The Natural Hair Movement: History, Stigma, and Successes
Not many people outside of the Black community are familiar with the natural hair movement. On the surface, the natural hair movement encourages men and women of African descent to embrace and celebrate our natural afro-textured hair. However, it also allows us to be true to ourselves, connect to our roots, and not allow ourselves to be shamed for our natural beauty. The movement first originated in the 1960s —coinciding with the civil rights movement—and has recently become popular again during the 2000s and 2010s.
Hair has always been an important part of Black history. Our hair is so versatile and unique that it is deeply embedded into our culture. However, because of ideas rooted in Eurocentrism and white supremacy, for example, natural kinky hair being seen as “unprofessional” and smooth, straight hair became desirable. Society has always been more accepting of Eurocentric traits—such as having straight hair—leading those who do not possess those traits to often attempt to conform to the conventional western beauty standards.
In the late 1800s, the hot comb—a method of straightening natural curly and kinky textured hair—was reportedly created by French hairdresser Francois Marcel Grateau. However, since the hot comb’s history is hard to trace and has gone by different names, it is a common misconception that it was invented by Madam C.J. Walker, a political and social activist during that time. Still, this was not the first, nor the last, tool to be invented and used as a method to alter textured hair. In the early 20th century, there was a boom in products available to alter Black hair texture. Black women like Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker created historic wealth by finding new solutions for styling and hair care like Malone’s Poro Preparations products and Marcel curling iron, and Walker’s famous Wonderful Hair Grower. Additionally, Garret Augustus Morgan Sr. of Kentucky created the first chemical relaxer after discovering a formula containing lye, a chemical straightener, that successfully loosened curly and kinky textured hair. As new modules and results emerged, chemical relaxers became a popular treatment of choice, heavily marketed and used among Black consumers.
The styling of Black hair continued to evolve from perms and Jheri curls to wigs and braids. A significant moment in the history of the natural hair movement in the US also happened during the civil rights movement. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s when the first natural hair movement on record was stated. It was known as the “Black is Beautiful” movement and the movement was and is about embracing the beauty of our natural physical self such as our skin tones, facial features, and of course, our hair. It marked the start of our desire to no longer assimilate into white society. Many Black activists like Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, and Elaine Brown—supporters of the Black Panther party—wore their natural hair in afros and other natural hairstyles as a political statement. As we continuously see, being Black, from our language to our hair, is a political statement. Dr. Kristin Rowe, Assistant Professor in the Department of African Studies at California State University says, “The Black liberation movement in the early 1960s laid the foundation for the movement we see today.”
Today, the natural hair movement has been more widely spread among the Black community. One of the biggest contributions to the growing popularity of the modern natural hair movement is social media. The movement continues to be about the refusal to process one’s hair chemically and Black pride but has also grown to knowledge about our hair and keeping it healthy. In the early 2000s, natural hair content surfaced online in various mediums like discussion forums and various blogs. Patrice Yursik—founder and creator of the award-winning blog “Afrobella”—was one of the first digital creators in the Black beauty space. She created her platform in 2006 in an effort to make a space where information was written about women with natural hair to shine a light on our beauty as Yursik experienced what many Black women experience. At a young age, using a relaxer on her natural hair became a part of her beauty routine.
Much of the modern natural hair movement was sparked by women looking for information about their natural hair that wasn’t available yet. An example of this would be influencer Whitney White, who is popularly known in the natural hair community as Naptural85. She started YouTube in 2009 after losing her love for her straightened hair and made the decision to stop the chemical treatments and focus on growing out her natural hair texture. She began sharing by posting her hair journey and since then has inspired other women to take the same journey. As Black women rediscovered their natural hair texture with the help of online communities, conversations, and curiosity about things like product efficacy grew; this leads to more Black women being conscious of what is healthy for their hair and the hair products they use. This is something White did very early on in her hair journey, becoming very ingredient conscious after discovering a book about the toxins found in beauty products. The mobilization of the movement was revolutionary as brands could no longer ignore natural hair in their product offerings and advertisements. Natural hair blogs and YouTube channels rapidly multiplied and the influence of the community grew.
via Virgo Hair Salon
As important as the natural hair movement has been in past and current black history, there are some issues within the movement as well. First and foremost, people with 4C hair —the kinkiest and coiliest texture of hair—were supposed to be the face of the natural hair movement, and that has not been happening. 4C hair is often underrepresented in the natural hair movement because so much of the content seen within the movement focuses on looser-textured hair. Coily hair is still not normalized and when it is praised, it is usually long, leaving no representation for girls with short hair or hair that experiences a lot of shrinkage. In “Dear Dark Skinned Girl,” Naima Autumn Rose discusses her experiences as someone who personally feels underrepresented in the movement. She says:
“When I eventually began to look towards Google for hair advice, I quickly deduced that I had 4C hair, even if most of it was in locks. I remember genuinely thinking, because of all the natural hair tutorial videos that I watched, that if people with 4C hair could take care of their hair “the right way” their curls would loosen.
After I finally realized that my curl pattern couldn’t change, I felt let down. I appreciated the look of curly hair, just not the curly hair that I had. I remember wanting the “good” curly hair I saw all over the internet, just because it seemed prettier and easier to manage.”
People with 4C hair are underrepresented in the natural hair movement because 4C hair is often viewed as undesirable. That is something that must change as we continue to grow and evolve in the black community. All natural hair is beautiful and it must be appreciated in all its different textures. The first step to fixing the problem is acknowledging it and taking action.
There are also other issues in the natural hair movement. The natural hair movement doesn’t just underrepresent people with 4c hair but also people with locs. People with locs, or what are commonly known as “deadlocks,” are often forgotten in the natural hair movement. They are never discussed in conversations about natural hair and there is less knowledge of locs by people without locs giving it a huge stigma. If you don’t believe me, just look at that time a 12-year-old student at Fulham Boys School was threatened with being placed in isolation unless he cut his locs. If people with locs had more representation in the natural movement, there might be less of a stigma.
The natural hair movement can also seem to have a stigma surrounding relaxers. Some people within the movement view people who get relaxers (or wear weaves or any non-natural hairstyle) as self-hating or inferior. However, this is untrue and black pride doesn’t have to be tied to hair. People can wear their hair in any way and any style and still be proud of who they are and their culture. Our hair is beautiful and can be displayed in many different ways, there is no need to limit anybody.
So, while the natural hair movement has been through many variations and has many successes, there is still much work to be done in the natural hair movement to be more inclusive. As we think about the future of the moment it is important to show appreciation to all natural hair textures and let go of harmful stigmas.