simply to switch it up. I think the problem lies in feeling a sense of inferiority about your texture, not being educated on how to maintain it properly, or feeding into media programming that beauty and success is only achieved with straight hair. And if the shelves of Colombian stores reveal anything, it’s that the aforementioned are among the issues at hand.
It could be that some sisters here opt to chemically straighten their hair out of convenience due to the hot climate – which I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy to manage curly/kinky hair in the heat and humidity, but I have more reason to believe that many women don’t know about other styling choices for their natural hair or are adapting to a culture that seems to overlook and shun their hair type.
This disappointing reality, has shown me how much sisters in the U.S. are truly pioneering the market and space for Black hair care. From the online communities, YouTube tutorials, to the plethora of product lines, there’s no shortage of options and we’re getting to a place where a more diverse depiction of beauty is being embraced in media. It’s a much needed transition that has long been fought for, and of course still has plenty of room for improvement.
Yet, as I witness the time-warp of hair care here in Colombia, the saying “you don’t what you got until it’s gone” definitely comes to mind. Looking back to the time I spent preparing for my journey, knowing what I know now, I would have easily sacrificed a few pairs of shoes and an outfit or two, to squeeze some more “juices and berries” into my luggage. Never could I have imagined that even just the sight of a “Just for Me” box would bring my soul a sense of satisfaction, and until someone comes to visit with my must-haves in tow, I’ll have to come to terms with a culture of beauty that unfortunately isn’t geared towards anyone with hair like me.