Even though you'll never see my natural hair, I am natural. I ditched relaxers when I was in college, and now exclusively sport protective styles like wigs and sew-ins. These offer me a look I can't get with my natural hair alone. A look that, ironically, feels most "natural" to me. And while I'm not spending my nights twisting my lengths, or searching for the best product cocktail to achieve the elusive wash-and-go, I'm still a part of the natural hair community. It doesn't always feel that way, though.
Going natural feels as if you've seemingly leveled-up in your blackness by falling in love with your natural hair, taking ownership of what you think is beautiful, and breaking out of the Eurocentric beauty mold. This ideal is rooted in the natural hair movement of the '60s and '70s, which was intertwined with the Black Power movement.
"Although it was seen as this kind of artistic shift in someone's presentation, it was also very much about pushing or asking or even demanding a shift in how we operated ideologically," explains Kimberly Moffitt, PhD, author of Blackberries and Redbones: Critical Articulations of Black Hair and Body Politics in Africana Communities. "Going natural is one of those acts of resistance or empowerment, because you have to make a declaration to do it, and be comfortable in doing so."
Fast forward a few decades, and today's natural hair movement is still rooted in those ideological shifts, but also in individual expression. And no matter how you cut it, the choice is still political, she says, because it's going against what society expects of you. Only recently, in April 2019, did California become the first state to ban racial discrimination against those with natural hair styles. New York followed suit in July.
"We are allowing women to embrace their hair and who they are," Dr. Moffitt says, "But now we're looking at those who are not [wearing their natural texture] and saying, 'What are you still hiding? Or 'What are you still fearful of?' Or 'What are you still uncomfortable with about yourself that you're not willing to do this, too?' And I think the beauty of what we should be encouraging is the fact that we've got the agency and freedom to do whatever we want to do."
I tried wearing my hair natural, without a wig, once. I got long box braids before flying to London to spend a semester abroad, and six weeks later, when I was ready to get them redone, I had a hard time finding a braider. Tired of the search, I unwound my braids and decided to figure it out on my own. Straight, my hair reaches my collar bones, but left natural, the curls shrink up, giving me a teeny fro. For a more defined curl, I bought perm rods, along with my first curl cream, determined to make the look work. Styling my hair took forever, and while the result was cute enough, I never felt like myself. I wore the style for a few days, and still underwhelmed, I blew out my hair and wore it straight.
So am I missing some sort of black gene? Because embracing your natural hair seems like a rite of passage that I will never complete.
Like me, Savitri Dixon-Saxon, PhD, LPC, NCC, is natural, but wears wigs and sew-ins. She experimented with her first sew-in when she was 21 years old, and in the 30 years since then, she's never looked back. She tells me, however, that as a black woman in academia, she's feels that her hair choices are viewed as anti-black by her black colleagues. She voiced something that I hadn't been able to put into words: "I'm an African American person, and I have been influenced by American society. So there may definitely be that part of me that likes wearing a wig or a weave and having long, luxurious hair," she says. "But the reality is, I'm denying nothing."
As the natural hair movement continues to climb, I believe the way we define "natural" will shift. Relaxer sales dropped nearly 20 percentage points between 2016 and 2019, while the sale of wigs increased 79 percentage points. Black women have so many more options for how they can wear their hair, and that should be embraced. I know what makes me feel beautiful, so why would I spend time working on a look that I don't care for? Does this mean I've fallen prey to Eurocentric beauty standards? In the eyes of some, the answer would be yes. But Dr. Dixon-Saxon shares a quote from Audrey Lorde: "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." How I wear my hair is my decision alone, and doing what makes me feel beautiful and happy should be my only concern.
I will take two hours every other week to do my own gel manicure. I will make time to be active every day. I will cook meals for myself. But spending hours on my hair doesn't fit into my version of self care. And that doesn't make me any less natural. Any less black. Any less me.
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