I know this is controversial, and might even be a taboo subject, and I might even be accused of generalising, but next time you happen to be sitting next to a Nigerian woman, have a close look at her head or hair. She is either wearing a wig, a weave or something else to hide the true state of her hair and scalp.
So I can hear you asking yourself how does he know so much about this? Well in my role as a hair consultant at Vinci Hair Clinic – the only hair restoration cosmetic clinic in Nigeria – I have seen too many women, many in a state of frustration and despair, come asking for help with their hair loss and scalp issues. As soon as the wig comes off, my heart just sinks to the pit of my stomach and I feel like shouting here is another one of our beautiful women suffering from the “Mama Eko” syndrome – all in the name of beauty!! Being the consummate professional, I don’t let on with my true feelings, but I must admit I have come close to tears when I see some of the worst cases.
So why do these women end up with such distressing looking hair and scalp conditions? Part of the answer lies with this overwhelming desire to create a particular look, sometimes to look more like a local celebrity or to conform to a perceived notion of what it is to look beautiful. I am not here to discuss the ins and outs and whys and wherefores of weaves (the more European look) vs braids (the more ethnic look) or even natural looking hair. My whole raison d’etre is to promote to our beautiful women that the overriding priority, irrespective of what hairstyle you go for, is for you to look after your hair and that starts from the day you are born.
Whilst one could argue that women need to constantly change their hairstyles – my wife does – just to switch things up – after all variety is the spice of life! But what could look like a simple case of experimentation, could also be the manifestation of a more troubling psychological issue, an example of body dysmorphic disorder. Whatever the reasons – the end result of the actions taken over several years can be physically, and more importantly, psychologically damaging – our women are constantly being told that their hair is their crowning glory – if that is damaged it has a deep psychological effect on them. Trust me I have seen them bare their soul to me in the clinic.
As soon as a patient walks into my consulting room, and even before she removes her wig, and I start to examine her hair and scalp, I know instinctively how she has ended up with such issues. I start off by asking the patient gently, probing, precise questions in order to ascertain how and why they are suffering from the hair loss and scalp issues. With some of these women, and from my experience, their hair issues tell me a story… I can tell them exactly what they have been doing for the last few years to damage their scalp and hair, and in all cases they just sit there nodding in agreement and astonishment – as if I have known them for years, which of course I don’t. But the condition of their hair and scalp just tells the same old story…
So why do these women have what we technically refer to as traction alopecia? Let me answer this question with a scenario which I know some of your readers would readily recognise. You walk into your favourite hair salon asking the hairdresser about relaxing your hair and then for one of the fashionable weaves or braiding styles which is currently the rage in Lagos. By the way, knowing that you have a coarse hair type, you ask for the strongest relaxer available to give you that particular straightened look you are going for. After some time relaxing your hair, these are now tightly braided or cornrowed, with the weave put in, and you leave the salon feeling on top of the world – just like a supermodel – and both men and women cast you admiring glances wherever you go. And to be fair the hairstyle looks fabulous and is exactly what you wanted..
So what is wrong with that scenario you might ask? Nothing beyond the fact that you don’t have any idea what sort of chemicals are in that relaxer kit your hairdresser used on your scalp. Is it a recognised brand and approved for use in a cosmetic setting? Or is it even a fake brand? The chemical is also probably left on your scalp beyond what is the recommended period of time, seeping deep into your scalp and mingling with your follicles causing damage. Imagine doing this every six weeks, month after month, year after year and decade after decade.
The end result is damaged frontal hair, which starts with a miniaturisation of the hair follicle (hairs in the frontal region become thinner over time). Eventually the follicles die and you go bald around the hairline, with the result that rather than your hairline framing your face, it actually starts a couple of centimetres back from your natural hairline resulting in the very obvious syndrome of you looking like you have a prominent forehead; looking skeletal or even in some cases obviously bald. This is what is known as the mama eko syndrome..
I don’t want to be a killjoy who doesn’t want women to look good. Far from it, I do want our women to look good but in a safe, healthy and sustainable way. I also want our women to be aware, informed, educated and thereby empowered on this issue. So they can say to their hairdressers What are you doing at this stage of my treatment? What products are you using and why? Stop what you are doing etc.
My advice is as follows:
Check the provenance of the relaxers being used by your hairdresser, check the labelling to ensure that it has been made by a reputable brand, read up about the contents, check the instructions for use. You will be amazed at the number of hairdressers who don’t follow the kit instructions or in some extreme cases, can’t even read!! Make sure the chemicals don’t stay on your scalp more than the recommended time period before it is properly rinsed out using the correct ph balanced shampoo and conditioner.
If you are into tight braiding, make sure that the pressure is not too much, and it is not too tight, as the process is being carried out. Only you can tell what is too tight, so tell your hairdresser.
Finally give your hair and scalp a break from relaxing and braiding periodically. My suggestion is to take a break from relaxing and braiding every 28 days and leave your hair natural for 14 days to allow the follicles to recover from any damage that might have been caused from the relaxing and braiding processes.
For those of you who already have damaged hair there is still hope. We have a great number of treatments that can help you restore your hair follicles. Pop in and see us and we will give you a free assessment in a friendly nurturing environment.
Keep looking beautiful – our women are our queens – but please don’t damage your crowning glory in the process
By Ayo Otubanjo