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Curly Nikki

When Natural Hair Looks “Unkempt”

By January 27th, 202139 Comments
When Natural Hair Looks "Unkempt"by Bree McCarthy of The Mane Source

1.not combed: unkempt hair.
2.uncared-for or neglected; disheveled; messy: unkempt clothes; an unkempt lawn.
3.unpolished; rough; crude.

I’ve been natural for over 3 years. Along the way there has been a certain adjective that comes up quite a bit when someone shares their thoughts on natural hair. That word is “unkempt”.

Last week my hubbie and I somehow got on the subject of natural hair and he used the word a couple times when he was referring to my shrunken afro. At that point I realized that a person’s perception of hair being unkempt is sometimes relative. What my husband considered to be unkempt would be considered a cute shrunken fro by my friend Nikki.

Now before you pick up your clubs and go after my husband I have to tell you that he likes my hair natural. I also have to admit that sometimes my hair does look unkempt, BUT that’s usually when I wake up or when I’m about to go to bed.

What’s irritating to me is that some styles that we considered to be cute are viewed by others as being unkempt. I remember when I first went natural, I wore my hair in a twist outs all the time. A friend of the family (who was also natural, but decided to wear her hair straight or wore wigs) decided to have an intervention with me. She pulled me over to the side and said, ” Just because your hair is natural doesn’t mean that I don’t have to comb it.” O____o Whaaaaat????? I couldn’t believe my ears and my eyes couldn’t believe the broken, stringy MESS that was sitting on top of her head. The nerve. I thought my hair was cute and she thought it looked unkempt. Go figure.

I think sometimes people who have negative thoughts concerning natural hair in general are the quickest ones to use the word. I also believe that it (sometimes) has little do with the style and more to do with their personal issues with natural hair. (i.e. natural hair not being attractive, doesn’t look polished, professional, feeling that straight hair is better, etc.) They, in turn, project their negative thoughts on others who fully accept their hair in its natural state.

Enough about me and my perception. What do you guys think? When it comes to natural hair what do you consider to be unkempt?


  • Marini says:

    OMG this topic is the topic of discussion right now with a group of friends of mine. Someone mentioned that my best friends hair looked unkempt however when i wear my hair in the same type style nothing is said to me. Mind you i have a completely different texture. I have looser curls but still kinky non the less. her hair is tightly coiled. honestly it shocks me to say the least on the idea of what some feel is unkempt and what some feel is not. Unfortunately we are still stuck back in the time when feeling accepted has to do with a straight look. Don't get me wrong I fault no woman for CHOOSING to straighten their hair in any way however please don't fault me or feel that my hair or any woman of colors hair is unkempt simply because it doesn't lay precisely how you would like it to. Not only that, other races that do not possess the unique texture that we do have the ability to wear their hair down and free. Why can't we have the same right. It may not be down and flowy, rather up and out but at any rate it's free and that's the whole point. A woman no matter the race or ethnicity having the ability to wear their hair however they chose without judgement!

  • Anonymous says:

    I love how every other race of women are allowed to be who they are. I see white women walking around with a horrid ponytail everyday. No one ever makes comments about them. The truth of the matter is, we are our own worse enemy. White people don't know the difference when it comes to natural hair, nor do they care. Yes, hair should be trimmed and well maintained. But as far as hair texture goes, if someone doesn't like your curl pattern then tell them not to look.

  • SwirlieCurlies says:

    When I first BC'd I loved rocking my super short hair and I received a lot of positive feedback from fambam, friends, and STRANGERs lol. However, as my hair grew out longer and transitioned into that awkward phase where it's too short to rock it put it up in a bum or ponytail and too long to really rock as a TWA. Personally, because my hair so short, anytime I do a twist out it just doesn't look cute to me. Unless my hair is pulled back I feel unkept. In general, when my hair is pulled back I look different. Anywho I said all this to say that I can see what a person might mean by "unkept." They prob not saying they dislike natural hair.

  • Eboni says:

    I agree with Chez Cerise, Deborah, and definitely with Shanna.

    Personally I can't stand the way some people use the word "unkempt"…it seems as though alot of people use it to describe TEXTURE rather than the actual CONDITION of hair. And yea it all goes back to the whole "good" vs "bad" hair. Believe it or not, some women don't have a curl pattern to begin with, but does that mean their hair is unkempt? Absolutely NOT.

