AFRICANGLOBE – Pregnancy motivated Gwen Jimmere to stop using chemicals to straighten her thick, curly hair. “I was pregnant and I knew anything I put on my body goes to the baby,” says Jimmere, 29, of Canton, Mich.
She had tried wearing her hair without a chemical straightener a decade earlier. But the fervor for the afros of the ’60s and ’70s was long over, and there was little information or encouragement on how to pull off a natural style.
Most black women, like Jimmere, were perming, hot-pressing or flat-ironing their curly hair. Straight hair – better still, long straight hair – was the way to fit in, the way to be pretty and conform to the standard of “American beauty.”
Fast-forward to 2011 when Jimmere chose to set her own standard by rocking her hair in all its natural glory. This go-round, she found an abundance of support – meet-ups of women wearing natural hair styles, books on natural hair care, celebrities talking about their stylish, natural ‘dos.
But perhaps the biggest signifier of the current natural hair movement is found online. A community of women created a virtual pulpit for natural hair that includes social forums, video instructions, tutorials, product websites and personal testimonies.
It’s not that Black women aren’t straightening their hair – most still do. But a growing number of women of all ages are finding beauty, acceptance, liberation and business opportunities in wearing natural hairstyles like braids, locks, twists, knots, afros and various creations in-between.
“Women are sharing information on Twitter, YouT ube, LinkedIn, Facebook, everywhere. It’s endless,” says Espy Thomas, 31, of Detroit, who with her sister Jennifer, 29, hosts periodic natural hair meet-ups that attract hundreds of women.
“More and more Black women are opting to wear their natural hair and discontinue use of relaxers,” says a 2011 Mintel report showing that from 2006 to 2011, the sales of relaxer kits dropped 17 percent to $38 million. The trend is “expected to continue,” the report states.
Mintel is a global market research company. A consumer study it conducted showed that the percentage of Black women who said they wore their hair natural jumped from 26 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2011.
“The shift from relaxed to natural is becoming so common that it has spurred growth of a whole new sub-segment of products for women who are ‘transitioning,’ with products that minimize breakage as hair transitions from chemically straightened to curly,” the report states.
It’s also a booming business, says Sue Silva, marketing director for the Sofn’free, a hair care line. “Everybody in the business is starting to manufacturer a curly line,” she says. And not just for African-American women.
“Our target is 70 percent African American and 30 percent other. A lot of other women – Jewish, Latina and red heads who tend to have coarse, wiry, coiled textured hair – are interested in these products. Caucasian women have curly hair, too.”
She noted that Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, now has a section devoted to natural hair products in most of its stores. And several of those products are produced by companies owned by Black women, including Miss Jessie’s and Taliah Waajid.
Sharon Madison, president and CEO of the engineering firm Madison, Madison International in Detroit, went natural after chemicals made her hair weak and caused it to break off nearly 15 years ago.
“I wanted to symbolize that whether or not you’re in business, in the arts, whatever your field, you can be yourself, and we have beautiful hair,” Madison says.
Much to her surprise, people in the corporate and civic circles she frequents complimented her hair.
“I think the issue is for us to embrace ourselves and recognize our own beauty,” says Madison, 58.
She knew she’d made the right decision when she got a treasured compliment a few years ago at a gala of the Friends of African and African-American Art at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
“Sidney Poitier told me my hair was gorgeous,” Madison says.
Women are going natural for many reasons, including the desire to live a healthier lifestyle in general, growing pride and appreciation for one’s own hair, more celebs – Viola Davis at the Oscars and Solange Knowles at the Met Ball in New York City – signaling that natural hair is in and beautiful.
There’s also more variety and creativity in styles, says Mo Williams, who works in a barber and beauty salon where she’s the only natural stylist.
“More people see it can be funky or appealing even in the corporate world,” says Williams, 24, who works at Little Willie’s Hair Salon in northwest Detroit. “People no longer think you have to have hair straight or laid down to be attractive.”
Several women also say natural hair allows Black women to be more physically active. Moisture from sweat, rain or pool water can cause some Black women’s straight hair to bunch up or tightly curl, requiring extra time to restyle.
“I can go the gym, I can get in the pool and not be concerned about my hair,” says Jennifer Thomas, co founder with her sister of the Detroit meet-ups. “I don’t have to run from the water when it rains.”
Whatever the reason, women say they experience a sense of liberation after going natural.
“It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt free,” says Jahzara Swyer, 30, of Detroit who has been wearing natural styles for 12 years. Her daughter, Naja, 6, and son, Menelik, 9, wear locks.
“I just couldn’t take the pressure of maintaining my roots, always getting a perm to make sure my edges were perfectly straight. I needed to be me.”
Make It Their Business To Go Natural
Detroiter Sheila Everett-Hale, a natural hair care business pioneer, says that when she started Everett’s Natural Beauty Salon in 1995, few people were doing natural hair. She had to recruit her sister and cousin from out of state to help keep up with the demand for her services.
Now, many salons as well as individuals do natural hair. Many women also are learning how to do their own hair by watching YouTube videos and reading books.
Everett-Hale also teaches others to style natural hair at Everett’s Natural Hair and Beauty School, which she opened in January in a loft a few blocks west of Belle Isle. Several of her students are online. During a recent class, she taught two students in person while three students Skyped from Lansing, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.
“This is not a fad, like during the Black power movement of the 1960s,” Everett-Hale, 59, says. “Women are saying, ‘Our hair is our glory and God didn’t make any mistakes in what he gave us.'”
“You used to see one person with locks, maybe another person with twists. Now it’s rare you don’t see natural hair among a group of Black women,” says Chris-Tia Donaldson, a Detroit native and author of the book “Thank God I’m Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for and Maintaining Natural Hair” (TgiNesis Press, $19.95).
“Not only are there more products out there, people have gotten better at achieving beautiful styles without chemicals,” Donaldson says. “Information on how to care for natural hair is readily available, literally at people’s finger tips.”
Donaldson’s book, released in 2009, is now in its fourth printing. This year she launched a line of hair care products that are sold at Hiller’s markets, the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
“We have over 75,000 fans on Facebook, 15,000 Twitter followers, and over 2 million blog views, making us one of the fastest- growing social networks for African-American women interested in natural hair and healthy lifestyles,” says Donaldson, 33, who now lives in Chicago.
She attributes most of her book sales to online buzz. “People were saying on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – ‘You’ve got to get this book.'”
Nefertiti Harris, owner of Textures by Nefertiti, on Cass near Willis in Detroit, opened her natural hair business in the corner of another Midtown shop in 2003 with one other stylist. In 2009 she moved into her own 1,100-square- foot space and now has five stylists.
“There’s more of an acceptance of natural hair,” says Harris, who has been doing natural hair for 18 years. “There’s a young population that’s more educated, more aware – and a lot more creative about how they’re wearing their hair. African-American women have become tired of allowing themselves to be put in a box.
“After you accept you for you, other people will say, ‘You look so beautiful.’ That’s so nice. There’s a fearlessness that comes with embracing yourself naturally.”