The Natural Hair Movement – Why the Hype?

Renowned comedian Chris Rock did a documentary titled ‘Good hair in 2009. its main area of focus was the perception African-American women have towards their natural hair. He went into an in-depth exploration of the topic, going right back to the roots of African American hair. Chris also did a series of interviews with both men and women on what they felt were good hair.  

Chris Rock felt the urge to do the documentary because of a question his then three-year-old daughter asked him. To paraphrase the question, she was concerned about her curly hair. To this little girl, she did not have what she considered or perceived as good hair. At that young age, many would be surprised that she held such perceptions. Yet, society at large has a significant impact on how we perceive ourselves.   

Companies such as Keranique have fantastic products for the modern woman. Wearing natural hair should, therefore, be a breeze. Yet some struggle with it, further adding to the negative perceptions surrounding natural hair.

The focus on natural hair movement seems to be skewed more towards African-Americans. Yet, it embraces even those from other races who wear their hair naturally. For this article, we will focus on those of African descent. 

Shocking Revelations from the Documentary

The documentary interviewed many different people. It got opinions from salons, barber-shops, hair conventions, and scientific laboratories, to name a few.  Chris Rock even went to India to find out where human hair weaves come from.  The documentary also got celebrities to weigh in on the hair issue. Industry bigwigs such as Maya Angelou, Reverend Al Sharpton, Nia Long, and Meagan Good were some of the interviewees. 

What came out of the documentary is, perception towards natural beauty is very poor.  From a young age, beauty is defined by what is' unnatural.' The use of hair relaxers, for example, can have a negative impact, yet the industry is still thriving. 

Tracing the History of the Natural Hair Movement

The natural hair movement encourages black men and women to avoid chemical straightening and embrace their natural tresses. Chemical straightening of hair can have long-term negative effects. In some instances, there has been permanent scalp and hair damage. If the person handling the application does not have the relevant expertise, it will do more harm than good. 

Embracing the natural texture of the African hair has been a long-running conversation. Historians place the origin of the movement to the United States in the sixties. The conversation picked up again in the 2000s, and seems to be going strong.

Some of the terms used to describe natural hair have a negative connotation. The term nappy, for example, has some slave trade connotations. As a slave, one did not have time for beauty and hair regiments. Eventually, the hair would tangle, thus the term nappy. 

Yet, hair was very important in African civilization. People would know your social status, marital status, family background, tribe, and spirituality by the hairstyle. Just look at the intricate designs and obvious care in some cultures that still maintain their heritage. You can identify a lot of references to modern natural hairstyles from some of these cultures.

The Maasai and Turkana from Kenya, for example, have what shares remarkable similarity with micro-loss or sister locs. The Himba from north-western Namibia would grow dreadlocks to symbolize different stages in life. Those entering puberty would let the dreadlocks hangover their faces. Married women would wear a headdress. Young ladies who were ready for marriage would tie the hair back to reveal their faces. The men were not exempt from the tradition. A bachelor would wear his hair in a single braid. After marriage, they would cover their head as a sign of their new status. 

The Fulani from west Africa wore braids with embellishments symbolizing status. Cornrows, elaborate coiffures, tiny braids or locs, embellishments were all part of the African culture. Way before slavery and the loss of culture due to negative feedback from the slave masters. 

The Emergence of the Naturalistas

There seems to be an emergence of what some quarters refer to as naturalistas. It is a term that has gained popularity across the globe. If you embrace your natural hair, then you gain automatic membership to the 'club.'  What makes it interesting is the term is all-encompassing. No matter your race, so long as you enjoy natural beauty, you are a naturalista.

Going natural means you do not use any chemicals to alter the texture of your hair. The hot comb made it possible to achieve straight hair without permanently altering its natural state. Its invention is attributed to a French woman in 1845, but the basis goes back to Africa. She wanted to replicate hairstyles she saw from the Egyptians, which required the straightening of curls or tight coils. Talk to anyone who grew up in the 60s and 70s, and they will regale you with tales of the hot comb.  

Eventually, innovations found their way into the market, including curling irons, flatirons, and silk press, among others. The best part is once the style wears off, the hair goes back to its natural state.  Water is an enemy to straightened natural hair. Immediately the hair gets some moisture; it reverts back to its curly or kinky state. 

But What Can Be Driving the Hype Around Natural Hair?

The reality is that wearing natural hair is not anything new. For years, both men and women have embraced their natural tresses. The sudden spike in interest could be a clever marketing gimmick by those in the business of natural hair care products. 

The internet also has a large role to play. Bloggers and influencers enjoy large followings from people who want to know more about natural hair and its maintenance. Suddenly, natural hair has become the cool new trend.

