Why the Natural Hair Movement Has Been A Gift And A Curse To Black Women
I made it all the way from the Just For Me craze to the infamous wrap era without so much as a curling iron touching my head. Well, there was this one time for picture day in 5th grade that my mom decided to bless me with some Shirley temple curls. She made it about half through my mid-back kinks before throwing in the towel, tossing the entire middle section into a Bantu knot and sending me on my way. That 5th grade struggle photo, complete with Pebbles’ top knot, will forever encapsulate the relationship I have with my hair. Me in a constant state of “Really, Girl??” and my hair offering a boisterous “Really……period!” in return.
Being natural was a lot more challenging back then, when there were only two recognizable hair types: Type A, or “Oh girl, you need a perm,” and Type B, or “Ooh girl, you got that good hair!” Unfortunately, I was an extreme case of Type A which meant there was no escaping the constant reminder that my hair was inherently “bad.” If not for my mother’s strictness, I would’ve relaxed my hair much sooner than the 10th grade, a decision that only took me two years to regret. Back then a relaxer wasn’t just a Black girl’s coming of age, it was affirmation of her social attractiveness. The way my friends put it, natural hair was like slavery in a headband and emancipation was only a kitty kit away. So I chose freedom the first chance I got. Rocked my store bought emancipation until I found myself rocking a comb over, ultimately being forced to shave my hair off from all the damage.
Despite being natural the majority of my life, I never had anything to call it, no formal way to explain it to perplexed onlookers, both Black and White alike. That was, until the natural hair movement. For the first time in my life I wasn’t the girl who needed to “do something with that head”. I was a part of something much bigger, the global redefining of Black beauty as we saw fit. But just as I was starting to celebrate this new coming together for Black women, I realized that this movement was tearing us further apart.
In 1909, Black hair would forever be changed when a man named Garrett Augustus Morgan made an exciting discovery while experimenting with chemical compounds to solve an ongoing problem in his tailor shop, scorched fabric due to needle friction. Not only did Morgan find the perfect chemical blend to reduce friction, but he also discovered that when applied to the fabric itself, the mystery compound straightened the hairs on the fabric. After a few tests on his unsuspecting neighbor’s dog and later on himself, Morgan took his hair straightening product to market. With the help of his Czech immigrant wife, Morgan established the GA Morgan Hair Refining Company and immediately took to the streets to begin marketing his product specifically to Black people.
“War Declared on Bad Hair” read marketing pamphlets. Flyers promised the “improved appearance” of “short, stubborn and bad appearing hair”. People clambered to test this product, hopeful it could deliver on its’ promise to press and straighten their hair while they slept. This decision had very little to do with convenience or time management. Despite early chemical compounds being excruciatingly harsh, frequent users were more than happy to risk permanent hair damage on their quest to beauty. The relaxed aesthetic brought with it a perceived social status that Black people desired. Exercising autonomy over their own bodies for once, Black people believed straightened their hair in a society that had deemed African features repulsive was as an act of defiance. And if they couldn’t simply erase these unfortunate features, they could certainly minimize them.
With exception to the brief but impactful politically motivated hair movement of the 1960’s, it’s not until the early 2000’s that we see a major shift in the narrative regarding Black hair. But unlike the relaxer craze of the early 1900’s, the natural hair movement wasn’t about style or aesthetic, it was about health. With studies linking relaxer usage to health risks like uterine leiomyomata, uterine fibroids, heart disease, hair loss, scalp damage, chemical imbalance, cancer, and early puberty, more and more women sought alternatives to their century old beauty secret. Despite the very obvious effects of harsh chemicals, there was ample pushback from the Black community, particularly from older generations who had lived their entire lives under the assumption that relaxed hair was a sign of social progress. To them, “nappy” hair was an automatic sign of regression and they had no problems making that clear. But more troubling than the nay-sayers was the fact that we had done very little to actually redefine the distorted beauty metrics through which we assessed ourselves.
That didn’t stop us from chopping our hair off in droves. Have you ever met a brand new vegan? A person who’s spent 35 years demolishing baby back ribs only to have their meaty devotion challenged by a documentary declaring “meat is the devil!” The recently natural Black woman is like the new vegan friend who consistently invites you over to try their new vegan barbecue recipe, promising you won’t notice the difference. For the most part, these people don’t gleefully choose veganism, they’re guilted into veganism, driven by fear and the coveted appearance of peak consciousness, leaving many of them endlessly scouring vegan substitutes in search of the feeling you get from that first bite into a juicy burger. A feeling veganism can never truly recreate. Well this was us. A bunch of perm addicts guilted into healthier hair practices but still seeking the social elevation that came with our their formerly tamed tresses. We had abandoned our methods, but our mentality was all the same.