  • Shanna says:

    Like a commenter said earlier, I think it all goes back to good hair vs bad hair. Some people will never have ultra defined twist outs or perfect tight little afros because their hair just doesn't do that.

    You Tube and the internet has been a great tool but I am here to tell you that most of the people who have pictures, blogs and You Tube videos up have extra-ordinary hair (yes I meant to hyphenate that). Not that it is perfect, but something about it makes people want to look at them and their hair and follow them. Their hair has something "extra".

    I think that some of us have a skewed idea of natural hair because we assume that everyone can have You Tube Hair if they use the right products, techniques etc. That is not true and the hair care industry is making a killing on us because of it.

    Many of the people who are being called "unkempt" are not the ones who have not "mastered their hair". They are people whose hair, for whatever reason, doesn't behave the way our society wants it too.

    It may be that it has no defined curls, is puffy, has 3 different textures that stick out everywhere, is wiry, won't keep a twist out, hold braids or lay down no matter what product you put in it. Most of those people go on to get dreds, wear wigs or end up back in a relaxer because even naturals are looking at them funny.

    Thus it goes back to "good hair" vs "bad hair".

  • Jo says:

    Once we stop pursuing having the perfect do or curls then we will be truly free! As long as the hair is clean and groomed(meaning it has been styled in some way before leaving the house) i don't see the big deal. Who are we comparing too? so many questions…the key is to be content with our hair and not compare.

  • fabwtalk says:

    My opinion of unkempt is when your hair looks like you just rolled out of bed, didn't bother fluffing or moisturizing and just look like you thought to yourself, "to hell with it."

  • Anonymous says:

    I second that comment Deborah. I see the most horrible and unkempt weaves and relaxed heads but because its straight its percieved to be well groomed. I personally like my hair to be defined and wild and I guess unkempt hair to me would be matted and tangled hair.

  • Deborah says:

    I have seen far more unkempt weaves and relaxed styles than I have natural hair. This is primarily because people are trying to make there hair do something it is not meant to do. I was asked by someone did I just intend to leave my hair "wild?"
    A lot of the perceptions of natural hair as being unkempt or wild come with the way that we perceive neat hair.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think if you ask different people what unkempt means you will get different responses. I just big chopped a couple of weeks ago and my husband supported me the whole way, but he is quick to say he can't wait until my hair gets longer. Right now he says my hair looks unkempt (Mind you we have a considerable distance between us because he is on deployment and I am back in the states so all he sees are pictures). In one picture I sent him I had a nice, neat afro and he used the word "unkempt" to describe it. (I wanted to slap him because to me unkempt means dirty). He later changed his wording to better portray that he didn't like it after I told him how I felt about that word. Anyways, my point being people will use the word unkempt even on the neatest, natural style. They don't know any other word I guess to describe something they may not like or may not be useful. It is just up to you to see how you would take that afterwards. Me, I know if some stranger came to me and said my hair looked unkempt would walk away with a mouth full of fist but if it was family then I would just have to educate them that what they see is what they get and NONE of US (you know what I mean by US) was born with straight silky hair and to basically get over it. Just my three 1/2 cents 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Maybe this is why some women with kinkier textures always wear twist outs. I hardly ever see women wearing their hair out, not curly, not in a braidout, twistout….it's so gorgeous the rare times you see it….I just think there's a difference between wearing a style and feeling your hair only looks presentable when heavily manipulated.

  • Tai says:

    I feel that…. unkempt can be a disguise word for people saying they don't like the way your natural texture looks. I agree that sometimes a style is simply not working (or rather, someone else thinks it's not working) however I also think that a lot of times the person viewing the hair is seeing it through the lens of "straight hair is neat and the further from straight it is the messier it is" My mother tells me all the time that i need to comb my hair even after I've just combed it. Sometimes that's just what your texture looks like and it takes a while for other people to be able to see its beauty without the filter of modern European beauty standards. I think it's great to ask for feedback and try out different things but at the end of the day it's you that has to be satisfied.

    *gets off soap box*

  • Anonymous says:

    Anon 8:33Pm
    That's just nasty! Lol! But so very true.

    Another aspect of being an unkempt natural- Excessive GREASE does not equal well moisturized hair. It just means grease!! WHich leads to build up and horribly offensive odors if you are washing less frequently than once a week.

