If you’ve been anywhere on social media recently, you’ll have seen Tessica Brown. Largely referred to as ‘Gorilla Glue girl’, she went viral after using a handyman’s best friend instead of a well-known brand of hair gel. Many of us looked on with complete bafflement and phantom scalp aches. And while I’m sure the same mistake won’t ever be made unintentionally, it also highlights a growing issue within Black hair care. What are the lengths many of us will go to for a ‘perfect’ sleek look?
Styling gels and edge controls have been part of my hair routine for a long time. If you have curly hair, they’re the key to any bun, slick middle parting or the perfect way to frame braids – and over the years I’ve bought various types of product in a bid to find the best one. When I got to university and started clubbing regularly I not only wanted to have carefully slicked baby hairs but also needed something that would withstand hours of dancing.
It was also at university that I developed mild trichotillomania, a condition where you pull your hair out. Stress-induced, I’d often mindlessly pull my hair and largely, my edges. Suddenly, the thick hair I’d always had was thinner and needed covering up. In the same way I apply concealer to cover blemishes, edge control became my holy grail to mask patches of missing hair. But, I came to realise that the cycle of applying and reapplying gels was not a great idea for my most delicate hairs. Using ‘ultra strong’ gels and repeatedly brushing them through was actually just pulling more of these hairs out.
“Using ‘ultra strong’ gels and repeatedly brushing them through was actually just pulling more of these hairs out”
Aitza Burgess Reynolds, 26, has eczema and found using edge controls exacerbated it. “It started drying out my scalp and my hair,” she explains. “Applying it to those already sensitive areas that were affected caused the hair across my hairline to fall out.” Her doctor eventually told her to stop using the products but, as she explains, “Pretty much all of my hairline, I could tell, had [already] receded a little bit.” Having always been a natural but wearing a lot of protective styles, Aitza had to resort to having to ask braiders not to use certain edge controls. Ultimately, she declares, “I prefer hair health over a style.”
Trichologist and author Lorna Jones says it’s important to understand the common hair cycle to recognise what gel does to our hair. Essentially, our hair grows from the hair follicle and as long as the hair follicle stays intact it goes through the hair growth cycle … which is hair growing, then falling out and renewal. Vellus hairs, or what we know as ‘baby hairs’ are “tiny and fragile”, Lorna says. As we layer gels and use small brushes “you’re manipulating them … over manipulation will never be good”. She explains that long-term, it can lead to traction alopecia and simply damage your follicle altogether.
But where did this love for slicked edges begin? The history of laid edges can be traced back to the early 1900s. At the height of her career, between 1911 and 1919, Madame C.J. Walker popularised the image of straightened Black hair. Her famous ‘Walker System’ of pomades, strenuous brushing and hot combs, promised hair growth but fed into a wider trend. In the 1920s carefully styling baby hairs also became the norm when finger waves saw many women use heavy products to reshape their hairline.
Joycelyn and Rachael, founders of hair brand Afrocenchix, both tell me that while they’ve started prototyping a natural gel, they “won’t ever do an edge control”. They explain that upon starting Afrocenchix, both had “bald patches and dodgy hairlines due to a childhood filled with relaxers. We pledged to only ever make products that promote optimum health and wellbeing. Edge controls, to us, don’t fit into that. Why do our edges need to be ‘controlled’?”
Joycelyn and Rachael see the idea of ‘taming’ our edges as “an extension of the impossible eurocentric beauty ideal. We want women to feel in control of their edges, not to be controlled by them”.
It’s this unrealistic beauty standard that motivated Hannah Akhalu, 20, to start using gels. Drama school was “a very very white space, I started using gel and edge control again to make the curls of my hair look looser but then I got tired of the product build-up”, she explains. Nowadays, for auditions, she still feels like she’s using more gels and edge controls than she’d like. “It’s the only way my hair looks ‘neat’ and acceptable basically,” she adds. “I definitely do feel that as a Black woman, especially in the industry I’m in, my hair and the way it looks is so important and is often hypercriticised.”
