The love affair with hair

There is a kitchen in black America where a mother brushes her daughter’s natural kinks into slick ponytails and, across the street, an aunt chemically straightens her niece’s hair with a relaxer and fine-toothed comb.

If you wear your hair weaved or relaxed, you can relate to memories of sitting between your mother’s legs as she treated your hair with Soft & Beautiful, a common hair relaxer used on young girls. You might also be familiar with struggling with Liquid Gold Bond-A-Weave hair glue over a bathroom sink or spending hours in a chair waiting for your best friend to plait a braid pattern for a sew-in weave.

The natural hair revolution is challenging mainstream perceptions about beauty within the black community and encouraging women to stop chemically straightening their hair. Although health concerns underline the argument for natural hair, the campaign also demoralizes traditions that have united black women for generations.

In 2009, comedian Chris Rock’s documentary, “Good Hair,” brought disputes between natural and processed hair to the attention of mass media. Since then, stereotypes and misconceptions fueled battles with the black community about natural versus chemically processed and weaved hair.

Rock was inspired to create the film after overhearing a conversation between his daughter and her white friend. Rock was disappointed that his daughter felt that her kinky curls were not beautiful. In the film, Rock visited beauty supply shops and salons and interviewed black women from various communities across the country. Black women spend fortunes damaging their self-esteem and their scalps in an effort to conform to a portrait of beauty he felt was designed by white society.

“Whatever makes you happy is good hair,” Rock said in a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey. “Do your hair for you, and you will be happy.”

The film suggested that black women were suffering from identity crises despite ending on a positive note. Rock finished the film by encouraging women to quit using chemical strengtheners such as Organic Root Stimulating Relaxer.

He also supported women choosing whatever style made them happiest, but this statement didn’t protect Rock from harsh criticism. Despite the film’s attempt to appear balanced, it failed to present the healthy traditions black beauty culture has established over generations of kitchen salons and corner barbershops, which have developed a culture of hair techniques and processes that have diversified the black perception of beauty and femininity.

While the media has exaggerated this cultural war between women with natural and processed hair, it brings attention to stereotypes black women use when identifying each other.

In a positive light, natural hair is celebrated as being healthier and empowering. Facebook groups such as Back to Natural Hair and Geaux Natural are dedicated to sharing new styles and supporting women as they liberate themselves from their chemically relaxed hair.

These sites are becoming more popular as women bond over struggles with managing natural hair and facing mainstream perceptions that label kinky curls, afros and dreadlocks as inappropriate or “nappy,” a common derogatory term in Rock’s documentary.

It is not necessary to go natural, but many women choose to completely shave their heads and restart with pure new growth, a stage known in reforming to natural hair as the “big chop.” New growth refers to the virgin hair that grows from the scalp before being treated with relaxers.

“Since I became natural, I am more confident in my own beauty,” said media production junior Zondra Victor. “I don’t hide behind my straight hair anymore.”

Victor made “the big chop” two years ago because relaxers tend to thin the hair, damage the hair follicles and irritate the scalp. Rock criticized mothers for using relaxers on young girls by calling the process “kiddy perm.”

Black celebrities like India Arie and Solange Knowles are idolized for their natural hair. Arie moved into the mainstream music scene in 2006 with her song “I Am Not My Hair ft. Akon,” which encouraged all women to stop identifying themselves by the style of their hair. In 2009, Knowles shaved her head to become natural and was disgusted with the negative criticisms she received by fans and the media. In an interview with Winfrey, the host restated a post from Knowles’ Twitter page.

“I just wanted to be free from the bondage that black women sometimes put on themselves with hair. … In this phase of my life, I want to spend the time, the energy and the money on somewhere else and not in the salon,” Knowles said.

Photos of Knowles’ shaved head were the third top Internet trend in 2009 during the weeks following the revel of the singer’s big chop.

Today, the hype has cooled down over natural versus weaved hair in the media, but runways and magazines continue to predominately feature models with chemically straightened or weaved styles. Ataui Deng, Yasmin Warsame and Alek Wek are the natural haired models who make it into high-profile ads and fashion shows.

The harsh contrast between African and black models creates the feeling that natural hair is enforcing African traditions on black society, which has developed its own norms. Psychology junior Ody Ezeigwe said that being African should be more than just looking the part.

“I don’t believe that having a different type of hairstyle means that you are losing touch with your African roots,” Ezeigwe said. “It is the most natural, but our beauty shouldn’t be defined by just one type of hairstyle. In the end, the idea of beauty depends on an individual’s perspective. Besides, a person should intellectually invest themselves in what it means to be an African and not just try to look the part.”

Ezeigwe is a second generation Nigerian-American and prefers to wear her hair relaxed and weaved and enjoys a wide variety of styles.

The push for natural hair has fallen from the attention of the mainstream media since “Good Hair” debuted four years ago, but it has given the black community space to approach the issue in a more accepting environment.

In urban neighborhoods, beauty supply shops have become hubs for natural, weaved and relaxed women alike. Although weaves and relaxers continue to fly off the shelves, new products and tools that make it easier for black women to have a straight or polished look are being introduced. Popular ethnic hair product companies like Organic and Crème of Nature have introduced safer relaxing formulas and encourage women to treat their hair sparingly.

Black beauty culture is evolving into a diverse world that encourages women to express their unique fierceness and discover their own form of beauty.

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