  • Sophie says:

    yah, my mom used to say "it looks unkempt!" a lot when I first big chopped. I didn't know what she meant back then, but now I'm thinking that the issue was that the curls were undefined and so they weren't directional (if that makes sense) and were just sort of a cloud. However, as my hair has gotten longer the curls have been defining very well. It only grew, though, when I stopped damaging it while I tried to make it "neat".

    I think unkempt is dirty and smelly, as other posters have mentioned (yuk!) or obviously neglected (example: messy weaves, hair that looks slept on). I think my hair has looked a little wild once in a while, but I try to check a mirror when I can.

  • Anonymous says:

    In your face stinking, rotting, flaking, disgusting product build up and blatant head scratching. I'm not referring to the 'oops, didn't have time to cowash this morning' build up. The perpetrators I'm calling out know who they are. When they finish digging a trench through their muck, they take the muck and flick it off their fingernails heedless of who it may come into contact with. That is my definition of unkempt.

  • Anonymous says:

    just the other day my grandmother told me, she liked by hair but………..I looked like I was relaxing at home lol. I wear my afro out and about. I'll wear it out to work with a suit. I fluff and go and that the way I like it.

  • Unknown says:

    I actually like my hair "unkempt".

    I take care of it but I pretty much "let it do what it do".

    I can't stand it when hair looks "neat".

  • Anonymous says:

    Peace my sister Anonymous 6:37 PM. That was very well said!!!! I absolutely love being a part of this movement. Hopefully one day we all will understand, love, and appreciate our diverse Black Beauty!!!!

  • Anonymous says:

    It's all in the cut. With any texture hair, if your hair looks ratty on the ends or in an uneven, grown out, looking shape, it will always look unkept. I have seen the straightest hair look unkept because the shape is off. I have seen 4z hair picked out and looking fly because the hair has been shaped right.

    Just trimming your ends won't do, you gotta go to a salon and get it shaped up if you can't do it yourself. Keep it shaped up and no matter if it is perfectly defined one day, frizzy the next, or picked the next, it will always look 'kept'. The picture for the post is a nice example of hair that looks like it is in a good condition, but needs a serious shape. It is starting to grow out into in 'unkept' mullet!

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree with a prior post that "unkempt" can sometimes be a product of coming up the learning curve with respect to caring for your natural hair. I also think that hair that was previously heat styled with regularity or chemically straightened will go through an adjustment period to repair and detox from the prior styling techniques and attendant trauma to the hair.

    Even after we have mastered our hair, there will still be occasional bad hair days. It happens.

    Finally, we just have to accept the fact that there are some people who believe that kinky, coily hair is inherently "unkempt", unprofessional and unattractive.

    My own mother told me that I would look more professional with straight hair. Since my mother lives in another state and has never seen my hair in the buns and updos that I customarily wear to work, I can only conclude that she believes that my natural hair texture is unprofessional regardless of the style. I love and respect her. But, it is my hair and my responsibility. So, I get to make the decisions.

    People are entitled to their thoughts and opinions. But, we should never relinquish our identity or sacrifice the health of our hair just to conform to some outdated notion of beauty that is rooted in the belief that "white is right." It's not right. We owe it to ourselves (and the kinky, coily haired people who come after us) to affirm our right to be accepted as we are naturally.


  • Anonymous says:

    This article is right on time. I just had this conversation with my mom on Sunday.

    Since winter is approaching, I learned how to flat twist my hair so that I can wear beanies/caps with a bang out in the front. I thought it looked nice, but my mom… "I'm just gonna go ahead and tell you. Your hair looks nappy."

    I was already having a horrible day, and that just made me breakdown further. So we got into this long back and forth about shrinkage, curls/coils, and me not wanting to use the word nappy in reference to my hair anymore. So her alternative was to say "Well, I'll just say it looks unkempt then. But the point is, it doesn't look good."

    Of course she didn't want me to go natural in the first place. But wearing my hair in twist-outs and rollersets all the time, she said that it grew on her. So if I don't twist it, and it's just my natural texture/curls, it looks "unkempt."

    Naturally, it made me start to rethink this whole natural thing. Like I could never wear my hair styled in its natural state.

  • Tamara says:

    My hair is natural, I have been natural since October 2010. I love my hair and enjoy learning more about how to take care of it. I believe that unkempt hair is not moisturized properly, knotted, matted, breaking off b/c of poor habits, not detangled, visibly damaged etc..On the other hand, natural hair is beautiful, as long as it is well taken care of. Twist and braid outs are awesome, they keep your hair from tangling and you can create a cute style. The key to natural hair is moisture.