“as a Black woman, especially in the industry I’m in, my hair and the way it looks is so important and is often hypercriticised”Hannah Akhalu
While my usage of gels is now limited to focus on hair regrowth, I still gravitate towards them for specific hairstyles – and on nights outs especially. Only when lockdown first hit last year did I confront my need for ‘perfect’ hairstyles. What was the point of swooping perfect lines into my hair if my laptop camera wasn’t picking them up over Zoom? And did I need my edges constantly laid when in the comfort of my own home? My hair confidence has grown from recently detaching myself from these imposed images of ideal hairstyles. Some days it may involve using gel but on the whole, there’s liberation in ignoring my once trusty duo of toothbrush and edge control.
Marian Kwei, 39, also had to ask herself some questions about her hair over lockdown. She was laying her edges “just to go to the supermarket”. Working from home, Marian comments that “I’m not quite sure where I’m going where I feel like I need to lay down these edges but yeah, it’s terrible.” She started to use edge controls in 2017, which she says coincided with “jumping on a bandwagon” of wearing lace front wigs.
“I got a little addicted to how natural it’d look if you just laid your edges right,” she explains. Having 4C coily edges, Marian says she’s found that “using quite a few products just helps it to lay down.” Excessively styling her edges for wigs though means “too much tension and friction.” “I found that it would make me lose hair … the bulk of my hair but mostly around my edges.”
A 2018 study by Science Direct found that over 80% of Black hair products on the market contain harmful chemicals. Choosing “natural ingredients that are beneficial to afro hair” is integral for Afrocenchix’s Joyceyln and Rachael. But what’s commonly found in our hair products? Some alcohols, specifically alcohol denat which can be drying and sodium lauryl sulfate, which can cause skin irritation, especially for people with eczema. “Silicones are not natural sealants,” explain the pair. They hold dirt and prevent moisture absorption which can lead to weakened hair.
For many of us, slicked down hair is the pièce de resistance of many styles and many of us won’t view a hairstyle as ‘done’ without having our baby hairs appropriately laid down.
It’s something award-winning hairstylist Charlotte Mensah strives to change the narrative around in her work. “Having unlaid edges doesn’t mean your hairdo is dry or not done,” she says. But instead laid edges should be seen as “an option not a necessity. Your edges can be lush and textured. Sometimes those short delicate strands just want to do their own thing.”
“Our relationship with sleek hair is also a by-product of the world failing to understand coarser, afro hair textures”
Striving for perfection in our hairstyles is “representative of how TV or a magazine can really affect what we think of as good looking,” Marian mentions. Our relationship with sleek hair is also a by-product of the world failing to understand coarser, afro hair textures deeming one style as professional, and the other unruly.
Black hair has long been policed; from the 18th century Tignon laws to more recently, teenager Ruby Williams undergoing a three year legal battle after repeatedly being sent home from school. The reason? Her afro hair was seen as not conforming to the school’s uniform policy. In the United States, the 2020 Crown Act is fighting to end hair texture discrimination in the workplace and at school. If passed, the act would ensure discrimination based on natural hairstyles as well as locs, braids and twists would be illegal.
‘Gorilla Glue girl’is not representative of how many of us understand hairstyling but what happened to her does show “what happens when pressure is put on women to look a certain way”, Joycelyn and Rachael say. Aitza agrees, rightfully referring to there being “this obsession with ‘yes, you can be natural, but you need to be a certain kind of natural”.
While laid edges are perceived to look nice, they’re largely born out of a eurocentric ideal and make us forget that curly edges can also look nice too. It should be noted that many of these edge controls are made to be harsh in order to hold. I’ve learnt that for me, covering up an uneven hairline isn’t made better by these products – but more importantly, over-manipulating our edges and excessively using edge control is, quite literally, making many of us lose our hair.