Natural hairstyles are as varied as textures of hair. For simplicity’s sake I’m not going to include styles that use fake hair or additional hair, such as weaves, lace fronts, box braids, and the like.
Natural hairstyles feature hair that is not relaxed or texturized (a kind of super mild relaxer) and worn in its natural state or styled.
The Afro: This is probably the most iconic natural hairstyle and most readily recognizable natural hairstyle for those outside of the black community. It is usually a haircut without taper and a pick comb is used to “pick out” or lift hair, causing a nice amount of poof. After the hair is picked out it is patted back into place. Any kind of pressure on the hair results in flat spots, which is why people who wear Afros often have an afro pick nearby.
The Natural: This is kind of an old-fashioned term for a close-cropped hairstyle. The hair can be tapered or a single length, but it is usually NOT picked out. A Good example of a natural is Poussey from Orange is the New Black.
Tapered Natural/Afro: Similar to the Afro, but this is a haircut that is longer at the crown and shorter against the neck. It can by picked out or left as is to curl.
Fades: these are cuts worn by (usually) men and done in a barber shop. They aren’t longer than an inch at the top, and go to the skin near the neck. Similar to a tapered cut, but much shorter all around and against the skin around the back. Kanye wears a fade. Fades can have lines or designs cut in along the temple. Butch lesbians in the black community sometimes wear fades.
Dred locs or Locs: Hair is tangled to create a rope, size dependent on personal choice. Sister locks are tiny dred locs created with an instrument similar to a crochet hook. Once put in dred locs are incredibly difficult to remove. Hair can also knot naturally to create a large matted clump of hair, but these are not dred locs. I was taught that dred locs were named after Dred Scott, but I have no idea if that is true. Still, I like the idea of this historical tie in.
Kinky Twists: Twists on natural hair. If done while the hair is damp the can be removed to create smooth waves. Usually require a special leave in conditioner.
Cornrows: a hairstyle favored by rappers and historical films. The cornrow is created by parting hair in sections and braiding it in a pattern similar to a French braid only in reverse (where a French braid picks up hair on the top and goes over the existing strands, a corn row picks up hair underneath and deposits it below the existing strands). Most hair-storians (if this isn’t a thing I want it to be) attribute corn rowing to tribal styles worn in Western Africa, and knowledge that was brought over with blacks during slavery.
Quick braids: Braids that are done quickly but are not box braids (the generic braids that most people recognize as long braids) or cornrows and are usually a little messy and unkempt. These can also be called Celie braids after Whoopi Goldberg’s character in the Color Purple. Celie braids could also be braids that form a sort of crown (depends on area, speaker). When I was a kid my mom (who is white) used to call these unkempt braids pickaninny braids, but this is racist as fuck, so don’t use that. Still, if folks recognize the pickaninny character from old advertisements (Google!) then they will recognize quick braids.
Straight: Yes! Some black people have straight hair (the black experience is not a monolith!). Often you will hear people refer to someone as having Indian hair, but this isn't people from India, this is based on the belief that Cherokee and blacks intermarried in the early 1700s (the jury is out on whether this is true or not). Either way, these are black people with very little curl in their hair, and they can usually get away with blow drying their hair with a paddle brush and then flat ironing.
There are also folks with kinky curly hair who go to the salon every few days to get their hair straightened in what is called a press and curl. The hair is washed, dried, and straightened by a beautician, usually using a hot comb or a Kentucky oven (a device that heats cast iron rollers to high temperatures). It used to be difficult to straighten hair with store bought electric flat irons, but now that commercial brands have very high temps (such as the Chi and Sedu flat irons) natural hair can be straightened at home and straightened very well.
Little Girls: Most little girls will wear a combination of cornrows and quick braids, but usually neater than quick braids. The hair will be sectioned, combed and braided, and this is a huge ritual between mother and daughter. Little girls will sometimes have beads threaded onto the end or use decorative hair ties. If you have a young character and refer to her as wearing braids you won’t need to go into any great detail. In fact, the day most little girls get to go get their first relaxer is a BIG DEAL. And the ritual of a mother combing a daughter’s hair, and the daughter complaining about the pulling, is a big one and a cultural memory for most black women.
Red flag words
Here is a list of words that have very negative connotations when used about natural hair, especially if used by a white person:
Comparing black hair to sheep’s wool or cotton (this is up for debate, but I find it’s usually done on a very gross and othering way).
Kinky (this one depends greatly on context, but as above it’s usually done in a very gross and othering way)
Any excessive amount of description that focuses on how different natural hair is.
So, that is the basic info on natural hair. Next up: Weaves, Wigs, and Other Styles that Use Artificial Hair etc.