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Black bridesmaids are being told their natural Afro hair ‘isn’t suitable’ for weddings.

When Alysha* was asked to be a bridesmaid for her childhood best friend, she was completely over the moon. To be an integral part of such a special occasion was a huge honour, and Alysha relished the planning, the hen do, and the excitement over the dresses, flowers and makeup. But she was the only Black bridesmaid – and her white best friend didn’t think about the fact that she would have different needs when it came to hair styling. This lack of consideration almost destroyed their friendship. Alysha tells ‘The bride – let’s call her Sophie* – wanted us to all have the exact same makeup and the exact same hair. I don’t know how we were ever going to achieve that, the three other bridesmaids were white with straight hair.

‘I have 4a Afro hair, and I have worked really hard to improve my hair after years of heat damage. I moisturise, sleep with a satin bonnet, wear protective styles.’ In the weeks before the wedding, Sophie told Alysha that she would need to have her hair straightened for the big day. She promised the stylist she had booked knew how to work with curly hair. ‘I didn’t want to have my hair straightened, but I also didn’t want to cause any problems for Sophie,’ says Alysha. ‘The day was about her, not me, so I decided to just go along with what she wanted. ‘But on the day, it was clear the white stylist had no idea what she was doing. She didn’t have any of the right products and just started attacking my hair with straighteners without blow-drying or using any heat protection. ‘My hair was sizzling, the whole room filled with smoke and I could smell burning. ‘I was mortified, and so upset because I knew how much damage that was doing to my hair. And sure enough, a lot of the top layer snapped. I still have short, uneven bits even though the wedding was about a year ago. ‘I cried as my hair was being done, but I tried to hide it from Sophie. It was so stressful. When the styling was finished, it looked awful. My hair was frazzled, straight in parts, but still curly underneath and at the roots. I hated it. ‘I did my best to fix it in the bathroom with a million hair grips, but I felt self-conscious and ugly all day. And Sophie was pissed off at me for getting upset about it. ‘If I’m honest, I’m still pissed off at her for not thinking about me at all. It wouldn’t have been hard to find a stylist who can actually do my hair.’ This is an all too common experience for Black bridesmaids. Natural Afro hair is regularly ruled out for weddings, with many believing that it must be ‘tamed’ or made sleek in order to look appropriate for a formal setting. A study earlier this year found that Black women who don’t straighten their hair are ‘less likely to get jobs because employers perceive them to be less professional’. Black children are still repeatedly excluded from school and penalised for wearing their natural hair or protective styles. This stigma and discrimination that labels Afro hair unprofessional, messy and unkempt, spills over into the world of weddings, to the point where wearing natural hair at a wedding is rarely seen as an option. This attitude is perpetuated by the lack of representation.

If you Google weddings, or take a quick scan on Pinterest’s wedding inspiration boards, you will see image after image of white brides and bridesmaids with glossy, sleek up-dos. Even the Black brides you see will normally have straightened hair or straight weaves. Traditional bridal styles are focused on the sleek control and smooth, glossy lines that you can only really achieve with straight hair. The volume, versatility and intricacy of Afro hair styles are not regarded as aspirational for brides in the same way. ‘Brides feel completely hopeless about wearing their natural hair on their special day.’ (Picture: Tanya Weekes/The Curly Bride Co) Sacha Atherton is the founder of The Curly Bride Company. She wants to undo the erasure of Afro hair in the wedding industry, and empower Black women, men and parents to feel they can be exactly who they are in every setting. ‘There is this myth that natural hair at weddings is difficult or looks messy, and it’s absolute nonsense,’ Sacha tells ‘I have seen hundreds of women in the natural hair community announcing that they have decided to embrace their natural hair for their wedding, quickly followed by the brick wall they face when trying to find representation, inspiration or even suitable vendors.  ‘We are receiving so much feedback from brides that were feeling completely hopeless about wearing their natural hair on their special day.  ‘Also, children are forced to suffer heat damage to their hair from over 200-degree heat, as a result of how natural hair is viewed in weddings and in society. ‘I have had clients tell me that they have been told their child cannot even have braids because “braids are not for weddings”.’

