THE NATURAL CHOICE
Tired of spending hours and money every week in salons, more black women are giving up chemically treated hair
I am not my hair.
I am not this skin.
I am not your expectations. No, no.
I am not my hair.
I am not this skin.
I’m a soul that lives within.
– FROM INDIA.ARIE’S I AM NOT MY HAIR
Sometimes freedom comes in simple things.
For India.Arie, it’s shaving her head or wearing a short Afro.
It means not conforming to societal standards that dictate hair is best when straight, long and flowing, said the Grammy Award-winning singer.
“I am a person who sparks the debate about what beauty is and what hair is. I want black women to make their own decision about what is beautiful,” she said by phone.
Arie chronicles her transition from permed to natural hairstyles in I am Not My Hair, from her latest effort, Testimony: Vol. I, Life & Relationship. She also teamed with pop-rocker Pink to create another version of the song for the Lifetime television movie Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy. Ironically, Pink is known for nonconformist hairdos – from a Mohawk in candy pink to a spiky platinum blond.
For Arie, the processes to straighten or manage her naturally curly hair were many: press-and-curl (an iron comb heated on a stove), a Jheri curl and relaxers, which damaged her hair so badly she went natural, eventually wearing locks (commonly referred to as “dreadlocks,” a historically derogatory term used to describe hair that was “dreaded” or feared.
But Arie’s next step toward freedom was a big one.
The night before she was to appear on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, she shaved her head. It was a freeing experience.”I have a mental clarity that comes with shaving my head. The attachment I had with my hair no longer has power over me anymore.”
Hair issues aren’t exclusive to black women. Throughout history, women have struggled to find acceptance with hairstyles. Marie Antoinette shocked the world with her elaborate, supertall hairdo in the mid-1770s. Today, many women and celebs – from Beyoncé to Gwen Stefani – dye their hair blond when their natural color is much darker.
“This isn’t just a black woman’s issue. Nonblack women have hair issues,” said anthropologist Paitra Russell, who wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on African-American hair practices. “The earliest straightening agents were aimed at white women. There are all kinds of personal issues that people give to straightening their hair. Hair is a place where people are negotiating all social roles. Social roles are being played out on women’s heads.”
Arie’s song is an inspiring personal journey to which many black women can relate as they transition to natural hairstyles – locks, Afros, braids or twists. Such styles have been part of the fashion scene for years on the East and West coasts. Celebrities from Arie and Jill Scott to Macy Gray and Alice Walker have popularized natural looks.
Only recently have Houston salons begun seeing a rise in the number of women choosing natural styles. Perhaps the increase is due to an availability of more stylists who specialize in natural hair. Maybe, some stylists say, women are tired of high-maintenance permed styles.Permed styles require regular visits to hair stylists for chemical touch-ups. Also, the sweat from exercise and humid, rainy weather can ruin a hairdo.
KHOU-TV anchor Debra Duncan knows what a bad hair day can be. In 1988, while working as a reporter in Austin, she covered an outdoor event when it began raining. “The producer whispered in my earpiece that my hair was shrinking and growing at the same time!” she recalled.
Duncan is now wearing her hair naturally curly on air. She hasn’t chemically permed her hair since 1985, but she would spend more than an hour flatironing it each morning. One particularly rainy and humid day, she was too tired to fuss with her daily ritual.
“I’m free of those things that can tie you down (like hair). Wearing my hair natural makes me feel funkier, and freer.
“It was a moment of confidence. I just wanted to get up and go,” Duncan said. “I think I got 140 e-mails the first day. There were people who loved my hair and others who didn’t. With women, people start off with whether they like your appearance and your hair, not your performance. If my job is to give the news, why is the most important thing my hair?”
The change saves her 25 hours a month, Duncan said, time she can spend with her 2-year-old son and her husband.
