“I love a slicked edge. Slicking my hair back elevates the style, I just feel dressed up,” says Abigail who works in digital marketing. “I feel like my hairstyle isn’t ‘finished’ when my edges aren’t slicked. [Back in the day] when we’d go link mandem after school, we’d be in the toilets putting on mascara and slicking our edges. It’s part of the process.”
Abigail, 26, is one of the many Black women with a love for slicking their baby hairs, but she also thinks Black women should be free to wear their hair however they want to wear it. “If you want to wear your hair out natural, no slicked edges, it can look banging too, each to their own.”
Most commonly known as ‘edges’ or baby hairs, Black women often sculpt the shorter hairs at the front of the hairline with gel or wax to lay down onto the skin. Layed edges can be kept simple, or they can be made more intricate with swirls and swoops.
“Slick my hair with me” and “Watch me slay these short 4c edges” are video captions you’ve probably seen all over TikTok. Yet Black women slicking or laying their edges have been around much longer than TikTok’s relatively short lifespan of six years. During the 1920s, dancer, singer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker was one of the first influential women to sport the look in mainstream media, perEssence magazine, and proudly showed off her carefully crafted baby hairs that framed her face at her Parisian theatre performances. Jazz singer Baby Esther — also commonly referred as the Black Betty Boop — also loved to wear her edges swooped, and was another pioneer of the trend in the late 1920s.
Black hairstyling is an art form. It’s a celebration of beauty, power, self-expression, and it, like many other trends spearheaded by Black people, has gone on to influence non-Black communities. But while slicking edges creates room for creativity, Black women who simply choose not to slick their edges, can sometimes feel left behind. PR coordinator Danielle, 24, tells Unbothered that she’s staunchly selective on slicking edges. “The obsession Black women have with looking perfect and polished can sometimes harm us,” Danielle says.
“We can end up being twice as harsh on each other for no reason. It’s become a requirement that slick edges are worn with natural or relaxed hair and we need to do more questioning as to why that is,” she explains.
Danielle also noted that she only started to feel pressure to have slicked edges after some friends at the time made comments about her hair not looking “done” because she didn’t slick hers. “At the time I was pretty confused and pushed back against their commentary because I just found it weird and unnecessary. If you’ve seen I’ve brushed my hair and tied it up, it’s clear I’ve put some kind of effort into my appearance, there shouldn’t be any questioning of why I haven’t put a shit tonne of gel into my hair after that. We police each other in such a strict way and it’s weird.”
While laid baby hairs have always been held in high regard in Black communities, maybe it’s time to unpack the relationship we have with our edges. Is the slicked edges ideal a barometer of Black beauty, separating what’s considered beautiful in the eyes of society and what isn’t? Is the trend unaccepting of Black women who choose to leave their edges free, deeming them “messy” or “unkempt” for doing so?
There are complexities and nuances we can’t ignore when speaking about issues like these. And Natalie Bullock Brown, agrees. Bullock Brown is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies at North Carolina State University, and producer of a work-in-progress documentary, baartman, beyoncé & me, that will explore the impact of the white beauty standard on Black women and girls.
“It’s not simply that Black women who lay their edges are affected by white supremacy and Black women who don’t, or who wear their hair completely natural, are not,” she explains. “I think [slicked edges] is our way of reclaiming our beauty. The babydoll look flies in the face of the stereotypes that say we’re not feminine, we’re not beautiful, we’re manly.”
However, Bullock Brown also believes that there is anti-Blackness that is subliminal and subconscious surrounding Black hair, particularly on YouTube. “I do also think the pursuit of that look is interesting. There is a signalling about Black hair and this supposed ugliness that it possesses when it’s in its natural state,” she adds. “Just look at the plethora of videos that are talking about various Black hair textures, and the underlying commentary is that to some degree, some [kinkier] textures are harder to deal with, or are better than others.”
Tendai Moyo, founder of Ruka Hair, echoes this. She believes that the pressure to have slicked edges comes from the media and a lot of the hair companies. “If you go into a shopping mall, and when you look at the gel specifically marketed to Black women, all of them are using language like ‘anti frizz’ and ‘taming unruly edges’,” she says. “A lot of these brands that Black women spend money on are largely responsible for conditioning people to believe that there’s something wrong,” Moyo adds.
The power of language is important and can be a big driver in making Black women feel as though it’s not enough to be our natural selves. That’s why for Tendai, building a brand that had inclusivity at the centre of it was her priority. Ruka started their journey with hair extensions for Black women that mimic real curl patterns but later found that their customers would ask questions about the best gel to slick down their hair with. “We actually don’t call our edge gel ‘edge control’. Because the connotations around edge control have always been to tame hair [rather than to just style it],” Moyo explains.
Black women are enjoying their hair in all forms and, with the knowledge we now have about healthy hair care, making sure they’re using safe products with safe ingredients. “It’s about having fun, playing with it. Whether their hair is in a ponytail, whether it’s in a wig, or whether it’s out,” she says. Ruka’s edge gel is formulated with skincare ingredients, and Spinosa fruit extract that puts a barrier against pollutants, to make sure Black women don’t have to compromise on hair health for style. “We spoke to so many people that told us they get spots on my forehead, or their edges become dry and sparse when they use some of the hair gels on the market.”
This is something that both Danielle and Abigail have experienced. “I do find it can dry [my edges] out a bit and create flaking, it’s a lot healthier to leave them alone sometimes,” Danielle says. Abigail adds that her edges are quite fine, so she used to slick them to try and mask this but would sometimes get damaged and would have to switch hairstyles for a while.
Moyo also believes the conversation is bigger than just the pressure for Black women to “do” their edges. “I think a lot of Black women are tired,” she says. “We’re tired because doing our hair has historically always been incredibly time-consuming. And it’s always been about attaining a standard of perfection that never really exists.”
“Some people are like, I don’t want to sit down for eight hours to get my hair done.”
As the culture shifts from centering perfect edges and having the “right” type of Black hair, to healthy hair and having fun with styles, we can hopefully leave the pursuit of this rigid standard of Black beauty behind.
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