Sacha says it would be a mistake to downplay the effect of hair discrimination, or assume it isn’t important because it is about something ‘superficial’. She says the consequences of being treated differently because of your natural hair are long-lasting and can be incredibly damaging. ‘I wish I could say that the impact is purely surface level and may just be seen as a mild criticism but the fact is this is the narrative being used even towards children,’ she explains. ‘I think my hair’s great – there is so much beauty in natural hair.’ (Picture: Tanya Weekes/The Curly Bride Co) ‘You have brides that are making what is seen as a bold and rebellious decision to not straighten their hair for their wedding and this comes from lifelong experiences, mainly from childhood. ‘Then you have parents or, even more damaging and heartbreaking, children themselves being the centre of family debates, being told that the child’s Afro hair isn’t suitable for the wedding and placing conditions on them being bridesmaids or flower girls. ‘Sometimes this happens to boys too, there will be demands that their hair is changed or “fixed” because it is too “difficult” or needs “taming”. Imagine being a child and hearing that about your hair. Well, that is exactly why it isn’t an easy decision for most of the brides that were once these children.’  Fadumo knows exactly how this feels. She has had many terse conversations about weddings with family and friends over the years, as people pressure her to straighten her naturally curly hair for their big day. She puts these attitudes down to East African culture, where she says the beauty standards are still focused on fairer skin and straighter hair. ‘My family is quite diverse in terms of skin colour and hair texture, but I have very curly hair,’ Fadumo tells ‘I’m a fan of my hair, I have been natural for as long as I can remember.

I never straighten my hair. ‘Before weddings, family members will ask me – “oh, are you going to straighten your hair?”, and I’m like, “no”, and they’re like, “but it doesn’t look neat, it doesn’t look wedding-like, it doesn’t look professional.” ‘They will always tell me to straighten it. There have been a couple of times where I have put my foot down and just refused to do it. ‘Brides have said to me that if I don’t straighten my hair I’m going to ruin the “look” of the wedding. I’ve even been told that I actually can’t be a bridesmaid because of it.’ ‘This is a deep-rooted problem stemming from racism and the standards of beauty taught by society’ A few years ago, one bride told Fadumo that she would need to straighten her hair or wear a wig or extensions in order to fit in with the ‘soft glam’ look she wanted for her wedding. ‘I wasn’t going to fight a bridezilla, so I just left her to it and said I would pull out,’ says Fadumo. ‘I wasn’t willing to change up my hair. ‘I find it very irritating when I go to weddings and people make comments. They will say – “Aw, didn’t you get time to do your hair?”, and I have to explain to them that I did, and that heat damage wasn’t what I wanted in life. ‘It seems to come from the older aunties who are very set in their ways about what they consider to be beautiful. They tell me that I have a pretty face so my hair should also be beautiful. But I think my hair’s great, and that there is so much beauty in natural hair.’ Another reason Fadumo is reluctant to straighten her hair is because she is conscious of the example she is setting for her younger nieces. ‘Some of them have really curly hair like me, and I don’t want them to look at me straightening my hair all the time and see it as the norm,’ she explains. At their heart, weddings are meant to be a celebration of love. But the aesthetics of the ceremony can overtake the sentiment behind it. It’s completely reasonable for a bride to have specific ideas about the look of her wedding day, but Sacha believes that nobody should be forced into fitting a specific aesthetic, or told that how they look isn’t good enough.

‘This is a deep-rooted problem stemming from racism and the standards of beauty taught by society and the media for generations,’ Sacha tells us. ‘Weddings are just a by-product of that.  ‘We are talking about the hair as it grows out of our head. Nobody with straight hair has to endure any of this.  ‘Black women have to straighten their hair or wear straight weaves for interviews because they fear their natural hair won’t be seen as professional – like it has any impact on their ability to do their job. ‘The internal damage of this narrative and these attitudes is far too great, it stays with most of us for a lifetime. We were those children who were told we had to change our hair at weddings and family events. It affects our confidence, mental health behaviours, self-worth, behaviours, so many things.’