I had finished the ‘O’ levels of my secondary education (there was one more level to complete before heading to a tertiary institution) and I couldn’t wait to go through the ‘rite of passage for most girls back then; get a perm! A ‘perm’ (short for permanent, meaning your hair was getting a relaxer- a chemical product used to straighten (African) hair.
Photo shows hair loss along the edges – Pic credit New York Times
I was excited! And I knew the ritual; white cream is applied all over virgin natural African coily hair and just wait for it to burn…and burn your scalp some more till your whole head feels like it’s on fire. Then make a beeline for the sink where ice-cool water is run over your head to wash out the creamy substance and – relief! I realized my sides were still burning after the wash, and when it was being toweled, it felt like a rake scraping my edges backwards. Worse, clumps of my hair had come off into the towel…I had lost all the hair around my edges leaving me with bald patches. Shock didn’t come to me with much of a warning as tears started rolling down my eyes. I had experienced alopecia, a.k.a baldness.
Traction Alopecia (TA)- what causes it
This is the medical term given to the type of balding (hair loss) which is caused by how you style and or treat your hair. Alopecia, simply put, is hair loss; traction means pulling back. Therefore, traction alopecia loosely means losing hair that’s been pulled back constantly. The bad news is that this type of hair loss is irreparable; once follicles are damaged, that usually is it; the hair won’t regrow. If it does, it may not be as thick and healthy as before.
Relaxers, texturisers, hair dye and bleach and any other chemicals or processes that the African hair is subjected to change it from its original state can also cause it. Using hard/harsh hair brushes on the edges (and front, centre or back) of your hair can result in irreversible damage to your hair.
Traction alopecia doesn’t just happen overnight; it happens over the course of your hair’s life. Maintaining the same ‘pulling’ styles constantly will bring it on quickly. Nothing in life lasts forever, and so as we grow we will lose our hair eventually. What you want is to manage your hair such that it sees you through your twilight years.
How do we avoid TA:
Pulling: the ‘eentsy-weentsy’ cornrows and braids, and too-tight ponytails and heavy and long braids that go past your waist are some of the style culprits. We all know that freshly-braided look, where you can’t even see your ‘baby’ hairs around your forehead! That’s how you start uprooting your hairline from its follicles, damaging it completely. Be gentle with your hair and tell your hairdresser same; use a lot of leave-in conditioner on your hairline and hair when it’s being done to keep it moisturized.
Too long: Braids and cornrows are not a bad style for your hair; keeping them for too long is the real harm to your hair. How can you tell you have kept it for too long? When you begin to scratch (or slap) your head, it’s time to take out your braids. I am not mentioning ‘weaves’ as most of you wouldn’t need to be wearing them; however, if you do wear them, the same rules about braids will apply here too. And when you do take out your braids, you should let your hair ‘rest’ as long as you kept the braids in. Your hair doesn’t need to be manipulated all.the.time! Let it just be sometimes and keep moisturizing it.
There are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings about managing the African hair. However, there’s a world of information out there on how to manage your hair and which products to use. There are even tips on how to make your own hair products at home, and what hairstyles are best for your hair. May I recommend a good documentary for you to watch?
It’s called Good Hair, produced by the American actor, Chris Rock and details fascinating facts and opinions about African hair and the multibillion dollar that it is. What is most important is that you read up on your hair and be conscious of what you put in your hair and how you choose to style it; your hair must last you your lifetime.
Note: Boys and men can also suffer from TA; using harsh brushes for your scalp, wearing hats/caps constantly and if you do braid your hair can cause it. Use soft hair brushes and brush your hair gently your