Natural Or Relaxed, For Black Women, Hair Is Not A Settled Matter
But there are also plenty of signs that natural hair has yet to become completely socially acceptable. Each year, a number of workplace discrimination suits are filed related to African Americans wearing their hair in its natural state, dreads or braids, said Rooks.
In 2007, a Glamour Magazine editor told a group of female attorneys gathered for a session on corporate fashion do's and don'ts that natural hair -- more specifically afros, dreads and other "political" hair styles -- was an absolute don't. Glamour declined to identify the editor, but it wound up apologizing to its readers and the law firm. The unidentified editor in question has, according to a statement released by Glamour, resigned.
And then there is the way that some people have responded to 13-year-old Malia Obama's hair. When Malia Obama accompanied her mother, First Lady Michelle Obama, abroad in 2010, she wore her hair in a series of two-stand twists that were left coiled for most of the trip. The Free Republic, online message boards for political conservatives, temporarily disabled comments related to the trip because of statements made by readers describing Malia Obama and her hair in terms such as "typical ghetto trash." Several questioned whether her appearance was suitable to represent the United States abroad.
Natural black hair remains such a charged issue that late last year when Sesame Street's white head writer, Joey Mazzarino, wrote a short musical skit for his adopted Ethopian daughter, he created a sensation. Mazzarino's daughter had made it clear that she wanted long, blonde, bouncy hair, he said. The song Mazzarino wrote in celebration of natural black hair and then assigned to one of the show's puppets, "I Love My Hair," went viral. To date, it has drawn more than 2.5 million hits on YouTube and provoked mashups, innumerable blog entries and a call from an African-American woman who told Mazzarino that the song moved her to tears.
"Natural hair is not quite a stigma at this point, but there can be risks," said Rooks.
At the natural hair show, there were dozens of women in line at the Miss Jessie's mobile salon space and more watching product demonstrations at the foot of its stage. There was a line that stretched 42-women deep at the shop set up by Uncle Funky's Daughter, another well-known beauty product lines aimed at women with curly or kinky hair. While they waited, some posed for pictures with the company's logo -- a black woman with a shoulder-grazing Afro. And the scene around the Hair Rules booth looked something like a crowded bar. Dozens of women were trying to get the staff's attention, waving money, shouting questions and requests over other customers' heads.
But whether it was the product, the company's Beyonce-look-alike model or the pitch woman's ability to make the late infomercial star Billy Mays seem soft spoken, the Prota Organic weave booth also drew a small crowd.
One person who went nowhere near the Prota display was Yaisa Strickland. Strickland, an attorney in Washington, D.C., cut off her mid-back-length relaxed hair last year after her sister convinced her that they should both eliminate chemical straightening. When she did it, Strickland was unsure she would be able to live with the look or the amount of natural hair left on her head. So she did her "big chop" in Atlanta, the "weave capital of the world," as Strickland said. If she'd felt awkward after her big chop, she was sure that she could find a talented hair stylist somewhere nearby to attach a weave.
But when it was done, Strickland liked what she saw. She could really see her face. There would be no hiding behind a shroud of hair. And there was something else.
"I know that sounds dramatic, but I used to spend six to eight hours at least once a month in the salon," said Strickland, who wears a modern curly take on the afro that natural hair care enthusiasts often call a TWA -- the "teeny weeny afro." "I used to have to plan when and how I was going to exercise because, you know, you don't want that straight hair that you've invested in to get wet off-schedule. But since I cut my hair, I've told people, you could be living instead of spending half your life and your budget on your hair. I really cannot imagine going back."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of singer Esperanza Spalding.