A primer about the dreadlocks hairstyle

Crystal Bowersox

Crystal Bowersox

American Idol contestant Crystal Bowersox has focused attention once again on the ancient art of locking, perhaps causing many Americans to look at the hairstyle with fresh eyes.

“I’ve had these for about four and a half years now,” Bowersox told AccessHollywood.com in March. “I do wash my hair— just so everyone knows. There’s a lot of myths out there about dreadlocks, but they’re very clean and well-kept.”

A story about Bowersox’s hair on Stylelist.com attracted comments ranging from compliments (”they fit her perfectly”) to critical (”disgusting and distracting,” “horrible” and “[she] looks like a pothead”). One poster summed up voter expectations this way: “You keep those dreadlocks and be happy, but you won’t win ‘American Idol’ with that look—do you really think [fourth season winner] Carrie Underwood would have won if she looked like Crystal?”

With the renewed attention on locs, we thought it was a good time to present a primer on this hairstyle.

The Roots of Locs

Not long ago the main places you would see locs (sometimes called dread locks) was in Africa or the Caribbean, particular Jamaica. For the Rastafarians of Jamaica, the Shaivas (devotees to Shiva) and Vaishnavas (devotees to Vishnu) of India and numerous clans in Africa including the Turkana, Massai, Samburu of Kenya, Himba of Namibia, Fulani of Senegal and the Baye Fall (Black Muslims) locked hair is not a hairstyle, it is a reflection of a way of life, grounded by culture, tradition and most of all spirituality. Just as many different cultures have hair locking traditions so too does this distinctive way of wearing the hair have diverse names including Natty Dreads (Rastafarians); Ndiagne (strong hair) and Jatta (gurus of India).

Do you loc? See more dreadlock photos or upload your own!

Many people of Jamaican and African heritage have migrated and now live on the East Coast in and around New York City. It is in New York that locked hair took a hold on popular culture, transcending its traditional connection to spirituality and faith to become a cultural statement with all people. Acclaimed author Alice Walker has worn locs for many years and so have other artists including Bob Marley and Whoopi Goldberg.

In the beautifully illustrated book "Dreads," Francesco Mastalia and Alfonse Pagano (Artisan: NY; 1999) interviewed people from around the world about why their hair is worn in what they call 'dread locks.' (Today, most people reject the combination of terms 'dread' 'lock' because it has negative connotations, particularly because of the word dread, which evokes fear.) As might be expected there was a wide range of reasons, from strong faith-based cultural tradition, to easy grooming, attraction to the style and everything in between.

Decisions, Decisions

locs

Since this web site is devoted to those with naturally curly hair regardless of ethnicity or cultural orientation, this article is focused on care and the spiritual cultivation of locs along with some of the issues that arise from taking on a hairstyle with such a rich and sometimes controversial history.

There are various schools of thought within the curly topped community. Some folk long for straight hair and lean towards the tools, chemicals and techniques that will give the desired affect. Others absolutely adore their curly locks and wouldn't have their hair any other way. These folks seek out products and techniques that will accentuate their curls or leave their hair to do what it will. Still others like their naturally curly hair but wish for an easier grooming regimen. For those individuals looking for relatively easy grooming and a natural look that is a throw back to Africa or seeking connection to earth-based spiritual wisdom from around the world, locs are an ideal choice.

Many people, including myself, enjoy naturally curly hair but find a variety of challenges with maintenance of curly locks. Issues include the expense of products that promise to manage, enhance or accentuate curly hair but often fall short. Curly hair, particularly of the densely coiled nature of African-descended people, is very resistant to change. While there are many excellent products on the market, many of which are discussed on this website, African curls tend to have a mind of their own. Our curls naturally coil around each another, producing tangles. We don't have a hold on this phenomena because people of various ethnicities have tightly curled or even wiry hair.

Many of us spend hours and indeed years as well as thousands of dollars to manage or prevent tangles. If we keep our hair short it is lovely and generally manageable. This is an ideal situation for tightly curled hair. The tangles of shorter hair are easier to manage but they can become quite a bit more challenging with longer hair. The battle of the tangles, or as we typically call them, naps, leads to breakage. Long nappy hair that is tightly curled often becomes uneven, damaged and ultimately frustrating. For individuals with tightly curled hair that tends to tangle, snarl or nap up, locs are an ideal choice, particularly if you also desire longer hair.

Another type of person (and some of these people have straight hair) admire the look of locs and its strong cultural ties to traditions India, Africa and the Caribbean. I mention the straight-haired folks because quite an industry has developed around giving folks with straighter hair locs. According to interviews featured in "Dreads," some Japanese people who have incredibly straight hair spend thousand of dollars and many hours, even subjecting their hair to power tools, to quickly achieve locked hairs. I have also spotted a plethora of websites online dispensing advice for transforming straight hair into locs. Many of these methods are dubious and may include a wide array of junky materials including toothpaste, rubber bands, beeswax, thick hair pomades and various types of glue. In "Dreads" there are all types of locs including a striking blond woman from New Zealand and a glamorous woman who appears to be bi-racial or of African descent, with waves close to her scalp that cascade down her back in zigzagging fall of locs. There is another man who is fair-haired and fair-skinned, who describes himself as being a Viennese Jew, who found that his hair locked naturally. He is featured sporting long, mature locks in the photo montage. Certain groups of Indians devoted to the goddess Ganga as manifested by the Ganges River have naturally straight hair. Their cultural tradition has included the cultivation of locs and this has been their tradition for thousands of years. While the majority of those who wear locs have thick, tightly coiled hair, it is certainly feasible and indeed traditional for people with various hair types to enjoy locks without resorting to extremes.