Now what happens when a bunch of Black women with European beauty standards ditch their processed manes for whatever lie beneath? Well you get a community that may look different but behaves all the same. YouTube exploded with natural hair vlogs, chronicling the struggles and realities of natural hair. With many self proclaimed gurus promoting every form of hair straightener under the sun, gaining millions of views under titles like “100% safe homemade relaxer, no damage.” It wasn’t that Black women didn’t want “tamed” hair, they did, it was the relaxer they didn’t care for. Which meant everything else was fair game. Millions of women, many of whom who had never actually seen their natural hair, were trying to come to terms with what was growing from their scalps. Nothing was off limits, baking soda, egg yolk, avocado, placenta, preparation H, yogurt, vinegar, okra, lime juice, you name it, Black women were willing to try it. Anything to create a “looser” curl or a ripple or two, anything but what we had.
At the same time, a hair typing system developed in the 1990’s as part of a marketing campaign would resurface and throw the “Community” for another loop. Andre Walker’s Hair Typing System would offer a visual hair hierarchy no one actually needed but everyone thought they wanted. The Hair Typing System placed straight hair at the top as Type 1, wavy hair below that as Type 2, curly hair thereafter at Type 3 and finally kinky/coily at Type 4. At the height of the Natural Hair Movement, these categories were amended to include a collection of subcategories. Fine hair earned you an A subcategory and the more definition you added the lower the grade, once again, leaving Black women with kinky/coily hair at the bottom. This hair hierarchy left many of us struggling to juggle hair health with hair perception, wanting the private benefits of unprocessed hair but the public comforts of a more “professional” look. Anything not to come in last.
As the natural craze hit the beauty industry, execs scrambled to create product lines that catered to the new market. But the industry quickly exemplified why all natural hair wasn’t created equal. It was the packaging that told the story, campaigns full of racially ambiguous women with ringlets cascading down their backs took center staged . Despite product contents being designed for women with hair like Uzo Aduba, product marketing was monopolized by women with hair like Zendaya, and it all made sense, especially since that’s the look naturals were trying to achieve anyway. Sure, we were well meaning initially but the socially coveted natural hair texture was far from the bottom of the hair hierarchy. We’d given up our quest for bone straight hair only to turn around and chase the shiny, bouncing ringlets we saw getting all the praise. Leading girls right to the drawing board, or the sculpting board, trying to master the kink turned curl look. The natural hair industry was booming as a result of our dissatisfaction with just how natural our natural hair turned out. Social influencers turned to texturizers and other mild chemical processes to boost viewership because, well, nobody wanted to see the dark-skinned girl with the “4C” hair, even the dark-skinned girl with the 4C hair didn’t want to see that. Once again, we weren’t enough, not even for ourselves. No matter how much we had rejected relaxers, we had yet to embrace our Afros. How natural were we, really?
What we found under our perms was the same hair we’d declared war on back in 1909 and an awkward realization that we had never actually abandoned the narrative that deemed our natural kinks unattractive in the first place. We may have abandoned the method, but that wouldn’t stop us from finding new ways to achieve our tainted beauty standards. We didn’t want afros and kinks, we wanted wash’n’go’s, silky ringlets and super slicked edges, even if it took 2 bottles of leave-in, a tub of gel, a jar of curl defining cream, a pint of style milk, extreme edge control and a tiny toothbrush to achieve. And if that didn’t work, you could always throw a hair hat on your head and call it protection. We couldn’t achieve a European aesthetic so we decided a racially ambiguous/biracial one would suffice. But what’s natural about going broke trying to look like someone else? Are there Black people around the globe who are born with natural blonde hair, absolutely. But it’s not them we have in mind when we slide those synthetic cover ups over our coils. Can Black woman do whatever the hell they want with their hair, no questions asked. That doesn’t mean some of our hair decisions aren’t rooted in shame. We put more effort into defending our decisions to mask and manipulate our natural hair than we do into embracing it. And wasn’t that the whole purpose of this movement anyway? Maybe it’s true this movement has been just as much a gift as it’s turned out to be a curse.