Is natural hair the end of black beauty culture?
That’s the question posed by Cassandra Jackson in a recent article she wrote for The Huffington Post. Jackson says that while she is glad to see an increasing number of black women choosing natural hair (as opposed to chemically straightened hair) she worries that the shift toward natural hair also means a shift away from the black beauty salon, which for decades has been the center of black beauty culture.
While many, including me, celebrate the natural hair movement’s emphasis on self-discovery, I cannot help but wonder if something has also been lost with this cultural shift. For all the horrible things about hair straightening, the experiences associated with it have created a powerful thread that connects the vast majority of black women. Even if you have kinky hair now, you probably have memories of time spent with family and friends in kitchens getting your hair done by someone who loved you and who you trusted enough to wield a sizzling hot straightening comb next to your ear. You probably remember that first trip to the beauty shop where black women talked about grown folks’ business, and nearly every sentence began with the endearment, “girl.” It does not matter if your mother was a teacher or housekeeper, or if you were in New York or Alabama because these experiences crossed class and region. Hair straightening was a rite of passage, an entry into the world of black women.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of salons. They stink, they’re hot, and you’re in there for what feels like half your life. So the fact that wearing my hair in its naturally curly state meant fewer trips to a beauty shop was just more reason for me to embrace my curls. But, ironically, now that I’m natural I feel more a part of black beauty culture than ever before. Black beauty culture has not died; it has simply evolved.
One of the things I love most about being natural has very little to do with my actual hair. I love being natural because of the sense of community and camaraderie that comes with it. At least once a week I have a conversation with a complete stranger in a clothing store at a shopping mall or in the aisles of the supermarket or in an aerobics class at the gym, and those conversations are sparked because of my curls. Those conversations begin with questions like “How long have you been natural?” or “What products do you use on your hair?”
Furthermore, some of my closest friends that I’ve made since I moved back to my hometown have been through local natural hair mixers organized by groups like Birmingham Natural Beauties. At these mixers conversations begin with questions like those I mentioned before, but soon the discussions move to other topics — our careers, our hobbies, our husbands, our dreams. And soon a friendship is born.
And thanks to natural blogs we naturalistas can forge bonds with women all across the country or even the world. Through online communities we share stories of our transition from relaxed hair, we rant about our search for a stylist who can cut curly hair, and we rave about products that keep our tresses soft. And soon even these conversations can drift to topics like exercise, as many women begin to workout more after going natural, or healthy eating, as many women begin to reconsider what they’re putting in their bodies once they start to think about the products they’re putting on their heads.
So, no, many black women no longer congregate in black beauty salons as we once did, but black beauty culture is alive and well. We naturalistas may not see the black beauty shop as the safe and sacred space as our mothers did but as we gather at natural hair blogs, conferences, and meetups, we are encouraged and we are supported because we are always reminded that we are beautiful.