  • J says:

    Unkempt hair to me means lack of self love as if you love yourself you take care of yourself.
    Style is personal one may think a bob looks good vs a twist out but that is relative and not absolute. Clean hair vs dirty hair that clearly has been neglected is absolute it is clean or dirty no middle ground. I saw a child roughly aged 9-10 that was mixed race and her hair was broken at the back and had a few long strands at the front and her hair screamed neglect,i haven't been washed or combed for a while! 🙁

    I really felt sorry for her as it clearly was NOT loved and really wanted to speak to the Mum but held back coz didn't know how to say it. An adult having unkempt hair is one thing a child is another,i know as a Mum you can't always get it right but u can tell when hair isn't loved!

  • Anonymous says:

    To me, unkempt hair means:

    1. Dirty smelling hair. This is the worst offender. I was on a flight recently and a fellow natural decided to sit next to me. Her hair had a cute style, but was smelling like it hadn't been washed in a long time. It was embarassing and offensive.

    2. Dry, poorly moisturized hair.

    3. Frayed, ratty (usually thinner than the rest of the strand) ends that obviously need a trim.

    4. Lack of uniformity in overall shape.

    5. Old, unraveling twists/braids

    6. dry, broken down locs

  • Anonymous says:

    Im natural…love being natural but I will say that some natural women feel like just because you dont have a relaxer you dont have to 'do' your hair. That is unkept to me…healthy hair doesnt mean not touching it for weeks on end and just walking out the house.

  • LM says:

    My interpretation of unkempt is hair that isn't uniform looking. for example, my hair sometimes looks unkempt because I have four distinctly different textures in my hair ranging from slightly wavy to tight corkscrew curls. It's difficult to blend sometimes but i do my best lol. This usually consists of extreme fluffing, picking out my hair, or patting my fro down. my twist outs aren't even cut on me anymore like they were when I first big chopped, but it doesn't bother me that much cause i've learned to appreciate my hair for what it is. braid outs stretch my hair enough to look pretty uniform so thank goodness for that.

  • Sydney says:

    I have natural hair that I flat ironed and blow dry twice a month. In February I began wearing it in twist outs and braid outs to see if I could do it. I had some good days but my emphasis is on some. I visited Miss Jessie's salon in NYC over the summer to have a haircut so that my style would look better. I hung in there for 8 months but last month went back to flat ironing because I felt that my hair looked "unekpt" sometimes and it drove me MAD. On days it would not want to look tamed and I would literally be late for work trying to force it to comply. I would define unkept as looking messy and frizzy. I've seen loads of afros that are gorgeous and look highly styled and not unkept. I think that hair can look unkept whether it is straight, curly, or wavy. It's all in how you care for your style.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm in the process of locking my hair with twists so it will be "messy" (the word here is fuzzy) for a while. I really could care at this point and I actually kind of like the unpolished look.

  • Anonymous says:

    One thing I notice about naturals is they can look unkempt if the hair style doesn't work with your own personal style. I've seen people who can roc a large natural flying all over the place and that same style looks unkempt on another more conservative looking person. I also notice that small things like where the hairband is placed on your head can affect if a style looks "old" or "chic".

    Unkempt can be hair which is not conditioned well and looks very dry.

    One of the things you could do is try different ways of wearing your fro: with a band, in a hawk style. As I'm lost for styles right now, check out bronzeqt on You Tube(earlier years) She found numerous ways to wear her afro. Try some of these and then ask your husband which styles he likes on you and why? The goal is not to wear just what he likes; but, to find out what he means by unkempt. I'm thinking he may not feel you can rock certain styles.

    The same applies to "twists". Some people can wear twists standing up all over and cute earrings and makeup and it works. For others, it looks like they just got out of bed.

    One of the challenges of natural hair is finding your signature style(s). And you can do it. You've got to experiment and get feedback. One of the best things about You Tube and Fotki albums is that you can get feedback on what people like and why. If you're too shy for that, then try setting up a flickr or fotki and just cover the face shots. Ask for feedback.

    I wish I was there because I'd give you my real opinion. You really need someone who is supportive of your wish to wear natural hair and who is honest with you about the "style" and not just "natural hair".

