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Natural Or Relaxed, For Black Women, Hair Is Not A Settled Matter

First Posted: 08/04/11 05:57 PM ET Updated: 10/04/11 06:12 AM ET

ATLANTA -- All month, Sharee Bryant had been hearing women talk about hair.

She'd overheard two women in a grocery store checkout line talking about a $62 shampoo and conditioner combo designed for black women who had decided to forgo chemically straightening their hair. She'd heard a woman at her church questioning why so many of the young women in the pews had the temerity to show up with their hair in its natural state -- curly, kinky or somewhere in between. And she had read online about the black women driving from places as far away as Arkansas and Chicago to the Spring World Natural Hair Show in Atlanta.

So by the time Bryant -- an Atlanta-area insurance agent who's taken to wearing her natural hair coiled into Bantu Knots since cutting off her chemically relaxed bob last year -- stood in a 35-minute line outside the late April hair show, she had a list of the products she wanted to touch, sample and smell.

Still, what Bryant, 34, heard next took her by surprise.

"Go to the beach. Go to the club. Wherever you want to go this summer. Ladies, what you need is a Prota Organic Weave," a rail-thin woman equipped with a Janet Jackson-style headset microphone announced from a booth near the front of the sprawling exhibit space. "Let it blow in the wind. That's right, shake it."

"You can have the man you want, the life you want, ladies," the woman continued. "Change your look up today for $15. I can change your life for $15. Right here, we've got what you need, organic weave."

The pitch wasn't just persistent, it had deeper resonance. For black women, how they wear their hair is complicated by a deep well of personal, social and commercial interests. Despite a record one-year decline in the sales of chemical hair relaxer anda boom in beauty products, websites, blogs and YouTube channels aimed at black women with natural hair, the conversation around black hair is anything but closed. In 2011, the question of when and why so many black women chemically relax their hair or go natural remains fraught and very much open.

"I really feel like this may be the year that the natural finally went mainstream," said Bryant, before pursing her lips and taking one of those deep, stay-calm breaths. Prota's pitchwoman was doing her thing just a few feet away from a table where Bryant had stopped to inspect a 6 oz., $27 jar of curl cream. "I'm really kind of surprised -- maybe even a little offended -- that weave woman is here. As far as I'm concerned, she's like a money changer in the temple."

In early part of the 20th century, a black beauty-products operation created by Madam C.J. Walker made her the nation's first black millionaire. Today, black hair care products make up a nearly $10-billion industry, according to industry data. But in the last two years, chemical hair relaxer sales -- marketed mostly to black women -- have dropped by 12 percent, according to Mintel, a consumer spending and market research firm.

"In this business, that's a big dip, a very, very big dip," said Kat Fay, a senior beauty personal care analyst at Mintel. "Of course, those years do coincide with the recession. And we know that it can be expensive to maintain a relaxer or a weave. But there are some real indicators that something else, something related to the growing popularity of natural hair and a paradigm shift away chemicals may be taking hold here."

The sight of black women with curly, kinky and Esperanza Spalding-sized hair has grown so common that in July, CNN published a sort of natural black hair etiquette guide on its website. The story explored white curiosity about black women's natural hair and the historical and cultural reasons why touching a black woman's hair without invitation is rude.

But black hair -- the hefty price tag of a single weave (sometimes more than $1,000), the harsh chemical makeup of hair relaxers and the reasons why millions of black women spend time and money to get and maintain them -- might have remained almost exclusively a conversation between black women if it were not for Chris Rock, Fay said.

In 2006, Rock and HBO films produced the documentary "Good Hair." In it, Rock used his characteristically comical approach to explore a serious set of questions about black women and why straight, long hair remains the prevailing beauty ideal. The movie also put a new phrase in the national vernacular when several women interviewed for the documentary called chemical relaxers, and the devotion they inspire, "creamy crack." On screen, Rock explained that the movie had been inspired by his young daughter's question about her natural hair. Rock's daughter asked him why she didn't have "good hair."

The cultural weight and social value of straight hair is very strong, and Fay is not aware of a single company that has stopped producing relaxers, despite the sales declines.

But some of the world's largest and best-known black hair companies, such as Bronner Brothers and L'Oreal-owned Mizani, which built their reputations on relaxers, have also started producing natural hair product lines, said Michelle Breyer, one of the owners and founders of, an offline beauty industry market research company and online discussion and retail space that caters to women (of all races) with curly or kinky hair.

Both Bronner and Mizani were at the Atlanta hair show with staff in place not just to hand out samples, but apply them to would-be customer's hair, discuss the results and advise the displeased.

Today, there are stores that have entire sections of products dedicated to curly hair, Breyer said. And the practice of planting black hair care products on one aisle and everything else aimed at everyone else on another is disappearing even in a lot of chain stores. All sorts of companies are even adopting in their packaging some of the styling language -- "wash and go," "twist set" and "braid out," to name a few -- that is common to the online discussion spaces and blogs where black women review how to care for natural hair.

"Hair has incredible social significance," said Nowlie Rooks, author of the book, "Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women." Rooks is also the associate director of Princeton University's Center for African American Studies. "Think about the obsessive level of attention men losing their hair give that process. In some cultures people shave their hair as an act of mourning. For African-American women, wearing one's natural hair was just not socially acceptable for the longest time."

Perhaps no one knows this better than Alicia Nicole Walton, the writer and psychotherapist behind, a natural hair care blog. Curly Nikki's blog stands out in the sea of online voices talking about the decision to "go natural" and the care and maintenance of natural hair. Walton does more than just evaluate products, she pays attention to the emotional and social issues that surround black women's hair in a regular series of posts written by Walton and guest writers called On the Couch.

Walton grew up in a home where chemical hair treatments were banned because of an experience that her father had with "a bad Jehri Curl," she said. But in college, Walton had a harder time getting to a salon to have her hair temporarily straightened with a heated straightening comb. Then she damaged her hair when she used a flat iron, another temporary heat straightening method, too often at home. Her boyfriend -- now husband -- pointed out that Walton's moods, even her self-esteem seemed to rise and fall around the appearance of her hair. When it was straight, Walton was up. When it was not, Walton was down, he said. Walton decided this wasn't emotionally healthy and began experimenting with wearing her hair in curly and braided styles. Her father wasn't pleased.

"He said, 'Please don't sacrifice your career for this hair choice,'" Walton said. "'How will you get a job or get into graduate school with that hair?' But that was the thing: What I was doing wasn't really a choice, like dying your hair pink. This is what grows out of my head."

For older African Americans, natural hair or appearing in public with one's hair un-straightened can seem a lot like going somewhere without pants, Walton said.

In 2010, purchased Walton's blog for an undisclosed amount.

"Let's just say that my husband and I don't absolutely have to work," said Walton, a new mother who hopes to establish a therapy practice for women with body image and self-esteem issues. Choosing a natural hair style in the 1970s often conveyed a political message, Walton said, citing Angela Davis' afro.

But in the hair show, packed into 75,000 square feet in the Georgia International Convention Center, the politics of natural hair seemed to take a back seat to commercial interests. During the two-day event, thousands of black women approached sales staff -- black and white -- for advice about their hair. White-owned companies continue to dominate sales, but many of the small- to medium-sized black-owned companies are trying to infiltrate the market. And most of the black startup owners interviewed for this story view white women with curly hair as the next customer frontier that will help their businesses continue to grow.