The Perm Is Dead But Black Women Are Still Striving For European Beauty Standards

June 3, 2014  |  


Are hair relaxers for black women going the way of the dinosaurs and shell top Adidas?

I know it all sounds ridiculous considering the black girl perm has been with us since the day that Garret A. Morgan’s Hair Refining Cream declared a war on “bad hair. And considering that the perm itself has survived some pretty stiff hair trends including the Black is Beautiful movement of the 60s, which brought up braids and afros, and then the “Good Hair Revival” era of the Jheri Curl, which I always suspected was a part of COINTELPRO (after all, it was created by a white man). Perms even survived the god-awful wave nouveau curl phase of the early 90s. If you don’t remember, this phase gave its wearers all the benefits of looking like a distant Debarge but without all the drip-drip, messiness of a seedy covert spying program aimed at destroying revolutionaries and progressive movements.

What I’m saying is that the perms reign was pretty solid. And I was for certain that despite Chris Rock’s best efforts to thwart its impact, women were going to hold tightly to that jar of Optimum Bodifying Relaxer much in the same way Charlton Heston warned that the only way you could take his gun was “from my cold, dead hands!” But with every good empire there must be a fall. And it seems that the perm’s time has come.

According to the Boston Globe, not only have sales for perms been on a steady decline – thanks in part to the second wave of the Natural Hair movement – but attitudes are changing in general among women, who seem to be rejecting the idea of straight hair period. Or as noted in the article:

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.

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.”

Two years ago, MN reported that relaxer kit sales dropped 17 percent between 2006 and 2011. But as the article in the Globe notes, hair relaxer products have dropped from $206 million profit in 2011, to $158 million in 2013. Also feeling the pinch are leading black hair care product makers L’Oréal (I know right?) and Alberto Culver Company, which according to this article, has seen its command of the industry (almost one-third of the market) take a major hit. In the meantime, natural hair care products and business are sprouting up in their places.

And so are hair extension companies. According to this article, a report by the Professional Beauty Association has shown a 28.5 percent increase in the number of U.S. salons that offer hair extensions in the last couple of years. And this bit of research by Mintel (by way of the Huffington Post), shows that, nearly six out of 10 Black consumers wear a wig, weave or extensions, Many of those new hair extension businesses are not only black owned but patronized by largely black clientele. What that suggest to me is that the decline of the perm might have little to do with the rejection of European standards for the sake of self-acceptance of our own hair, but rather changing attitudes about chemical enhancements when length and even that straight look can be achieved through less harmful means.

On a purely anecdotal account, I have been noticing less and less perm heads walking the streets around my own small microcosm of black women-society. Even among the girlfriends, who choose to rock their coils straight, exist a strong reluctancy to perm. Instead the grand majority of my straight-haired girlfriends are opting for another throwback: the press and curl. That comes courtesy of the Dominican shops, which have also exploded in recent years and served as a more hair-healthier alternative to the relaxer.

Even on my daily early morning walk around the neighborhood this morning revealed more weaves than either perm or natural hair styles among women waiting for the bus. So clearly the hair-tide is changing and it certainly looks like we’ve taken our last strand test and seen our last scabby edges and neck – at least until the government finds a new way to infiltrate and get us back aligned to European beauty standards.


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