The politics of black women’s hair has been a hot button issue for decades. The legacy of slavery and white supremacy means that, on an near-global scale, kinky or frizzy black hair has been systematically maligned and devalued, while European straight hair has been systematically lauded and ‘normalized’.
In the nineteen sixties and seventies, following the civil rights movement, the Afro emerged as a potent symbol of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ mantra, but by the end of the eighties, jheri curls and relaxers had firmly replaced the Afro as the styling choice of the majority of black women.
In the last 15 years, however, an evolution has taken place. Increasing numbers of black women have joined those sisters who had always ‘bucked the trend’, and are embracing and celebrating the kink: black women are falling in love with their natural hair. (It’s worth noting that in 2015, a market research company, Mintel, estimated that the black hair industry was worth $774 million and that relaxer sales are set to decrease by 45% by 2019.)
Rules on Wearing Natural Hair – When to Conform
We are loving our natural hair, and we are ready to staunchly defend it. The fight has been long and hard, and the battle still ensues. So does anyone have the right to tell us how we should wear our natural hair? Frankly, yes.
Uniformed institutions such as the military have that right. The idea of a uniform is to equalize members and to homogenize the ‘unit’ into an identity. Want to wear your hair your way, all day? The military may not be for you. A cursory glance at a website owned by the US Navy has photographs and clear instructions on the authorized length and styling of hair.
Women of every ethnicity are required to conform to the same guidelines. Regardless of texture, hair can be worn open as long as is no longer than two inches. The Navy also allows for braids, cornrows, wigs and weaves on duty as long as they are styled, like other long hair styles, into a bun. The black natural styles shown are like those that African-American women wear voluntarily in civilian life every day of the week.
What about schools? Do they have the right to legislate hairstyles? Of course. They have a right to dictate how their students present themselves. No dye jobs or Mohawks allowed? Fair enough.
When to Object to Rules on Wearing Natural Hair
The rightful objection comes when rule-setting is used insidiously to discriminate against people of color who have chosen not to replicate white “norms”. For example, if a white child is permitted to attend school with his six-inch-long hair falling across his face or brushing his shoulders, but a black child with a six-inch-long Afro or locs is barred from the same school for having ‘untidy’ or ‘unruly’ hair, then this is not about rules. This is about racism and bigotry.
If a law firm says nothing when a white woman comes to work with her long hair held off her face with a bandeau, but that same firm wants to demonstrate against a black woman coming to work with her halo of natural frizzy hair held off her face with a bandeau, we are talking racism and bigotry.
And if the black women in the office who sports relaxed hair or a straight weave are considered more ‘professional’ than the black women who rock natural twists or locs, we are again talking racism and bigotry. And this is where we should not comply.
However, the news is encouraging. Slowly, but steadily, companies are becoming more aware of the need to embrace and respect racial diversity in the workplace, and laws are constantly being made and revised to ensure this.
What of our responsibility to ourselves, as people of color? It is arrogant folly to believe or promote that that there is only one ‘way’ to be black, or to assume that all black women who relax their hair are ashamed of their heritage.
Further, every adult woman has the right to make her own style choices. The dogged promotion of the ‘them and us’ camps – the relaxed sisters versus natural sisters – is counter-productive and a distraction.
We have bigger cultural issues to confront and solve. The debate should focus first on our health. There are proven and documented risks in using chemicals of any sort on your scalp – and relaxers are among the most damaging.
The Hidden Dangers of Relaxers
Most relaxers contain a cocktail of harsh ingredients, such as sodium hydroxide (lye), parabens and phthalates. (Note: even ‘no lye’ relaxers still cause serious damage over time.) On average, women who relax their hair do so every 8 to 10 weeks – often, for decades.
It is virtually impossible to apply relaxer topically without it getting onto the scalp, and therefore into the body. Follicle damage, irreversible alopecia (baldness), endometriosis, fibroids and heart disease have all been linked to long-term use of relaxers.
How to Transition to Natural Hair
If you are thinking of making a change to a healthier scalp and re-uniting with your natural hair texture, remember that there are several ways to make your transitioning journey easier. And an added bonus is that your hair maintenance costs may well come down because natural hair thrives under the care of coconut oil, Shea butter and other superb natural oils that may be obtained very affordably. The freedom from the tyranny of the relaxer is not to be under-estimated!
Love your natural hair, and watch, in wonder, as it loves you right back.
Healthy scalp, Healthy hair, HealthyLocs!