In recent years, there has been a swell in the number of women choosing to style their hair without the help of chemical and heat straighteners. A swell so noticeable that it’s been given a name: the natural hair movement.
Amongst colored women, there are those who praise its benefits. Some even go so far as to shame the women who choose to continue using relaxers or to straighten with heat. There are others who believe the movement only belongs to a certain race, or even hair type. (See: “curlism”.)
Many women reject the entire political aspect of the movement. They claim it has nothing to do with them. I’m not sure where I fall on this scale, but I do see where this last group is coming from. I have only just defined and experienced this movement as it relates to me, personally. Before I really did my research, I associated the natural hair movement vaguely with the feel-good 1960s slogan “Black Is Beautiful” and the militancy of the Black Panther Party.
First, I must explain that I am Belizean-American. Raised between two cultures, it has taken me a while to figure out what that means to me.
Growing up, I always felt separate from black people. The history section about slavery in school was for them, and for me to merely wonder about because even though my skin was black — they had long since made it clear to me that I was not one of them. I didn’t speak like them, I didn’t eat the foods they did, and I didn’t dress or style my hair the way they did. I was OK with this, as I related more to my friends from Mexico or Panama on all those levels anyway.
It wasn’t until college, when I met the woman who is still one of my best friends, that I found myself feeling like I had become part of the black experience in America. You see, she was black. She had grown up in the Denver Public School (DPS) system, surrounded by black people who never once tested or contested or taken away her blackness like they had mine. They could tease her for reading books and being white-washed, but everyone knew she was still black.
The more I hung out with her and got to know her family, I realized that the disconnect I felt – which comes from a dangerous habit of pigeonholing the black experience – had kept me from reaching my full potential as a black woman. Because I thought there was only one way of being black, I had never felt black before.
Because of this, I felt that the natural hair movement had always belonged to the truly black girls in the same way I felt the civil rights’ movement had been theirs and not mine while growing up.
Ruby, now my sorority sister and roommate of over three years, is the one who was interested in going natural in the first place. I watched as she got to know her hair better, and it slowly became noticeably healthier, bigger and softer. As kooky and new age-y as it may sound, she grew into herself. I had met her in the middle of her Black Power phase, and everything about her revolutionary personality started to make a little more sense to me when she stopped straightening her hair every day.
As she discovered new things, she would tell me about what a protective hairstyle was or which new oils she was trying out, but I would brush off her suggestions that I try them out. I was halfway interested, but in my mind those remained hers.
My initial reason for looking into the natural hair movement, so to speak, was to reclaim my curls. It was not a political statement, which I think is true for many black women who are going natural these days. It was my response to how robbed I felt by the fancy straightener I had purchased with the intention of combating the humid Floridian air one summer while visiting my mother. I felt personally victimized by the extent of the heat damage I had accrued in not even a year. My once vivacious hair had taken on a limp, lifeless persona.
Even then, with all my indignity, I could only muster the most half-hearted of transitions. I fell off the horse repeatedly. I had actually forgotten how to take care of my hair naturally, despite only doing so a couple years before, and I let it get dry and brittle and downright scary looking.
What eventually convinced me to give it a healthy go was, first and foremost, a picture of what my hair had become. Yikes! I was almost too ashamed to post this, but in the spirit of full disclosure…
The second reason, which you can see peaking out in the picture above, was new growth. What I originally thought to be strangely stubborn and wildly fluffy patches compared to the rest of my hair, I came to recognize as my natural hair pattern which had the potential to curl up as lusciously as Ruby’s hair had begun to.
I started to properly care for my hair, moisturizing it regularly and paying attention to the ways in which it changed. Over time I began feeling more and more resentful toward the dead hair hanging from my could-be curls, until I couldn’t stand it anymore one day and chopped it all off.
What surprised me most about this journey, and I know it may sound silly, is that I ended up feeling more connected to myself and feeling beautiful in a much more natural way. Considering its called the natural hair movement, I’m not sure why this is the part that surprised me the most.
I thought I was so enlightened, so now in tune with being black, yet I was ready to literally burn my hair every two weeks or so because I felt uncomfortable going anywhere nice with my hair all frizzy. I loved when my hair sizzled because that meant it was going to be extra straight that time. I was convinced it was easier to do that way, that it would say nice longer, whatever that meant.
Straightening my hair constantly or using heat to get the more perfect looking curl was blocking me from getting to know my own texture and my own curl pattern. Instead of learning how to properly care for my hair, so that it could reach its full potential, I was fighting against it as much as I could.
I had the audacity to think of my own natural hair as wild and unkempt looking.
It may not be militant or overtly political, but I don’t think it’s right to disregard this – or one’s involvement – as being part of a movement. The conversation around natural hair is being shaped and is still changing every day. In addition to providing tremendous resources and a sense of community to the women involved, it has opened up discussions like this one:
I know not every woman feels like going natural is a statement, and that’s true. It’s definitely not. But it is indicative of a cultural shift that’s taking place, and we can’t ignore that.