Prevailing American beauty standards have long dictated the hairstyles of African American women. In media and in Hollywood, long and straight hair has been seen as the ultimate symbol of both attractiveness and femininity for not just Caucasian women — but for all women.
But to achieve straight hair–the kind that bounces and can be tossed — has been no easy feat for black women!
For many years, African American women straightened our hair with extreme heat and hot metal fine toothed combs. I can certainly remember holding back my ears (to avoid a burn!) as my mom pressed my hair next to the kitchen stove. The smell of hot blue grease and singed hair is still part of my muscle memory.
And then: Enter hair relaxers. ‘Perms,’ we all called them. Sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide and the like. Chemicals that break bonds, unlink curls, destroy kinks. Chemicals that leave us with straight hair. The bouncing and behaving type of hair.
For decades, hair relaxers were the rule — not the exception. From everyday life to television and magazines, images of black women usually featured bone straight relaxed hair.
Bone straight hair was the goal — at least for many of us. And every 6 or 8 weeks or so, we’d take the beautician’s chair, try to keep talking or keep smiling as our scalps began to burn and scream, as our kinky ‘new growth’ was straightened into what was the beauty ideal.
Rising Tide: Naturals Take Center Stage
Just as clothing styles and language can change, so too can the prevailing ideas of beauty. Somewhere in the early to mid 2000’s, the idea of African American beauty, and what constitutes beautiful hair, began to change. The change was slow at first — ever so gradual.
In the early 2000’s, everyone in Detroit — where I’m from — still seemed to be rocking straightened hair. But, visiting my brother who lived in Manhattan, I remember being amazed at all of the naturals that I saw walking around. Natural hair was already almost a norm there. By this time I also wore natural hair, and I remember feeling as if I’d found my tribe. Other natural women smiled at me on the streets. They did the ‘nod’ thing.
These days, I think, natural hair is a norm in Detroit too. And that’s no easy feat. Detroit can be more conservative than some might imagine.
Hair Relaxer Sales Take a Plunge
The changing tide in beauty norms is not just in our imaginations. Think you’re seeing fewer relaxed heads? You probably are. According to market research firm, Mintel, hair relaxer sales fell a whopping 38% between 2012–2017! It’s estimated that by 2020, relaxers will be the smallest segment of the Black hair care market.
Natural Hair Catching On Worldwide
It’s not just the USA that’s seeing a shift towards natural hair and embracing the curls. Brazil, a country where a white standard of beauty has been seen as the penultimate standard — the standard, if you will — is seeing an unprecedented shift towards natural hair.
Though black and brown people make up more than half of Brazil’s population, popular media images from Brazil almost always have featured women with fair skin and straight hair. However, Brazil too has caught onto the natural hair tide. Brazilian women are proudly wearing their natural curls like never before.
Online searches for ‘Afro hair’ have tripled in Brazil in the last 2 years. And according to the Washington Post, the hashtag #CabeloCrespo, which means “kinky hair,” used to bring up mostly images of straight hair make-overs, the type that showed kinky hair transformed to straight. These days, though, the hashtag brings up thousands of images of amazing curly, coily and kinky afro styles, as well as reaffirming posts about the beauty of afro textured hair.
Taking Care of Our Hair
Beautiful hair can come in all textures. For so long, we’ve seen only a small and narrow interpretation of what beauty looks like. Finally, though, the tide is changing. I think social media is largely responsible. I could spend hours admiring the amazing kinky and coiled hair styles and natural hair videos that black women post on Instagram and Facebook. Sometimes, I wonder how so many of us could have ever thought that our natural hair was anything less than beautiful. I guess seeing really is believing.