Chicago realtor Mary Patrick has a collection of wigs she wears depending on which neighborhood she’ll be showing that day.
“The only time I got complimented on my hair was from non-black women and men, which is really eye-opening to me,” she said. “Then came the, ‘Should I wear a wig for job interviews’ debate that is ongoing for me, even now.”
Patrick wears her hair short after struggling with going natural.
“I got my first relaxer at 2 years old and it wasn’t until I turned 23 years old that I realized being natural was even an option,” Patrick said.
Black hair has had a long history of being controversial, and in some cases even a political statement. Whether they mean to or not, Black women appear to make a statement with their hair in whatever form they wear it.
The Black Power movement of the 1960s helped link afros and chemical-free black hair to rebellion, and protest. The “black is beautiful’ movement had begun. Blacks began to launch protests against discrimination based on appearance. Most notably the boycotts against the Hyatt hotel chain in the 1980s after a black female employee was fired for wearing her hair in cornrows.
While natural hair is not a monolith, there are certain connotations that come with the word ‘natural’. Black women often have their image policed in a way that women of other ethnicities do not. It is a multi-faceted issue. Black hair is often still seen as a political statement when worn in its natural state while hair for other women it is mere fashion.
According to a report from Mintel, a market research firm, relaxer sales dropped 18.5 percent from 2013-2015. Just as afro-centric fashion is popular now, so is afro-centric hair. As with Patrick, for many black women relaxers were not a conscious decision.
For some women like 23-year-old Crystal Bridges, of Savannah, Ga., going natural is just a change of image. “I just wanted to try something different,” she said.
For the natural hair community, there are two different types of naturals- the people who are into hair-typing and curl defining, and those who just want to embrace their natural texture.
For Philadelphia resident Dale Brown, her transition back to natural hair was a desire to be natural and healthy in all aspects of her life. “I was going through a natural, healthy phase and I loved my natural texture so I started transitioning” she said. The idea that natural hair is the healthy way to go is echoed by Sinead Osenie, a 15 year old student in London. “I have been through so much with my hair. I went through several bouts of chemo, so now that my hair has grown back and is healthy I just want to leave it alone” she said.
Many adult Black women have no idea what their natural hair looks like before they go natural. Natural hair comes in a variety of textures and some textures are preferred more than others. This change has both societal and social implications.
Within a space of two years the Navy and Army have changed her hair regulations regarding natural hair, and the Army even now allowed dreadlocks, which had previously been banned. This new accommodation of black hair is a sign that the times are changing.
According to the article “New Order” published in August 2017 in Vogue, Black servicewomen said they were just relieved to be able to wear their hair the way it grows, like their white counterparts.
Erika Osbourne, a seaman in the Navy, said she has often had her superiors take issue with her hair, even when it is within regulation. “Often one of my Non-Military Training Instructors would tell me my hair looked unacceptable or ask me when I was going to do something with it” she said.
Policing of Black hair is not just a military issue, civilian employers often participate in this too. Christona Fields had been working at a popular grocery store for 3 years when the issue of her wearing her natural hair in an afro arose.
“I had cut my hair when I first started working there so by year 3 I had a nice big fro. I had just started wearing my natural hair out and when I was growing my fro I had worn a lot of weaves and braids. When I started wearing my natural hair out, this manager… she told me that my hair was wild and unkempt” she said.
She was told it was store policy that she could not have wild unkempt hair on the sales floor. Fields was upset about this.
“What else am I supposed to do with my hair?I had been wearing weaves for 3 years. I just wanted to wear my hair” she added. Fields quit the job after a while.
The sentiment “hair is just hair” is echoed by many black women.
Anita Craft, a 25-year-old Virginia resident, says she has been natural her whole life and plans on staying natural, “My grandmother and aunty beat the fact into me that you are who you are and you can’t change that.”
Randy Garwood, a photographer in London, said, “My natural hair is just so versatile. I can change it up without having to commit.” Garwood’s waist length hair is especially malleable, and she is able to wear it bone straight or in a fountain of curls without chemicals. She wears it in its natural curly state and dyes it often.
Despite mainstream rhetoric pushing a political agenda with natural hair, Garwood doesn’t have those feelings. “It’s just hair. It grows out my head, and that’s that,” she said.