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Natural hair it’s not a trend, it’s a movement

Published: 
Sunday, July 27, 2014

It’s not a trend—it’s a movement. That’s what hair care enthusiasts are saying about the wave of black women who are chopping off their straightened tresses and embracing their natural curls and coils. A recent study by market research provider Mintel showed that since 2008 there has been a 26 per cent decline in the sale of hair relaxers which have long been used by women to elongate their curl pattern, resulting in permanently straightened hair. If you haven’t noticed the trend on the street, you’ve probably noticed it online where a huge black haircare community has evolved with so many blogs, video tutorials, personal testimonials and product suggestions that it’s easy for a newcomer to get a bit tangled up.

Hoping to get some insight on the movement, the Sunday Guardian caught up with well-known natural hairstylist Renee Serrant at her salon, Renee’s Natural Hairstyling and Braiding Services on Ariapita Avenue, Woodbrook. At the time of our visit, she was putting the finishing touches on a “wash and go” style for a client. The “wash and go” is a popular routine among women with natural hair and while the name suggests that it’s a fairly simple process, there’s a technique involved in getting the curly look to last. “You just wash your hair, put in curl-defining products, let it air dry and then go. It sounds simple, but you have to know how much product to use and you have to balance the amount of the leave-in conditioner with the gel. If you use too much gel, it’s gonna get gooey or crunchy or you’ll get that jheri curl look which people don’t like."

While she doesn’t do relaxers or weaves, she also specialises in cutting, colouring and styling such as braids and twists. In recent months, she has had many clients coming to her for advice on how to leave relaxer behind and begin their transitioning process. Transitioning is a method of getting one’s natural hair texture back by discontinuing the use of chemical straighteners and allowing the natural, curly roots to grow out while cutting off the straightened ends of hair bit by bit. Serrant explained that women can transition for many months and this long-term option is suggested for those who are a bit fearful or hesitant about doing “the big chop.” The big chop, seen as the more adventurous or dramatic option, involves cutting all relaxed or perm ends off in one go. Serrant believes that the natural hair trend started around four years ago but has now evolved into a movement that promotes self-acceptance amongst black women.

“It went from being something trendy and cool to a mindset that you don’t need to straighten your hair to look professional or presentable. I see it more as a lifestyle change. It’s about the chemicals that you’re putting into your body and what you’re allowing to seep through your pores. People see now that there are options out there. There are millions of products and people are now doing research and taking the time to focus on textured hair.” And getting into that research means keeping up with a growing list of natural hair lingo and acronyms that dominate these discussions. Among the need-to-knows are: TWA (teeny weeny afro), BC (big chop), DC (deep condition) and LOC (a method of moisturising which involves liquid, oil and creams.) There are also two hair type charts that classify hair texture based on curl pattern and definition. At this rate, there will soon be need for a natural hair dictionary but as Serrant sees it, any kind of specialisation comes with its own terminology. “Getting into a new state means that you have to learn the vernacular and the terminology. If you’re studying biology you have to learn the terminology, so it’s the same with natural hair.”

A newbie to the natural hair world will also quickly learn that gone are the days when hair grease and an afro pick sufficed. Major hair care brands are now developing and offering products that cater specifically to natural black hair, and there are many options to choose from. There are also those who prefer to take the DIY route—making their own hair products out of avocado, oatmeal, molasses, butterfat ghee, mayonnaise and almost anything else they can get their hands on. Serrant said she had heard of clients putting everything from peanut butter to banana in their hair but added that while these treatments may work for some, research has shown that the molecules of some of these ingredients are too large to be absorbed into the hair follicles. Locally, back-to-natural women have flocked to a Facebook group called Caribbean People With Natural Hair which was established in 2011 and now has almost 8,000 members. On it, they share photos of their daily hairstyles, ask questions specific to their hair type and texture, and give reviews of different products. 

In a telephone interview with the Sunday Guardian one of the founding members and administrators of the group, Teshenelle Bethel said she feels that the natural hair movement was here to stay. She said many women have grown tired of relaxer or “the creamy crack” as they call it and are now taking the time to learn how to manage their own hair. “Many of these women have never known what their natural hair texture is like because they relaxed their hair from such a young age. People are now seeing that more and more women have gone back to natural and they are becoming inspired to do the same.” The Facebook group is connected to a beauty consultancy company which is run by Bethel and five other women called 6 Degrees of Napp that hosts product and styling demos as well as networking sessions. Bethel admits that both within and outside of the Facebook group, she has encountered what are known as “militant naturalistas.” This militancy can range from turning up one’s nose to women with relaxers or weaves to chastising women who colour their hair. She said, “Those who want to be militant fail to realise that my definition of natural may be different to yours. I dye my hair and for that reason some people may want to say I’m not completely natural. Our definition of natural in the group is hair with a texture that has not been chemically altered.”

The Sunday Guardian also spoke to Asha Kambon, public policy expert in the Emancipation Support Committee and wife of black power movement leader Khafra Kambon to get her take on the natural hair movement. She said that for a long time now, black women in the Caribbean have been wearing the hair naturally, whether it be in braids, twists or dreadlocks. She said while there are many international celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o who are popularising the movement, it is not possible to ascribe the trend to any particular country. “I would say though that we (Caribbean people) have been the steadfast ones pushing this trend because in North American culture, until more recently, everybody wanted to have blonde, straight hair. Everyone wanted to be blonde at one point and that was because of the power of the media.” Kambon said she believed that young black people were now questioning the social constructs of what classified as good or bad hair and realising that there is no need to alter their hair to get a look that is perceived to be more formal or presentable. “Really, it is just the natural thing to do. I came of age in the 60s and to me, wearing my hair this way was just the natural thing to do. I thought that a lot of African women were spoiling their beauty by straightening their hair. I think that it’s a beautiful coming together and it has been a long time coming. Since the 60s, Malcolm X was telling everyone to get that straightening out of their hair. Later on, there were women like Angela Davis who were striking and beautiful with their natural hair and they were encouraging other women to be that striking and beautiful too." Recently, some online commentators and bloggers have noted that rather than the round, voluminous trademark afro worn by 60s leaders like Angela Davis, the modern movement embraces styles with longer, looser curls achieved by manipulating one’s hair with products and styling techniques. It looks like it’s safe to say that as the movement continues to grow, there will be a lot of detangling to do within the natural hair debate. 

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