The Hair Chart

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Oprah Winfrey’s hair is an amazing and ever-changing object of design. A quick Google image search of her, and you can see it in a dozen different styles, but there is a consistency too, a brand, a familiarity. If you took Oprah’s face out of all those Google images, so that all you could see was a series of pictures of hair, you’d still know it was her.

Leila Day:
And even though she’s done weaves and braids and all sorts of styles, she’s also a natural. Meaning, she doesn’t use chemical relaxers to try to straighten her hair. That’s actually something Oprah and I have in common.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Leila Day from “The Stoop” podcast, which is about stories from across the Black diaspora. And since I’m a white guy with very little hair, I’m actually going to hand this one entirely over to her now.

Leila Day:
Oprah gives most of the credit for her amazing natural hair to one person.

Oprah Winfrey: This is Andre Walker whose done my hair for 18 years. I’ve been through some really good styles and a couple of bad years. But right now…

Gayle King: For the most part, they’ve been really exceptional.

Oprah Winfrey: They’ve been really good. You’ve done amazing jobs. That’s a very difficult thing to do.

Andre Walker: That’s why you need the same person who knows your hair doing it all the time as well.

Oprah Winfrey: Well, Andre, your job is secure.

Leila Day:
Andre Walker first saw Oprah on her talk show A.M. Chicago back in the 80s.

Andre Walker:
I thought she was fantastic. I was watching her show every morning and I thought, you know, I want to get to know her, so I sent her some flowers one day saying, “I’m dying to get my hands in your hair. Please give me a call.”

Leila Day:
He didn’t have to do much convincing to get the job.

Andre Walker:
She called me the next day, and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, that was easy.”

Leila Day:
Andre traveled the globe with Oprah as she became one of the most important media figures in the world. He gave her basically every hairstyle imaginable.

Andre Walker:
A chin-length bob, very layered and spiky, that was one of my favorites, flippy. We did a cover with an Afro on her magazine with this huge Afro wig that was very popular. God, I can go on and on and on.

Leila Day:
But beyond Oprah’s hair, Andre is known for something else, a system that he created back in the 90s to market his line of hair care products. The system categorizes natural hair types and it’s come to be known as “The Hair Chart”.

Advertisement for Andre Walker Hair:
“Andre Walker Hair takes your natural where it’s never gone before.”

Andre Walker:
The hair typing chart consists of four hair types. Within each of those categories, there are different subtypes. Types 1 is for straight hair types. Types 2 is for wavy hair. Types 3 is for curly hair. Type 4 is for kinky hair.

Advertisement Continues:
“Go For The Gold by Andre Walker.” (music)
“For kinky, curly and textured hair.” (music)

Leila Day:
Andre’s hair chart shows each type of hair drawn out and labeled from bigger loopy curls to super tight corkscrews. You can actually cut off a small piece of your hair and compare it to the drawings on the chart to figure out which one you are. I’m what’s considered a 4B, so I’m on the kinkier end of the curl spectrum. And for Andre, it was all about selling his products. If your hair is like this, you buy this product. If it’s like that you buy this other one.

Advertisement Continues:
“Your hair will feel so moist and touchable. You won’t know what to do with yourself. Obviously.”

Leila Day:
I found Andre’s chart after I decided to go natural. Like a lot of black women, I spent years putting chemical relaxers in my hair to straighten it. It actually never even occurred to me not to relax my hair until I was living in Cuba where relaxers were hard to come by.

Leila Day:
And so one day in Cuba, I just decided to do the big chop – to cut my hair and let it grow back natural. It felt like a big deal. For a while, I didn’t even know how to manage it. Sometimes I felt frumpy with my short, tight hair that I couldn’t even comb through. I’d put it on bright red lipstick and big hoop earrings, anything to get through what some people call, the ugly phase.

Leila Day:
All of this was a big change, not just the hair, but how people reacted to me. In Cuba, I went from being called Mulatta, which is more of a mixed girl to Negra, which is black girl. “Aye, you look Negra now.” But somehow Negra didn’t feel like a compliment. I felt pretty lost, so I turned to YouTube to find a community of other naturals, and there was Andre’s system being referenced all over the place.

YouTube Clips:
“What is your hair type? That has to be the most frequently asked question.”
“4C hair is a beautiful creation. You feel me? It’s most beautiful when you take care of her.”
“The front portion of my hair is 3C. I’m going to show you guys exactly…”

Leila Day:
Andrea’s chart has gone way beyond his own line of hair care products. It’s become the go-to way for many of us to understand and talk about the texture of our hair, but not everyone thinks Andre’s categories are a good thing. In fact, I’m not sure they’re a good thing, but his chart has definitely got me thinking about the complicated relationship African-Americans have with our hair. It’s a complicated relationship that goes way back.

