Chemical-free black hair is not simply a trend

By . - Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Karen Tappin of Brooklyn, N.Y., pictured earlier this month at International Natural Hair Meetup Day in Boston.
Karen Tappin of Brooklyn, N.Y., pictured earlier this month at International Natural Hair Meetup Day in Boston.
The slumping sales of hair relaxers among African-American women tell the story: More women are opting to forgo chemicals and go natural. But it’s the anecdotal evidence that conveys the real message.

In less than a year, the Boston Naturals Hair Meet Up Group has grown from 200 to 800 active members. Experts are reporting a bump in the number of women looking to go natural, particularly over the past two years. The Boston group is no anomaly. Most major cities now have groups for women who dub themselves “naturals,” or are considering going natural. A look at the website My Natural Hair Events shows dozens of gatherings, and video blogs on YouTube are filled with advice on styling natural hair.

Modjossorica Elysee, the 28-year-old head of the Boston Naturals, says the growing interest in chemical-free black hair is not simply a trend.

The consumer research group Mintel reported that hair relaxer sales dropped from $206 million in 2008 to $152 million in 2013, while sales of products to maintain natural hair are on the rise.“I see a lot of women who have started to accept themselves and their hair,” she said. “They’re encouraging their children to start accepting themselves. This is entirely new.”

But stories from the women who have made the switch from relaxers and weaves to natural styles convey what the studies can’t. In the not-so-distance past, natural hair was an anomaly among African-American women. Women who didn’t follow the ritual of spending hours at the salon on a Saturday to get their hair relaxed were often looked upon skeptically.“The natural hair trend is driving an increase in sales of styling products such as styling moisturizers, setting lotions, curl creams, pomades, etc.,” said Tonya Roberts, multicultural analyst at Mintel. “A look at expenditures from 2008 to 2013 shows steady growth in the black hair care category for all categories except relaxers and perms.”

“When I chopped off my straight hair and went natural a few years ago, people would look at me weird or ask me, ‘Why would you do that to your hair?’” said Chime Edwards of Mississippi, who blogs for Essence magazine about natural black hair styles. She has more than 150,000 followers on her YouTube channel. “Now, women approach me and inquire about the products I use and ask me for advice and hair care tips. I receive so many compliments on a daily basis now. I only got the searing ‘side eye’ a few years back.”

That side eye she experienced could be because a woman’s hair is such an important part of her identity. Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary “Good Hair” explored the quest that many women go through to achieve what is often referred to as the “European standard,” or straight hair. There are weaves that cost thousands of dollars, and chemical straightening can set you back over $100 (or more) a month. It’s an expensive and time-consuming cycle than many in the Boston Natural Meet Up Group decided is simply too much.

“I went natural a few years ago,” Elysee said. “I decided that I was lazy and didn’t necessarily want to spend my Saturdays in the hair salon anymore. I went to the salon and got a Caesar cut. It’s what the naturals like to call the big chop.”

Elysee now wears her hair in a high-top mohawk.

Earlier this month, more than 300 women from the group gathered at the University of Massachusetts Boston to listen to panel discussions, attend workshops, and shop the vendors who gathered for International Natural Hair Meetup Day. The day was celebrated in 28 states, plus France, Canada, Japan, Grenada, and Holland.“There’s a lot of ignorance around the fact that women gain a new sense of confidence when they go natural,” she said. “What better thing than to tell everyone that I love my hair?”

As RuPaul once sang, “Black hair is a revolution.” In the late 1960s, Angela Davis wore her voluminous afro as a political statement and started a movement toward natural hair. That look influenced a generation, from blaxploitation film star Pam Grier to former wig-wearing Supreme Diana Ross. Jheri Curl ruled the 1980s, but natural hair came back later with Erykah Badu’s experimentation with afros and twists and Jill Scott’s 1970s-inspired tresses. More recently Solange Knowles, Janelle Monae, and Esperanza Spalding have all played with natural looks.

Actress Viola Davis made style headlines in 2012 when she arrived at the Academy Awards sporting a short, natural coif rather than a wig. “I feel powerful, I really do,” Davis said at the time of her new style.

The surge of natural hair styles truly arrived two years ago, according to New York-based celebrity hair stylist Giselle Modeste. She doesn’t attribute the increase to celebs such as Davis or Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, but simply that women’s hair was getting damaged and breaking from chemicals, heat, and straightening.

“When most women were growing up — and I don’t care where you’re from — all you remember is your mom pressing your hair every Sunday,” Modeste said. “It hurt. But it’s all you ever knew. Now there’s more of an understanding. And so more women are becoming aware of the options and trying them.”

But the increased awareness around natural hair is not universal. Earlier this month the Army issued new appearance standards that banned most twists, dreadlocks, and large cornrows, all styles favored by women with natural hair. After 16 female members of the Congressional Black Caucus called the changes “discriminatory rules targeting soldiers who are women of color,” the Army is now reviewing the rule.

Transitioning from processed hair to natural hair can take time as cropped hair grows out and experimentation begins with new styles. But the biggest obstacles sometimes come from the women themselves.

“A lot of it is a psychological jump of going natural,” said Felicia Tshitenge of Boston, who went natural because she was concerned about chemical straighteners. “Most women, and a lot of men, associate long, straight hair with beauty.”

Jacqueline Myers, another member of Boston Naturals, said she went through years of relaxing and straightening her hair before finally deciding to go natural, but the decision wasn’t easy.

“For black women, our hair means so much to us,” Myers said. “This was 15 years ago, and I felt pressure within myself to conform. It was a huge decision.”

That’s part of the reason that the Boston meet-up group is a forum for sharing styling tips, networking, and offering support to women who are contemplating transitioning. Elysee said there are also white and Asian members in interracial relationships who attend to learn about how to style their daughters’ hair.

For members of the group such as Martine Bernard, the embrace of natural hair is a dramatic shift from where it was a decade ago.

“There was a taboo around wearing your hair loose and natural,” she said. “Your hair was supposed to be done in a salon. No questions. Black women would laugh at my hair and say they would never wear it that way. Now you see it everywhere. That pressure is not there the way that it once was, and it makes me feel incredibly good.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter @chris_muther.

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