I see the demise of relaxers. The caustic chemical treatments that straighten kinky hair will fall as natural hair solidifies its place as a staple and not a fad in the Black hair world. This will happen because this new wave of curls is happening in a different context than the hyper-political afro of the sixties, and also because of the simple fact that natural hair is healthy.
Healthy Inside and Out
Not chemically straightening your hair is a physically and emotionally healthy practice. Many women are returning their hair to its natural state out of concern of the health of their hair. Recently, my team at Un'ruly did a small search across the web, looking for women who had gone natural and had professed why. We found a convenience sample of 75 women, of which the vast majority of them went natural because they wanted healthier hair. Many of them cited hair loss and damage from using relaxers as a driving factor for their big chops or transitions, which makes sense, since over the past few years the dangers of relaxers have been widely communicated in articles, films and TV shows. A few months ago, Dr. Oz highlighted how corrosive relaxers can be. The active ingredient in many relaxers is sodium hydroxide (also known as lye), which is the active ingredient in drain cleaner. It has the ability to break down organic matter. While no-lye relaxers contain a modified version of lye, they can be just as caustic. The effects of relaxers, if used incorrectly or too frequently can include scalp irritation, chemical burns, hair damage, breakage and hair loss. For many women, the thought of thinning hair or having very little hair is not worth the regular use of chemical treatments. Consequently, according to market research firm, Mintel, relaxer sales have dipped by 15 percent since 2011.
While a desire for healthy hair can drive the abandonment of relaxers on a surface level, the switch quickly becomes something a little deeper whether intended or not. Going natural marks a departure from conventional beauty ideals. You're stripped of the characteristics that most people associate with beautiful, especially if you big chop -- cutting off all your relaxed hair at once. With a big chop, you become a woman with short hair in a world where so much sexuality and femininity lies in length. Stripped of adornment, your crutches are gone and you have to stand on your own. At this point, women begin asking questions: Why is silky bouncy hair considered pretty? Why is long hair feminine? How else might I express my identity? My femininity? My beauty? This consequential self-reflection and probing is a deconstruction of ideas unknowingly accepted as truth. What remains when the old blocks have been knocked down is the opportunity to define your own beauty and build your esteem, having taken control of your image. The result is a person not only void of chemical burns, but also more secure in her own skin.
A Different Context
But if natural hair can have such a positive impact on one's physical and psychological wellbeing, why did it lose prominence after its rise in the 1960s? Natural hair was healthy then too. Why didn't its moment last? The circumstances were very different in the sixties than they are now. At that time, the afro was tied to a large scale protest. It was a symbol against the overt discrimination present in the United States that stemmed from hundreds of years of Blacks being treated as sub-human and viewed as undesirable. Among the peaceful demonstrations against segregation and discrimination, was the afro demonstrating that Black wasn't inferior or unattractive; it was, in fact, beautiful. But as battles were won and as the Civil Rights Movement matured, the afro took on a different meaning. Against the backdrop of Black Power the texture of the afro changed, becoming strongly associated with Black militancy. "Both white and older black Americans viewed [the afro] as a threat to the prevailing social order," explained Ruth La Ferla in her New York Times piece, "The Afro as a Natural Expression of Self". Despite its prominence at the time, the Afro wasn't a symbol everyone could or wanted to identify with. So as Blacks and Whites integrated post-Civil Rights, and as a need to assimilate came packaged with that integration, assimilated hairstyles took the place of the 'fro.
Now, however, the hair movement that seems to be happening, is less of a political one and more of an aesthetic one. In addition to many women saying they went natural because they wanted healthy hair, several of the women we surveyed also stated they went natural because they liked they way it looks or because they were inspired by friends, family or people in the media. Natural hair is a look more and more women are aspiring to. So much so that some are even purchasing kinky extensions to create the look. What's great about women being inspired by other naturals is it creates a system that perpetuates and sustains the presence of natural hair. The more women go natural, the more women there are sharing their experiences publicly on the web, which leads to even more women being inspired to go natural. The more women go natural, the more big business sees the opportunities of creating products that cater to natural needs. The more products available to help women care for their hair, the more they find it easy to stay natural, the more they share their experiences. The more they inspire. The more they demonstrate that subjecting yourself to relaxers isn't necessary, the more they demonstrate that kinky hair is just as cool and attractive as straight hair.
The downfall of relaxers, however, doesn't necessarily mean, the replacement of straight hair. Women will still wear weaves and straighten their hair because they'll still have the choice to do so, and there are safer alternatives. Women enjoy varying their appearance and being natural doesn't limit that. If anything it opens one up to more possibilities. The natural hair movement isn't about replacing one standard of beauty with another. It's about creating room on the pedestal of good looks for different versions of beauty to stand, so that whether you're adorned or unadorned you feel just as good and just as worthy.
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