Leila Day:
Thick, kinky hair was considered a sign of health and wealth in parts of Africa. But in America, skin tone and hair texture was used to divide enslaved African people. Light-skin and straighter hair could mean more privileges like working in the house and not in the fields. This idea of good hair and bad hair all developed during slavery.

Ayana Bird:
This idea that the straighter your hair was, or the closer it was too white textured hair, the better it was.

Leila Day:
Ayana Byrd is the co-author of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America”. She says, the common belief back then was…

Ayana Bird:
If you had straighter hair, you probably had more white blood than someone who didn’t have straighter hair.

Leila Day:
After slavery ended, these racist beauty standards hung on. In the early 1900s, some people tried to straighten their hair by putting oil on it and then wrapping it with heated flannel. Mothers were even wrapping their children’s hair, often causing burns and a lot of hair damage.

Ayana Bird:
There were even black churches in certain cities that would hang a comb on the front door. If you couldn’t comb your hair with that then you couldn’t worship at that church.

Leila Day:
In the 1920s, hot combs were used to straighten hair and then came a hairstyle known as the conk. You can see it on famous jazz musicians like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. The conk was the name of the style, but it was also the name of the relaxer itself, which was made with a harsh chemical called sodium hydroxide or lye.

Ayana Bird:
It essentially just ate away at your hair and at your scalp and caused a lot of serious burns. They were not safe.

Leila Day:
Some people made their own conks, sometimes with two white potatoes, an egg and Red Devil brand lye – a combo that left many scalps bleeding. The conk eventually went out of style, but relaxers made with sodium hydroxide continued on and became more and more popular. The wash-n-set and under the dryer with a magazine became a very common image in black salons. But then in the 1960s, something different started rising.

Archive Tape: “We have come to register to vote and you must realize that this is a national issue. It’s not a Selma issue, it’s not an Alabama issue. This is a national issue.”

Leila Day:
The Civil Rights Movement brought on the beginning of a new shift that was all about embracing blackness and this meant embracing your natural hair. My mom, aunties, they all did the big chop, cutting out the relaxers and wearing their Afros loud and proud.

Kathleen Cleaver:
This brother here, and myself, all of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this.

Leila Day:
This is an interview from 1968 with former Black Panther, Kathleen Cleaver.

Kathleen Cleaver:
For so many, many years, we were told that only white people were beautiful, only straight hair, light eyes, light skin was beautiful. And so Black women would try everything they could to straighten their hair and lighten their skin to look as much like white women. This has changed because black people are aware and white people are aware of it too because white people now want natural wigs. They want wigs like this. Dig it? Isn’t it beautiful? All right.

Leila Day:
Natural hair and Afros were everywhere from the fluffy ‘fros of the Jackson Five to white celebrities like Barbara Streisand copying the ‘fro.

Ayana Bird:
It was the first time that the relaxer industry, the chemical relaxer industry was really taking a hit financially and not as many people were chemically straightening their hair.

Leila Day:
Instead of straighteners, for the first time, people were seeing products that were meant to complement their natural hair like Afro Sheen, which gave the Afro a bit more shine and made it glisten like a halo in the sunlight. (Afro Sheen advertisement) Even as Afros continued to be an important style, in the 1980s a new chemical hairdo was on the rise.

Soul Glo Lyrics:
“Beautiful, sexy, easy as 1,2,3. Just let your soul glo. Just let it shine through…”

Leila Day:
The Jheri curl created a bigger looser curl pattern. It was a turn away from the political statement of the Afro. The Jheri curl was all about fun. (“Slow Glo” plays in the background)

Ayana Bird:
The ads really shifted away from having anything to do with black culture and community building and black identity, and it’s more to just, you know, neon colors and partying. All of the advertising for Jheri curl is more about this embracing this fun, easy-to-go style.

Leila Day:
Although nothing about the Jheri curl was easy.

Ayana Bird:
Jheri curls were the most product-heavy hairstyle that I think any people have ever known, black people, white people, it doesn’t matter. To have a Jheri curl, you had to have all of that activator. It’s so much stuff and you had to use it every single day.

