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Au Naturale: It’s Time to Talk About Natural Hair

By Katherine Tinsley

Having textured hair can be difficult, in my opinion. It comes with a long list of responsibilities and maintenance that I never truly signed up for. From my hair texture changing as I age, heat damage, color damage and overall lacking curly hair knowledge, I have struggled with having natural hair my whole life—not because I didn’t like it, but mainly because I just didn’t understand how to take care of it. I am half African American and half Puerto Rican and my hair texture is reflective of my mixed heritage, which wasn’t easy to embrace while growing up. My jet black curls always resulted in questions about my identity, hair pulling and unsolicited advice on how I should straighten my hair. I didn’t hate my hair but I was conditioned to be uncomfortable with it and what it represented. As uncomfortable as I was with my hair, the word “relaxer” was like a curse word in my home. I wasn’t allowed to relax my hair or use any treatments to chemically alter my hair. My mom wasn’t going to allow me to enter the world hating something that was a reflection of my background.

Growing up, natural hair seemed like a rarity, but today, having natural hair is becoming more and more common. In the past five years there has been a natural hair product boom. In fact, Mintel reported that between the years 2012-2017 there was a 36% decrease in relaxer sales. Today more and more Black women are going natural and there is a variety of products available at different price points making natural hair care more accessible. There is an increase of professionals and even people in the public eye rocking their curls, kinks and coils. However, it still is difficult to embrace and is still socially unacceptable in some spaces.

Connotation and Assimilation:

On the outside looking in, having an emotional connection to your hair and the journey that comes with it might seem odd or foreign; but the reality is that natural hair can be a difficult thing to embrace and to be comfortable with. Natural hair has been perceived as unprofessional, unkept and not acceptable for social organizations. There are constant headlines of Black children being expelled from school, prohibited from walking at graduation and being bullied for wearing their natural hair in protective styles due to the “extreme hairstyles” rule that most institutions have. Even when we see more and more Black people in the public eye embracing their natural hair, the freedom to wear it in corporate and academic spaces still is limited.

Black women have been pressured to assimilate into the dominant culture (which is typically in favor of sleek straight hair) in order to be hired and allowed within specific spaces (in particular, white ones) that many Black women are required to navigate; in other words, our hair has been othered or made to be something taboo. In the process of assimilation many of us have been pressured to straighten our hair using heat tools, and in some cases chemical treatments such as relaxer, Brazilian blowouts, Keratin treatments and Japanese straighteners. Hair straightening is often associated with a desire to possess a proximity to whiteness which is an oversimplification and not necessarily true for most Black women. Hair straightening was used historically for economic and social mobility and was a survival tactic. When there is such extreme pressure to alter your hair texture in order to make it “palatable” and acceptable, it ultimately is difficult to embrace the hair that grows out of your head and is a reflection of your heritage.

Black Hair is Black History:

The natural hair movement on social media is a community of influencers seeking to promote the wear of hair textures for people of African descent. However, what many people are unaware of is that the natural hair movement can be dated back to the 1960s with the pro-Black wave and organizations such as the Black Panther Party. The afro was associated with many activists such as Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver and other prominent members of the Black Panther Party. The afro became not only fashionable, but was a way of rejecting a European beauty standard that had been pushed upon Black Americans for centuries. It became a symbol for Black liberation, political power and rejection of the dominant culture.

Even after the Black Panther Movement, natural hair still was a rarity for Black women in Hollywood. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross (Daughter of legend Diana Ross) often discusses her own struggles with embracing her natural hair. According to an interview with Marie Claire when Ross played Joan on the show Girlfriends, many stylists—regardless of race—did not know how to care for her curly hair without heat styling, which forced her to style her own hair three hours before set time. Mara Brock Akil (the creator of the show Girlfriends) said in a recent interview with Vogue that she had to fight the studio and network in order for Ross to wear her curly hair. Ultimately, Tracee’s curls became a part of the character she depicted on television, but it was a fight for her to play the role while staying true to herself and her newfound love of her natural hair.

Social media has made a space for a rebirth of the natural hair movement which is less political than it was during the Black Panther movement, but intent on creating a safe space for Black people universally to care for and embrace their hair. Today, there are endless amounts of Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and blog accounts dedicated to teaching natural hair care, styling and pride. However, it is important to note that many of the influencers who promote hair care and styling within the digital space are not a part of corporate America.

Don’t Touch My Hair:

There still remains a lack of awareness surrounding natural hair in the corporate space. It is not banned, but hair discrimination is frequent within the workspace. There are viral Twitter videos of coworkers petting the hair of Black coworkers like a dog and others that depict microaggressions that occur in the workspace that typically generalize Black hair care and styles. Questions like, “Did I not get the job because of my qualifications or did I not get the job because of my hair?” aren’t foreign to Black women who are natural and Black men who choose not to cut their hair short. Hair discrimination is frequent, however it has only recently been placed into law. California passed the CROWN Act(Create a Respectful and Open Workspace for Natural Hair) in 2019 and a similar version of the bill was adopted in New York and New Jersey.

The need for there to be legal policy in order to prevent and hopefully stop hair discrimaition is reflective of the struggles Black people with natural hair are constantly forced to face. Ultimately, more and more people need to become educated on the diversity of textures, colors and styles under the natural hair umbrella and the policing of natural hair needs to come to a halt. To embrace your curls, kinks and coils is a form of self love and acceptance.

Katherine Tinsley is an editorial intern who specializes in building the bridge between the industry and culture, self care, and fostering difficult conversations.

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