Duncan’s decision to go “natural” is not unlike the statements about freedom blacks made during the 1960s by wearing Afros. Today, however, the freedom is a personal – not political – one.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, there was definitely a conforming pressure for black women to straighten their hair,” Russell said. ” We got the message that something was wrong with our hair in its natural state. Our moms and grandmothers believed if you had straightened hair things would be easier, and who doesn’t want things easier for their children?
“Now there’s a celebration of being different.” We’re focused on the individual where people are looking to be happy. Going natural speaks to that personal freedom.”
Every two weeks, Mamie Ewing’s routine was the same: She sat for hours in a salon for a wash and set.
Every six weeks, she got a perm to keep her hair straight and a color treatment to hide the gray. Her monthly bill was easily $100. That’s what professional black women did, she believed.
When her husband, Robert Ewing, died in 2002 and she retired from her job, Ewing was eager for a change.
The process of going natural can take months as women wait for their hair to grow out enough to cut the permed portion off.
Ewing didn’t want to wait, so she cut hers off, leaving only an inch or two to turn into small twists.
“I felt free that first day. I didn’t realize how much I was a slave to my hair,” said Ewing, 67, who had permed her hair for 40 years.
Not since the 1960s, when she was called “militant Mamie” for wearing an Afro, had Ewing felt so empowered. She now visits her stylist, Tonya Reed of Uncle Funky’s Daughter in Rice Village, only every six weeks to get her twists tightened.
“I really wished I had done it when I was working because it’s so much easier,” Ewing said. “It does say something about you when you embrace your own culture.”
Starting with tools
In the early 1900s, Madam C.J. Walker popularized the use of the hot comb to straighten hair – also known as the press-and-curl style – and taught women how to use it. She began selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioner, and other hair-care products. She became the first self-made American woman millionaire, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
She was critized for encouraging black women to “look white.”
By the mid-1950s, George E. Johnson, founder of Johnson Products, developed a chemical permanent hair straightener for home use. This gave many women the freedom to chemically straighten their hair without going to a salon. By the 1960s, natural hair – particularly Afros – had become a symbol of defiance in the nation’s civil-rights movement.
In the 1980s, more black women climbed the corporate ladder and wore straightened styles considered acceptable for the business culture. Natural hair, as it had been throughout history, was viewed as unprofessional, rebellious and even bad.
For those women, the texture of their hair was as important as the color of their skin. “I don’t foresee a time when straightening hair won’t be a standard,” Russell explained. “We as a society are judged by the straightness of our hair.”
Natural hairstyles worn by Qhiijah Sheryl James weren’t unusual in her native Jamaica. There, Afros, locks and braids are as common as straight styles in the United States. So it was shocking when James moved to Houston as a teen and was derogatorily called “Whoopi” or “Tracy,” referring to actress Whoopi Goldberg and singer Tracy Chapman, who both wore locks.
“I was the only one in school with a short Afro. There were no other celebrity images of natural hairstyles, and there weren’t many resources to help you take care of your hair,” James said.
Now James owns Back to Naturel, a natural-hair salon in northeast Houston. She also has written a booklet, the Pocket Guide to Natural Haircare, to educate her customers about natural hair.
“Some people might get frustrated with the process because it takes time to restore your hair to its natural state. And natural hairstyles aren’t maintenance-free,” James said.
“People think their hair will be hard and tough, but that’s not true if you take care of it.”
James said finding the right products takes time. She uses products by Keracare, Wild Growth and Proclaim. But there are many others.
Tonya Reed of Uncle Funky’s Daughter suggests Taliah Waajid’s Black Earth shampoos and conditioners, and Carol’s Daughters Hair Milk and Hair Butter.
Both warn against using products with mineral oil or beeswax, since they don’t completely moisturize the hair.
Reed said many women don’t know what their natural hair looks like because they have had perms since they were children. Once they make the transition, she said, customers often wonder what took them so long.
While natural hairstyles may not be for everyone, women who go that route say they have a new sense of who they are.
“With maturity sometimes comes a feeling that you don’t care about what others think,” said Duncan. “All that matters is how you feel, and I feel free.”