Leila Day:
The Jheri curl was a very moisturized style. The activator that you had to put in your hair every day was drippy and greasy, and your pillow would be stained with it. Wearing a shower cap in public was quite normal. I know all of this because when I was a kid I had one. (“Slow Glo” continues in background)

Leila Day:
When the Jheri curl faded out regular old relaxers were still an option and I went back to a relaxer too. Then in 2009, comedian Chris Rock produced a documentary called, “Good Hair” after his daughter asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”

Leila Day:
In the documentary, he refers to chemical relaxers as ‘creamy crack’ because they’re applied in a white paste. And even though they’re toxic, some people can’t seem to quit them.

Leila Day:
In one scene, he shows just how harsh the chemicals found in many relaxers can be. He meets up with this chemist who demonstrates how sodium hydroxide can eat through just about anything.

Chemist: Sodium hydroxide will burn through your skin. The chicken is your skin.

Chris Rock: Okay, so it’ll go from my brown skin down to the white meat?

Chemist: Right.

Chris Rock: Wow! Now, you realize this goes in people’s heads, right?

Chemist: Sodium hydroxide?

Chris Rock: Yeah. People, Black people, black women, some men, you know – Morris Day, Prince – put sodium hydroxide in their hair to straighten it out.

Chemist: Why would they do that?

Chris Rock: To look white.

Annetta Smith:
You see, how some hair come in tighter than this. This was a, maybe like a 3, 4. Feel it.

Leila Day:
That’s Annetta Dingel-Smith. I’m with her and her salon in Boston, which amazingly is called, “Girlfriend Hooked Me Up Salon”.

Annetta Smith:
Everybody was saying, “Girlfriend, you hooked me up,” so that’s how I came up with the name.

Leila Day:
Smith tells me that even though the Chris Rock movie brought up some deep-rooted stuff that we need to talk about, it also did actually affect her business. People used to come in every six to eight weeks to get relaxers. Some women would spend well over a thousand dollars a year on regular treatments in salons. Smith thinks the Chris Rock movie had an effect on all that.

Annetta Smith:
For a minute, I was mad at him because, you know. Why? Because it was affecting my money. Everybody started going and natural. You know what I mean? So that did took an impact on me with me having chemical clients because not everybody wanted to pull their hair out. They don’t want that creamy crack.

Leila Day:
Today, black consumer spending on relaxers is down 30% since 2011. This brings us back to Andre Walker’s hair chart. All of these newly natural people are getting on YouTube for advice and discovering the chart.

Andre Walker:
Unbeknownst to me, I was on the internet one day and I was reading some bloggers and they were referring to the Andre Walker Hair Typing System. I’m like, “Did I do that? Is that the one I wrote about in my book?”

Leila Day:
These days, all over YouTube, there are people referencing Andre’s chart, which remember categorizes here from 1 to 4. 1A being looser curls and 4C being the tightest curls.

YouTube Clip:
“I’m just going to be braiding my hair, so I can get my Afro to be like rounded into the front.”

Leila Day:
There are videos on the best creams for a 4B twist out, or how many times a week you should wash your 3B hair, or lists of protective styles for your 4C hair. At first, I found this all really helpful and positive. I mean, it’s great that more people are going natural, and it’s great that there is a system to help them to do it.

Leila Day:
But then a few people started noticing that even in this new online community of naturals, a lot of the videos were just reinforcing old bias about straighter hair being better. The videos often instruct women about how to go from very kinky hair to less kinky straighter her hair, so from a 4C to a 3B without using chemicals, but still implying that straighter is better.

Slum Flower:
You rarely see hair like this dominating hair campaigns, but you do see fluffy, bouncy, curly hair in all the hair campaigns. There are people like myself with 4C hair that I literally cannot get my hand through it, so our problems are not the same. We should be given room to speak.

Leila Day:
That’s a post from Slum Flower, a popular blogger who makes a lot of straight-talk, self-care types of videos.

Slum Flower:
People like ourselves do not have hair that grows downwards. Our hair grows upwards. Even if my hair was…

Leila Day:
It feels to Slum Flower and others like online natural hair talk is mostly about how to transform what we have into something else, something a little looser. That’s not what our hair naturally does. And they’re using Andre’s chart to do it.

Ayana Bird:
There has been a lot of criticism against a lot of natural hair websites that they focus too much on “3B hair” as opposed to “4C hair,” and that the tighter your curl pattern is and the kinkier your hair is the less represented you are on these sites.

