Black women find freedom with new 'do

Martine Bernard wears Sisterlocks, the style she specializes in giving.
Martine Bernard wears Sisterlocks, the style she specializes in giving. (Globe Staff Photo / Evan Richman)
Email|Print| Text size + By Meghan Irons
Globe Staff / January 6, 2008

You might look at Akilah Cobham's hair and see neatly flowing locks. But it's not just hair, it's a cultural movement.

Cobham, a 26-year-old high school Spanish teacher who lives in Roxbury, leapt into Sisterlocks, a hairstyle for black women looking for a sleeker alternative to traditional locks.

"It was like my hair was controlling me," Cobham said of her old hairstyle. She feared sweating out the straightness while working out, so she would plan gym time for right before her weekly visits to the hair salon.

"I wanted a hairstyle that I can look cute in and still live my life," she said. She found the answer in Sisterlocks.

A national movement, Sisterlocks has a growing following in Boston. It's built around the wearers' pride as African-American women and their love of, well, their hair. Websites have sprung up, blogs written. Women chronicle the different stages of Sisterlocks in online photo galleries. They gather periodically in Dorchester.

"Hair is a big issue for black women," said Jacqueline Ashby, a Sisterlocks technician in Dorchester. "They want to end being ashamed of it and start being nappy and beautiful. Some women are even afraid of the word nappy."

Originated in 1993 by JoAnne Cornwell, a professor at San Diego State University, Sisterlocks - a trademark company - promotes not just a hairstyle, but a healthy hair lifestyle, advocates say. Wearers can wash and go, and they can roller-set, curl, and style their hair without using chemicals to change its texture.

The microlocks are increasingly in demand. Just ask Martine Bernard.

She doesn't own a salon or advertise. But her client list runs long, with patrons - including Cobham - across Boston and beyond waiting weeks to sit in her chair in her Roxbury apartment to get the Sisterlocks hairstyle.

Bernard's hair speaks for itself. Her long tinted locks fall gently around her face. You have to look closely to see that each lock is actually made up of 300 to 500 strands of the wearer's own hair, parted and woven together into a tiny pattern, something like very fine crochet. In fact, the locks are made using a kind of crochet hook that Cornwell invented.

Women who see Bernard want the look, and they're spreading the word to their friends, mothers, sisters - even husbands and boyfriends - anyone willing to pay $500 to $600, and to sit for two eight- to 10-hour sessions to install the locks. Upkeep on the hairstyle runs $60 to $120 every six to eight weeks and involves retightening the locks to keep their consistent and neat look.

"I never thought it would ever grow into this," said Bernard, the first certified Sisterlocks consultant in Boston, whose client list has bloomed from three to nearly 300 in five years. The city now has three trained Sisterlocks consultants and 10 trainees.

Women stop Bernard to quiz her about her hair. Some aren't sure what to make of it. Others wonder if it's real. But for many women who can fire off saga after saga of how chemicals destroy their hair, how weaves break it, how braids installed too tightly wreak havoc - it is beautiful hope.

The style "has ballooned into a culture, into a movement, into a sense of community," said Bernard, who co-hosted a Sisterlocks event Dec. 15 in Dorchester for women to celebrate their naturalness, share stories, and be empowered by others in the natural hair journey. "I have met every woman from the African diaspora. I have African, West Indian, Afro-European clients. . . . At this point I'm doing daughters. I've done extended families, aunts, cousins, sisters-in-law. . . . Black women are looking desperately for a solution to their hair woes."

As with the defiance of the Afro, the matted rebellion of dreadlocks, and the neatness of traditional palm-twisted locks, Sisterlockers wear their nappiness with another layer of pride.

The locks offer women the flexibility, freedom, beauty and lightness they crave. Sisterlocks, many say, is about black women reclaiming the beauty of their hair - sleekly, naturally.

In fact, the kinkier and more nappy the hair is, the easier it is to lock and the more beautiful it grows, said Jacqueline Ashby, who has her own online photo gallery and recently locked her daughter Amira's hair this summer.

Women say they are attracted to Sisterlocks because it's not as thick as traditional locks and not as heavy. "It bounces," said Cynthia Cobham, whose daughter Akilah first told her about the style. "It flows."

And the woven technique makes it easy for women to transition to Sisterlocks even if they have chemically treated hair, other locks, or Afros.

Karen Williams, a Sisterlocks trainee in Roxbury, said women - even men - chase her down on the T to find out what she did with her hair. "It's amazing," she said.

Many black women, tired of compromising the health and beauty of their hair to conform to the mainstream, have been moving to natural hairstyles, said Aminah Pilgrim, a professor who teaches black women's history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

"In many ways it represents the pride, the strength that comes from self-love and self-care and nurture," she said of Sisterlocks and the natural-hair movement.

Still, Sisterlocks is getting some flak from traditionalists who say that the interwoven locks aren't real locks, as dreadlocks and other styles are, and that the high cost to install the locks excludes a lot of poorer women.

But Sisterlockers contend that the natural hair world is big enough for everyone and that the cost to maintain the hair is comparable to what it would cost over time to keep and maintain a perm or to rebraid the hair with extensions. Women can also take classes on how to retighten their own locks, Bernard and others say.

"It's healing hair," Bernard said of her work. "I know it's hair. But it's not just hair for us. We are healing some of the ingrained feelings about our hair. . . .God does not make mistakes."

Meghan Irons can be reached at

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