One thing for everyone to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to lock the hair is that once locs are mature (about two years old), the hair stays locked. With few exceptions, the hair has to be cut to change it although it can be color treated for a cosmetic change or curled for variety .

Grooming with Spirit, Purpose and Patience

Patience is another issue that arises even for those with ideal hair for locs, which would be hair that is tightly curled without any chemical straighteners. For these individuals locs can take at least six months to become permanent for those with looser curls or wavy hair it could take two years. If you can be mindful and focus on the end result this time will be a part of a larger metamorphosis, a change within that allows change to occur at its own rate. For more on that type of personal transformation, I recommend the books by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, especially, "The Miracle of Mindfulness" (Beacon Books, MA; 1999) or the ancient text "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tsu (Vintage, NY; 1989). Some people will find yoga and meditation especially helpful as well because it encourages a focus within rather than on outward appearance. There are several African-American women writers who combine African wisdom with health and spiritual awareness that would be useful in this journey, they include "Heal Thyself for Health and Longevity" and "Sacred Woman" by Queen Afua; "Jambalaya: the Natural Women's Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals" by Leisah Teish and my own magical guide that will be released this June (see bio).

Social and Psychological Implications

The appearance of locked hair evokes a wide variety of responses. Some people find locs suggestive of the counter-culture or to be radically different from their personal orientation. If these people exert control over your life perhaps your parents, administrators, advisors or a boss at work, you will need to enter a meaningful conversation during your transformation. Sometimes there are so many issues that go much deeper than hair that a conversation may have been long overdue. Talking can help strengthen and develop stronger ties. You will need to weigh your priorities and if it turns out that your priority is the locked hair and those around you strongly reject the idea, you will need to evaluate how to proceed. For some people the idea of confrontation is so overwhelming that they will decide not to loc their hair to avoid it. Still others will let their hair loc knowing that there may be negative consequences. This is a personal choice and it should be considered carefully, particularly if definite consequences of a negative type are anticipated. On the one hand, it would seem foolish to loc the hair knowing that it will also lead to unemployment or some other form of tangible rejection. If however the urge is so strong perhaps more elements of your life than just your hair needs to be changed dramatically, for example seeking employment elsewhere where the hair wouldn't be problematic, finding alternative sources of employment or developing new relationship that fit into your lifestyle.

The Nitty-Gritty

Essential Tools:

A rat-tailed comb to part the hair and roll the hair

A light, clear shampoo such as Johnson and Johnson baby shampoo or a salon brand containing essential oils like lavender or chamomile

A natural conditioner, either homemade or from a manufacturer that promotes natural essential oils, for example Aveda™ or African Root Stimulator™

A water-based gel, (that obviously does not contain heavy waxes or oils); Try Natural Root Stimulator Lock and Twisting Gel; or create your own, simply use pure aloe vera gel, applied in dime-sized portions.

Patience, Patience, Patience — remember it's not the destiny, even with locs, but the journey itself that can lead to personal transformation

Once you decide to loc your hair you will, of course, need more than anything to be patient. I started my locs; or rather they started themselves, approximately a year ago. They are still not all the way locked because my curls are loose. I twist them regularly but not fanatically and I see a loctian when possible. A good loctian is indispensable especially early on in the process when the locs are being established. She will clean your scalp well, condition your hair, re-part your hair and carefully twist or roll the hair. Having a skilled loctian is a great way of keeping a very neat look.

One of the most highly recommended technical books for those trying to establish locs is "Plaited Glory: For Colored Girls Who've Considered Braids, Locks and Twists" by Lonnice Brittenum Bonner (Three Rivers Press, NY; 1996). In another popular book, "No More Lye: The African American Woman's Guide to Natural Haircare," Tulani Kinard gives practical advice for beginning locs naturally. Kinard advises readers to part the hair evenly in small pieces of about ½" and to either palm roll, twist or braid each segment tightly. These twists or braids should be left alone for at least one month. After this time period the hair can be washed, with an emphasis on cleansing the scalp, rather than the hair itself. Some people cleanse their scalp with natural herbs like a witch hazel tincture in between shampoos to feel fresher. After about one month the hair is shampooed re-rolled or twisted, held down with hair clips and dried under a hair dryer or naturally in sunlight. This is repeated for many months until the hair is permanently locked. According to Kinard the ideal method is for a hollow core to form at the center of each loc and for the hair to be encouraged to curl around this core. This allows light and airy locs, that move freely and have a natural sheen that are also easy to clean. The problem with the quick and easy method, particularly those promoted for use on straighter hair is that the hair gets irreparably dirty and by using grease or wax the locs actually become dirt magnets. Moreover there is not a natural, light and airy hollow core to the hair, it is simply clumped together and can be quite unattractive.

I am a do-it-yourself type. I had been wearing two-stranded twists for about three years and when they started to lock up I embraced the possibility of physical transformation. Eventually, I did seek out the expertise of several loctians and I was grateful to have some of the messy areas sorted out. You can find a loctian in most major cities and typically they advertise as Natural Haircare Salons. There are numerous products available to help manage your locs though it is a personal choice, just like the decision whether or not to consult a loctian. Generally, less is more with locs. My loctian who is an Ibo person from Nigeria, even warns against naturally oily ingredients like shea butter or lanolin for loc maintenance because they weigh down the locs and attract dirt.


About the Author: Stephanie Rose Bird (BFA, MFA) is an herbalist and aromatherapist based in the Chicago area. She is also the author of several books including “Big Book of Soul: the Ultimate Guide to the African American Spirit” and “A Healing Grove: African Tree Remedies and Rituals for Body and Spirit”.