    In sum,
    Condition your hair good.
    Focus on products which give you sheen and moisture.
    Try different styles
    Get honest feedback
    Assess your wardrobe. If you're the more sporty type then you hair should compliment your look. If you're more conservatively dressed, then your hair, makeup and accessories should compliment the look.
    Good luck with your journey.

  • Anonymous says:

    When the hair is really dry or matted, it is unkempt in my opinion. Dirty hair that needs to be washed is unkempt, too. Hair that smells bad is unkempt. LOL!!

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree, unkempt is a relative term, even among natural heads. My personal opinion of unkempt has more to do with the execution of a style than the particular style. For example, I usually think of mini twists as a very well groomed style, but recently saw a woman rocking twists who looked like her hair had never seen a bottle of conditioner. They looked like dry, brittle twigs sticking off her head. I would think of this as unkempt. So I guess I think of unkempt as hair that is obviously not taken care of and well moisturized, no matter what style it is in.

  • mixed beauty says:

    Well, I think in general any type of hair can look " unkempt" but ours fall victim to this word more often than not because of some the staple styles we rock. To the untrained eye our hair may be perceived as "unkempt" because it doesn't lay down / straight. Our hair is BIG/ curly/ kinky/ puffy and ect. These are the terms we accepted when we started on our journeys. If you are just NOT combing your hair or you just woke up, of course it's going to look like "who shot bob" ! The picture above, I think looks uncombed and unsettled so it looks unkempt. I personally love that roll out of bed look , shake my curls and go! For me every curl doesn't have to be defined and perfectly in place. My natural is untamed and that's what I love about it

  • Anonymous says:

    When it comes to natural hair, I consider "Large doo-doo locks" as unkempt. I have been natural for 9+ years and I love being natural and seeing all the natural styles being worn around me but I've seen many men with those huge doo doo locks and I haven't seen one yet who looked groomed. They always look un-groomed to me. However, I do believe that a person's perception and background with hair plays a big part in how they view a natural head of hair. My mom is "old school" and whenever my sister wears a twist out, my mom thinks her hair is unkempt.
    Allnatural1 (Michelle in TX)

  • LaMaraVilla says:

    There is no hard and fast rule in my book for what is considered unkempt. I can say that the pic that goes along with this article is an example of unkempt natural hair.

  • Anonymous says:

    When I read comments about "unkmept" hair, it's ALWAYS referring to a woman/child with undefined curls or a fro. Seems to me that it doesn't actually have anything to do with it looking uncombed or uncared for, but rather back to the good hair, bad hair mess.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think that all hair types can look unkempt if not styled or cared for correctly. However, to me because natural hair is not always shiny and has a completely different look to what people are used to seeing, it appears unkempt. I think people just have the perception that curly hair is messy hair, even one of my friends who saw a lady with 2b hair described it has messy even though her curls were defined.

    I think that we can't expect everyone to feel comfortable with natural hair because there was a point in many of our lives when we weren't.

  • Anonymous says:

    Ummmm lets be honest ladies sometimes the styles we try to pull off do look unkempt. For people who haven't mastered their hair, twist outs and such can look very bad. Maybe some of us need to work more on the execution of the style. I have yet to see a natural haired woman, no matter the texture, length, style etc. that had mastered her hair, and thought to myself "hmph that looks unkempt." Now I HAVE seen many natural women that think they have it going on, yet their hair is dying of thirst and bad execution of whatever technique they tried to use to create their look…. I'm just saying…. thats something to consider. I think a lot of the people that think natural hair is "unkempt" because there are a lot of naturals, new naturals, hitting the scene and they haven't quite mastered their hair yet. I commend everyone that decides to go natural BUT lets be honest, there is a learning curve to this and with so many women having that learning curve at the same time….. it kinda seems like natural hair is a little unkempt.So again idk if its the style so much as it may be the execution of the style.

  • Anonymous says:

    Whatever, people will get used to it. I bet afros were seen as "unkept" before the 70's and then it blew up and everyone was sporting it, feeling fly and also believed those wearing it looked good in it. If they don't, it's their own problem because it's my hair and I'll wear it however I want to. I'm not going to break my back to appease someone else's eyes.

  • Anonymous says:

    The "unkempt" look is one of my fears of being completely natural. Im transitioning now and have some fear of what my hair will look like once the relaxed ends are gone. To me the unkempt and nappy and interchangeable that sometimes ppl use the word unkempt instead of what they really want to say…NAPPY!

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