For many women of black descent, relaxing your hair is considered a right of passage, a transition from childhood to adolescence or adulthood, from an unruly bed of hair to smooth, soft, free flowing silk. The underpinning rationale behind this supposedly joyous, momentous transformation shouldn’t be overlooked. Black women are constantly being forced to adhere to the dominant ideology of Caucasian beauty, which quite frankly, is an outlook inundated with insecurity, sadness, ignorance and an idiotic sense of idealism.
A 2013 report from the International Journal of Trichology together with a 2012 report from specialist magazine The Dermatologist disclosed that hair relaxing can lead to hair thinning, scalp irritation, baldness and chemical burns to the scalp. Additionally, the process removes elasticity and protein from the hair, making it more prone to breakage, which, in combination with heat appliances and friction, spells a recipe for disaster.
Many may ask why anyone would undergo such an ordeal, but hair relaxing is just one of many methods used to smooth afro-textured hair. The only time that hair was seen as glorious was during early African civilisation, it was an emblem of an individual’s tribe, family background and social status.
By the 1700s during the transatlantic slave trade, the desire to adhere to a quintessential Caucasian beauty ideal started to manifest. What began as something righteous, a crown of glory, became ‘wool’ whereas smoother, Caucasian and mixed heritage hair textures were considered to be more desirable.
After this, the hot comb arrived in America in 1880, a more permanent solution in the form of the relaxer arrived in 1909.
Apart from the pre-colonial Africa era, the only other time period where Afro hair was celebrated was during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a symbol of rebellion, empowerment, pride and an assertion of black identity.
The 1970s and early 1980s brought the jheri curl, a looser curl pattern that didn’t resemble the tight coils of Afro hair.
The Caucasian dream of straightness reigned once again in the form of long; straight weaves a decade later and is still popular today. Black hair has never fully recovered from its 18th century condemnation.
Fast-forward to the present day and The Natural Hair Movement, as predicted by cultural anthropologists, is in full swing.
It could be assumed that Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary ‘Good Hair’ aided in this as it highlighted black hair culture’s trials and tribulations. Long, thick braids, cornrows styles and short-cropped curls are in fashion.
Many women are now transitioning to natural or texlaxed hair (this involves under processing the hair by leaving the relaxer on for a shorter amount of time, thus resulting in more textured hair and less damage) as featured on YouTubers such as Babilon Kay, Pretty Witty 77 and Fresh Lengths.
Furthermore, in 2013, UK research company Mintel revealed that hair relaxer sales in the UK have declined by 26 per cent over the past five years. It’s the only product in the black hair market that hasn’t seen a growth since 2008. Mintel have predicted that relaxer sales are set to decline by 45 per cent by 2019.
The report also stated that sales of styling products for natural hair in the UK have increased because of the natural hair trend and that 70 per cent of black women currently wear or have worn their hair in its natural state, with the majority opting for braids or dreadlock styles.
Some may argue that due to the fundamental reasoning behind why hair relaxing began, no one should relax their hair. However, there are other issues that must be addressed first, such as the stigma attached to black hair.
If you type ‘black hair’ into the Google search engine, words such as ‘nappy’ and ‘kinky’ appear.
The term ‘kinky’ arouses derogatory synonyms including abnormal, weird, bizarre, strange and odd. American rapper Lil Wayne even referenced black hair in his song ‘A Milli’ with the maligning comparison ‘tougher than Nigerian hair’.
Sadly, this isn’t an issue exclusive to the Western world. In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, blogger and natural hair consultant Bibi Gnagno filmed a documentary on local perceptions of natural hair. Women with afro-textured hair were met with comments such as ‘what’s wrong with you? Do you not have enough money to go to a salon? Did your husband leave you? Go get a perm’.
The second concern lies within the education of black hair as well as choice. ‘Kiddie’ relaxers are applied to children as young as three. Before a young woman has the opportunity to form an identity, to grow, understand, embrace and be able to care of her hair, the decision to relax her hair has already been made for her.
Poignantly, she will have no recollection of what her hair texture actually is.
Health is incredibly important. A study from Boston University followed more than 23,000 pre-menopausal African American women from 1997 until 2009 and found that hair relaxer use and chemical exposure from scalp lesions and burns may have a link to the increased susceptibility of fibroids, non-cancerous growths that develop in the womb. The study revealed links to cancers, reproductive problems, cognitive disorders, altered immune system risks and heart disease.
No woman should feel frantic at the first sight of a coil when her regrowth contrasts her relaxed ends. Natural hair should not be linked to unprofessionalism, wretchedness or deemed inappropriate and aesthetically displeasing.
It is important that women of black heritage embrace what is beautiful about their hair, the volume, the thickness and the versatility. If they choose to texlax to make it a little easier to manage, so be it. This equates to less damage and more volume, still preserving what is intrinsically beautiful about afro-textured hair.
Wear your hair as you please, whether it’s dreadlocks, braids, cornrows, weaves or texlaxed. Use your hair as a form of expression, change it up as you feel, it’s not something that needs to be shamed or forced into a societal box.
Many women feel that their locks are a representation of who they are. Afro-textured hair in its varying degrees has an endearing, unshackled personality of its own.
I confess that I’m reluctant to put chemicals in my future daughter’s hair. Nevertheless, if one day she finds herself debating whether or not to reach for the creamy crack, I’ll be able to pass on my experience and knowledge to help her to make the right decision. As musician India Arie sang, ‘I am not my hair, I am the soul that lives within’.