Natural hair served more as a political statement than a hairstyle during the civil rights era, as fist raising, afro-sporting African-Americans marched until their rights were recognized.
“Natural hair” is just that—the way hair grows out of the scalp without alteration, generally used to describe unprocessed hair worn by people of African descent. Like the long, straight manes of hippies in the 1960s and 70s, natural hair of the same time period signified a separation from societal norms that forced African-Americans to hide their hair, even from themselves.
In the past, “the reason [black] people wore perms (chemically straightened hair),” said Syreeta Scott, owner of Duafe Holistic Hair Care, “was because we thought it would make our process, our experience, the American experience, easier.”
Today, a new wave of people wearing their natural hair, now called “going natural,” has given rise to a flood of natural hair care salons, entrepreneurial natural hair products, sparked debates about beauty standards and excited former activists anxious to see what this generation of afros, locs, kinks and coils will bring to the table. But with no new black rights movement on the horizon, a question arises: what causes a group of otherwise unaffiliated people to act in unison?
As evidence of the significance of the natural hair phenomenon, Mintel, a privately-owned market research firm, reported that 36 percent of black women were no longer using relaxers to straighten their hair in 2011, up 10 percent from the previous year. As relaxer sales have plummeted 26 percent from 2008 to 2013, there has been a corresponding rise in styling products like setting lotions used to maintain natural hairstyles.
“A look at expenditures from 2008-2013 shows steady growth in the Black hair care category for all categories except relaxers,” said Tonya Roberts, a multicultural analyst at Mintel.
While women have been turning away from the natural curl controlling perms, euphemistically known as “creamy crack,” the green movement urging the return to nature has taken hold.
“At the same time [women were beginning to wear their natural hair], you had this overwhelming trend of going green in general, being more environmentally aware,” said Lori Tharps, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
The modern green movement was resurrected during the mid-2000s, the same time period Tharps and Scott highlight for the rise in natural hair. Spurred by the prominence of environmental crises such as rapidly melting ice caps and a depleting ozone layer, environmental activism became of widespread interest.
As a result of this eco-awareness, women began paying more attention to what was put in their hair, namely a chemical strong enough to create permanently straight strands and scabbed scalps. “Black women,” said Tharps, “were just as cognizant of everything that was happening in our world.”
Duafe Holistic Hair Care is a natural hair salon dedicated entirely to naturally-made hair products and overall health, designed to encourage healthy hair.
“Holistic hair care,” said Scott, “is the whole part of hair care--your diet, your lifestyle and what you choose to put in your hair.”
Scott, who has been doing natural hair for 17 years, makes a lot of her own natural hair products with ingredients like all natural oils, aloe and shea butter. Scott said she is almost always able to look at a customer’s hair and pinpoint what the individual is doing internally to affect their natural hair health. Processed foods, for example, can affect the scalp to the point of severe reactions to oils and conditioners she said.
Tharps and Cinzia Simmons, co-owner of LeRoi and Cinzia Simmons’ Full Service Salon, place heavy weight on the internet and the rise of social networks as a reason natural hair has been able to latch on to a new generation of afro-enthusiasts.
“Something amazing has happened,” said Simmons, “and that is we have controlled our own beauty images.”
That’s because, according to Tharps, access to products and advice on how to style black hair without chemicals was limited prior to the advent of Internet forums.
“Once the Internet happened,” Tharps said, “not only could you join a forum with other black women all over the country who could give advice, they also could sell you products.”
YouTube has become the platform where natural hair and green living have met to create an entire community dedicated to holistic hair care and general health education. YouTube channels like Hey Fran Hey, Naptural 85, Kimmaytube and SunKissAlba seamlessly mesh natural hair and beauty care with natural living through tutorials and testimonials. The range of women involved in this online community also represents the vastness with which holistic hair care has caught on. Kim Love of Kimmaytube, for example, was a corporate professional when she began a hair journey that included a disciplined regimen of improved health and fitness and the inclusion of natural products like aloe vera juice and jojoba oil for length retention. Francheska Kahlo Medina of Hey Fran Hey, on the other hand, is a natural living blogger who describes herself as “the ultimate hippie.”
Plenty of new naturals rely on YouTube and bloggers for advice on what to eat, what to use and styling tips for the healthiest natural hair results. Love, for example, mixes aloe vera juice and jojoba oil into her leave-in conditioner. When our hair responds to the pH of the aloe, she said, the hair cuticle closes helping to retain moisture.
Medina posted a two-part, 20-minute video series about clean eating. She recommends adding proteins like quinoa and barley and healthy fats such as almonds to your grocery list. Protein is responsible for cell growth and repair, and hair is merely a dead protein called keratin.
“We’ve discussed skin, we’ve discussed hair, what products to buy…but as you guys know, none of that would be as effective if you’re not taking care of yourself from the inside out,” Medina said.
While the Simmons’ applaud the dynamic new medium, Scott, who has an Instagram account for her salon, said it’s done more harm than good for her customers.
“What you’re finding is people are gravitating [to social media] and they’re telling them what to do and they’re giving them the wrong information,” said Scott.
As a result, she has had to rectify a number of hair health issues, including the phenomenon of thinning edges, the area around the perimeter of the hairline, often caused by too much pulling and improper product use as women try to recreate sleek looks seen on YouTube.
Regardless, the correlation between natural hair, natural living and the Internet is almost undeniable. The overall societal climate of greener living pushed women to “green” their hair care regimens. In getting rid of chemicals used in their hair, women desired to eradicate all chemicals from their daily routines, but weren’t quite sure how to go about it. Internet forums and later, social media provided the medium for the exchange of natural hair care information.
“It just seemed logical,” recalled Cinzia Simmons of her own natural hair and natural living transformation.
As for why going natural and going green go hand-in-hand, LeRoi Simmons said, “I think people have freed their hair and now their minds are following.”