The decision to "go natural," i.e. the decision to wear one's hair in its natural state free from chemical straighteners, can be both empowering and daunting. What do I do with it? What products should I use? How do I style it? The mere fact that even deciding to wear one's natural hair is regarded in some circles to be a revolutionary act speaks to deeper issues of race, class and the idea of beauty.
Chris Rock famously explored the history and politics of curly and kinky hair in his documentary, "Good Hair." The film was awarded a special jury prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, and put the conversations that were once limited to street corner barber shops and 'round-the-way beauty salons out in the open.
Just last Fall, "The Talk" host Sheryl Underwood came under fire for comments she made regarding "nasty, nappy afro hair" for which she later apologized (but not before the Twitterverse exploded). And who can forget that controversial cover of the New Yorker, in which First Lady Michelle Obama is depicted sporting a large afro and army fatigues in an attempt to convey "The Politics of Fear." Or how so many people, most of them African-American women, who should have been praising Gabrielle Douglas' gold-medal winning performance in the 2012 Olympics, instead chose to make nasty, derogatory comments about the texture of her hair.
People with naturally curly and kinky hair have long relied on straighteners, hot combs and chemical relaxers to achieve sleek, silky tresses; arguably as a way to appear acceptable and polished. As Tiya Miles, chairwoman of the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan told CNN in an article, “Historically, the difference of black hair texture has symbolized the inferiority of black people in the minds of some whites and even some blacks. Naturally kinky hair was viewed as dirty, unkempt and unattractive into the mid-20th century.”
But as millennial women have come of age, a paradigm shift has taken place. More than ever, black and brown ladies (and gentlemen!) who have everything from wavy to curly to kinky, have chosen to abandon the chemicals, love the hair they were born with, and cross over to #teamnatural.
Recent data from global research firm Mintel backs up the claim that natural just might be the new normal in haircare. The report shows that chemical relaxers now account for just 21% of Black haircare sales and the sector has declined 26% since 2008 and 15% since 2011 when sales reached $179 million, the only category not to see growth.
“The natural hair trend is driving an increase in sales of styling products such as styling moisturizers, setting lotions, curl creams, pomades, etc., but the increase has caused the relaxer segment to decline in sales,” said Tonya Roberts, multicultural analyst at Mintel, in the report. “A look at expenditures from 2008-2013 shows steady growth in the Black haircare category for all categories except relaxers/perms.”
From Lupita Nyong'o and her short cropped natural 'fro, to Melissa Harris-Perry delivering the nightly news sporting a variety of natural braids and twists; and even Beyonce doing her signature surfboardt at the Grammys with wet, natural ringlets; it certainly appears that natural hair has gone mainstream.
Thankfully, for those who want to go natural but can't necessarily afford Queen Bey or Lupita's stylists, leading the charge of this movement are a group of passionate and web-savvy "naturalistas" who have become beauty gurus in their own right. Many have nabbed product endorsements, book deals, media appearances, and amassed hundreds of thousands of loyal followers along the way.
Among this group is Jessica Lewis A.k.a MahoganyCurls™. Vlogging since 2009, she has been invited to speak at beauty and natural hair conferences and conventions as far away as London and the Bahamas and has been featured in Ebony Magazine as one of the top natural hair bloggers in the game. She took some time to tell us why the natural hair movement is here to stay.
Q: What made you decide to go "natural"?
I decided to go natural because I didn’t like relaxing my hair anymore. I lived in Germany at the time and it was very hard to keep up with having relaxed hair. One day I was searching for a flat iron online and I came across this website that focused on natural hair. I noticed the blogger of the website would change her hair from curly to straight and it intrigued me. Once I found out she was natural I made the decision to go natural myself.
Q: The majority of your growth has been organic through the use of social media and vlogging. What made you decide to go the social media route?
A month or so after my big chop, I decided to document my natural hair journey on YouTube. I did this for myself so that I could keep track of my hair growth. I also did it for support from other naturals. I enjoyed it and my channel began to grow with the support from others.
Q: What are some natural hair care myths you'd like to debunk? For instance, true or false: natural hair is really expensive? Only women with a certain hair "type" can go natural?
Well, I would like to debunk the myth that states natural hair does not grow. That is a huge misconception. Our hair can grow very long with the proper care, regardless of texture. To the myth that natural hair is really expensive: False. To the myth that only women with a certain hair "type"can go natural: Not true at all
Q: What's the weirdest question you've ever gotten about your natural hair? How did you address it?
A family member asked me if I had a wig on my head. I responded with a simple "no", and explained that it is my natural hair.
Q: While many people think natural hair is strictly for black women, as in "I thought only black women went natural," lots of Latina, mixed-race, even naturally curly or wavy white women have also embraced the movement toward natural hair. What do you think is inspiring this?
I think it is the fact that women are seeing other women embrace their curly hair with pride and it does not look messy, or extremely frizzy, as it has been depicted in the past. Other women are viewing curly hair as being beautiful.
Q: As natural goes mainstream, tell us what you thought was a big moment for natural hair in recent pop culture?
I think the idea of seeing so many women on the red carpet wearing natural hairdos. You would see natural updos, curly hairstyles, and twas (teeny weeny afros) at formal events such as the Oscars.
Q: Some regard the natural hair movement as a passing trend. What makes you think it's here to stay?
I do not think natural hair is trend because, for one (in my opinion) it does not require a chemical service every six to eight weeks. Natural hair also takes time and patience. I feel once a person goes natural and they are able to master their natural hair, there isn't any going back to relaxed tresses! It takes a lot of time and patience, and from my experience I love the versatility of it. I couldn't do the things that I do with my natural hair to my hair when it was relaxed.