Leila Day:
One woman I talked to said the chart feels to her like a modern-day pencil test, which was a test used in apartheid South Africa to figure out if someone was white or black. If you put a pencil in someone’s hair and the pencil fell out, the person passed and was considered white.

Leila Day:
But Andre Walker says he just wanted to make a variety of products for different kinds of hair. It wasn’t at all his intention to create a hierarchy.

Andre Walker:
People have asked me, “Why did I label straight hair as number 1 and kinky hair as number 4?”.

Leila Day:
I also asked him.

Andre Walker:
But my answer to that is, it’s going from zero texture to highly textured, so going from 1 being straight to 4 being the kinkiest. I’ve had people that have been very sensitive about that because they thought that I was giving kinky hair less importance by putting it in number 4 and giving straight hair more importance by being number 1. But that just goes to show you how sensitive hair is, hair and texture is, for a lot of people

Leila Day:
It’s true. It’s so, so sensitive. And even though a lot more women are going natural, there is still so many who just don’t want to. Maybe they like the way their hair looked straightened, or find it easier to manage, or just don’t want to deal with other people’s reactions to their natural hair.

Leila Day:
Back at Girlfriend Hooked Me Up Hair Salon, Yvette Moysasunga says, she isn’t the least bit concerned with Andre’s hair chart because she doesn’t want to go natural.

Yvette Moysasunga:
I don’t know. That look, I feel, is not for me. I don’t know. There is just this, should I say fear or discomfort? I’m not going to show up to an interview with braids on, or a ‘fro, or anything like that. It’s my hair is going to be as straight as it possibly can be because as much as I like it or don’t like it, we still live in a society where our hair is not accepted for what it is, and you have to play the game to win it.

Leila Day:
There is so much racism and colorism and years of painful history tangled up in all of this. It’s deeply personal. And for those of us who have decided to go natural, it would be nice to see the hair conversation shift away from how to change our hair and more towards how to manage the natural texture we were born with? Because my hair is still a crown no matter where on the chart I land.

Comments (5)

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  1. Daniel Przybylski

    When I lived in Phoenix, in the morning along with the traffic and weather reports, there would be a recommendation on whether to use your swamp cooler or air conditioner. Swamp coolers don’t work so well in high humidity.

    I recall in the Spike Lee movie, Do the Right Thing, there was a comment on the morning radio show that sounded almost like a traffic or weather report:

    “Today’s temperature’s gonna rise up over 100 degrees, so there’s a Jheri curl alert! That’s right, Jheri curl alert. If you have a Jheri curl, stay in the house or you’ll end up with a permanent black helmet on your head fuh-eva!” -imdb.com

  2. Guru

    If a person or company doesn’t hire you because of your natural hair type then please try to avoid feeling like you haven’t won at playing ‘the game’.

    It is more likely a blessing in disguise that will lead to a better outcome for you.

    Perpetuating a societal narrative doesn’t foster growth for yourself or the society.

  3. Mari Inshaw

    This episode annoyed me. I am a black woman in my 40s and I’ve had natural, home kit relaxers, the hot comb, a curl (not Jheri but a different one) and a salon touching up my relaxer. The natural is not for me, I have super thick 4B/C hair. Yes, I have gotten some chemical burns in the past but now the burn is no more of consequence than the burn I get from drinking a too hot liquid. And the burns I got from the past were not as traumatic as the narrator made it out to be.
    This episode was anti-relaxer from a natural hair convert. She seems like she was trying to be fair, but she had her hair bias.
    You like your natural hair, great! I’ve seen professional looking natural hair dos and less than and what is accepted depends on your office and profession. Some natural hair signals ‘yes, I am part of the team’ and some signal something else.

  4. Jessica

    Why does Andre Walker’s hair chart (the chart included here in this article) not include 3C or 4C? It is almost as if his chart itself is leaving out those at the higher-kink end of spectrum, adding to the cultural stigmatization of that hair type. Other charts, not taken from Mr. Walker’s website, include 3C and 4C and I know many women who categorize themselves as such. Are 3C and 4C not a part of Andre’s language?

  5. Here is a 1969 funk track called “How you gonna get respect?” from Hank Ballard based entirely on James Brown’s “Licking Stick”.

    https://youtu.be/yeg_lFpOsYU

    “How you gonna get respect,
    if you haven’t cut your process yet?”

    It’s all about “going natural” and not conking your hair.

    A little additional background: James Brown admired Hank Ballard as a mentor and peer, but the roles reversed at some point as Brown’s career ascended and Ballard’s declined. At a certain point, Ballard did tracks with James Brown.

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