Celebrity endorsement of the movement seems to be playing a significant role as well. India Arie's song, I am not my hair, brought a few ugly truths to the surface. She was daring enough to challenge society's perception of beauty. The obsession with visual representations is placing a tremendous strain on African American girls. There is much more to an individual or person, whether male or female than what is on their head.

Recently, the comedian Tiffany Haddish cut off her locks during an Instagram live post. She was of the opinion that taking care of her hair was too much work.  She joins the likes of Tamar Braxton, who are also spotting bald heads.

Other notable stars who have joined the bandwagon include; -

  • Actress Nicole Ari Parker, who is trying to teach her daughter to embrace her natural beauty

  • Singer Janelle Monae who embraces the versatility and diversity of natural hair

  • Actress Lupita Nyong'o who has been on magazine covers wearing her natural hair 

  • Singer Erykah Badu who loves her head wraps, afros, and anything natural

  • Actress Viola Davis who sought self-expression by letting go of makeup and wigs

  • Solange Knowles who uses her natural hair as a form of art and self-expression

  • Singer Lauryn Hill who has given us a range of natural looks including a short afro to long, thick dreadlocks

  • Jill Scott, who has always worn her natural hair with pride

The list above is by no means exhaustive. A cursory internet search can give you hundreds of other celebrities who are enjoying their natural tresses.

To see the impact of the natural hair movement, check out the following statistics from the industry.

  • The black hair care industry brought in revenue of over $2.51 billion in 2018

  • There was a 30.8% drop in relaxer sales between 2011 - 2016

  • In the ethnic beauty market sector, African Americans commanded 86% of the market share

  • There has been an increase in black-owned businesses catering specifically to women of colour

  • Haircare spend from African Americans was $473 million in 2017

Gone are the days of finding natural hair care products in specialty stores. You will now find them in major retailers, perhaps commanding as much space as the other products. The big corporations that previously ignored the natural hair market are now waking up. They are joining the introduction and promotion of products that target natural hair. 

The good side is there is so much choice available to help with the maintenance of natural hair.  On the reverse side, some of the products are so expensive. Many wonder if they deliver on their promises. 

Natural Hair in the Corporate and Education Sector

African American women still have to deal with perception around image when wearing natural hair. In the corporate scene, not having straight hair is considered unprofessional.  

There have been calls to stop discrimination based on hair.  

Places such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New Jersey have set the wheels in motion.  They are proposing legislation that will ban discrimination based on race and hair. Lawmakers have joined the foray pushing for a larger acceptance of different kinds of beauty. California was the first State to outlaw hair-based racial discrimination. 

In New York City, a defendant can get up to $250,000 if she/he can successfully show discrimination based on hair. The State specifically points out that hairstyles such as twists, Bantu knots, cornrows, and afros, to name a few, should be an individual's choice to wear or not to wear.  

No one should demote, threaten, or fire and individual because of a hairstyle or hair texture. Yet the reality is the corporate world is not catching up. An individual has to choose between having a job or keeping the natural hairstyle. It, therefore, only makes sense that many would opt to conform to keep their jobs.

The educational sector is not safe from issues around natural hair. Recently, a troubling video went viral on social media when are young teen had to shave off his dreadlocks to participate in a wrestling event. With only 90 seconds to decide whether to cut off his dreads or forfeit the match, Andrew Johnson did not have too much choice.  

What made it especially heart-rending is that it happened in front of the Spectators. There was hue and cry from millions of people who thought that was a violation of Johnson's rights. Yet that is just one case that received attention because someone shared it on the digital space. 

What Is the Future for Natural Hair?

Embracing the natural hair is so much more than a conversation about hair. It is about changing the way black people perceive themselves. It is about breaking away from society's expectations of what is beautiful. Yet, the reality is that it can be difficult in a society that already has set mentalities. Those who accept the natural State do receive backlash from other people. 

The same applies to those in the movement. Some come across as bullies who are less accepting of those who do not embrace the natural tresses. Trying to get everyone to conform or follow specific standards or ideals has often rubbed some people in the wrong way. Anyone who ‘abandons’ the journey is seen as a traitor and has to endure backlash. Yet this is ironic because natural hair is about self-expression and choice. 

The reality is natural hair can be challenging to take care of. Those who have very thick hair find it easier to apply a relaxer to help with its management. By imposing restrictions, the naturalistas are going back to the very thing that started the movement altogether; the ability to wear your hair as you wish without having to follow any set standards or rules. 

Final Thoughts 

The natural hair movement has a lot of positive aspects to it. It delves into the very fundamentals of embracing oneself wholly. From a young age, boys and girls need to learn that they are beautiful regardless of what is on their head. 

The movement does not discriminate based on race, which is excellent for inclusivity. Those in seats of authority must do their part to inculcate the same thinking in everyone.

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