After decades, an age-old debate still rages on among African American women regarding choices surrounding natural or relaxed hairstyles. More and more women are cutting off their chemically straightened hair and embracing their natural kinky, curly or somewhere in- between hair.
Hair relaxers were once very commonplace for women like 47-year-old Jeanette Dixon. Eventually the inconvenience and expense of frequent hair appointments and concerns regarding her health prompted her to forego chemical relaxers for her natural hair.
“I elected to embrace by inner “naturalista” because it helped me address deeper historical, personal, social and commercial interests,” explained the Philadelphia business executive, who now sports shoulder-length dread locs. “I have not regretted the decision, I made over five years ago.”
Experts are reporting an upsurge in the number of African American women electing to go natural. The city of Philadelphia is not an anomaly. Most major cities have groups of women who dub themselves as “naturals” or “naturalists”. There are bonding opportunities in the form of meetup groups, local and regional hair shows and there is a designated national day to celebrate natural hair. There also are numerous websites and video blogs filled with advice and tutorials on styling all manner of natural hair.
Tumbling sales of hair relaxers among African American women tell the story, as more women elect the natural hair option and abandon chemical relaxers. But it’s the anecdotal evidence that conveys the real message. There is no doubt the natural hair movement is greatly shaping the U.S. black hair care market. Consumer research group Mintel reveals that the sales of natural hair products have increased by 26.8 percent from 2013 to 2015, reaching an estimated $946 million and now comprises 35 percent of black hair care sales. However, it expects hair relaxer sales to drop to $72 million by 2019, which were at an all-time high of $200 million in 2009. The slide continued with industry revenue dropping to $148 million in 2013.
What is still true about the industry is that women are still spending lots of money on all hair products and services. To date, business projections reveal that the market has remained relatively unscathed by the recession. The black hair care industry– which has seen a moderate, but steady, growth– is expected to reach $500 billion in revenue by 2017. Again, all categories within the market have contributed to the industry’s overall growth, except relaxer sales, which have consistently declined over the past six years.
But the stories from the women, who have made the switch from relaxers and weaves to natural styles, convey what the studies can’t. There are those who have embraced natural hair, in part due to the health effects of chemical products, but also because of a resurgence in black pride. Today, they have a community to turn to. And many women, who are growing out their hair naturally, encourage their children to adopt the hairstyle.
“If you have traveled this journey, you know with patience and the right resources your journey can be a personal triumph that is pleasurable and sensational,” opined Ruth Ann Johnson, who attributes her choice of Senegalese twists to repairing the damage her hair experienced from the use of chemicals, heat and straightening.
“When I was growing up, I remember my mom pressing my hair every Sunday as we prepared for church,” explained Johnson, a pediatric nurse, who modified the ritual by spending hours every Saturday at a local salon to relax her hair for the “appropriate look”.
While more women are becoming aware of their natural hair options, transitioning from processed hair to natural hair can take time as cropped hair grows out and experimentation begins with new hair styles. But the biggest obstacles sometimes come from women themselves.
“The psychology of going natural is a challenge for many women because of the prevalent standards of beauty,” according to Fay Slade. The 25-year-old graduate student admits she is concerned about the health of her hair, but certain social pressures are as equally challenging. “Many women hesitate traveling the natural route because they– and a lot of men– associate long straight hair with beauty.
Slade’s sentiment were echoed by Karen Marsh, who related tales of relaxing and straightening her hair before deciding to go natural. The decision, she said, was not an easy one. “You can lose love interest, get passed over for job opportunities and be ridiculed by family and friends for having natural hair.”
Marsh, who elected to go natural two years ago, further explained, “For black women, our hair is our crowning glory. And, although I made this decision years ago, I felt extreme pressure to conform because of the social impact. Today for many black women, wearing natural hair has become a cultural hallmark.”
After two decades of working as a hair stylist, Janelle Montgomery has become a natural hair advocate too—her salon is called Janelle’s. About 10 years ago, she decided to go natural, meaning she doesn’t use synthetic hair, weave or chemical hair products.
“I believe that after working so closely with chemically-based products, especially those that contain heavy toxins, I observed the impact they were beginning to have on my health,” explained Montgomery.
What these women represent are a collection of individual stories and experiences that might provide support to other women who are considering the natural hair journey.
By Leah Fletcher
On your journey to “The Land of Au Natural”, natural hairstylist Alicia Hart provides several relevant pointers that are sure to make your natural hair trek easy and engaging.
• Select hairstyles that will not require excessive manipulation of your hair, which is delicate by nature. Braids, with or without extensions, are a good choice because they don’t require constant styling. Examples of popular braided styles include twists, cornrows and sister locks.
• Regularly condition your hair. Your hair cleansing routine should incorporate a conditioning regimen after your shampoo. Also, consider a monthly, deep-conditioning treatment to nurture your hair.
• Trim away split ends regularly. Split ends can travel up the hair shaft, preventing hair from growing and causing breakage.
• Treat your hair delicately. It’s a good idea to avoid the use of heat appliances and always detangle your hair with a plastic wide-tooth comb. Both practices safeguard your hair.
• Keep your hair constantly moisturized. Hart noted there are an array of available products. She favors the use of water-based moisturizers, which help prevent breakage and result in healthier looking hair.
• Protect your hair when sleeping. Use a satin scarf, sleep cap or satin pillowcase to prevent friction between your hair and your bedding. Failure to do so may lead to hair breakage.