Before I explain, let me make something clear. I’m 43 years old and I haven’t had a perm since the fall of 1993, that is 24 years ago for those of you not that skilled in mathematics. The recent roast of Shea Mositure at the hands of Black Twitter (and Facebook) has fired me up to say something about this so-called definition of "natural hair."
Here’s my journey:
I cut off the permed ends of my hair in 1994. Do you know what choices I had as far as products? Practically nothing. It was pretty much water and Pink Oil lotion. And that's it.
Also? Back then, going "natural" usually meant cutting your hair down to a TWA (teeny weeny Afro). There weren’t products designed to transition straight hair to curly hair, so most of us just chopped it all off and waited to see what kind of hair we had after years of chemicals.
I actually remember the first time I felt my natural curl pattern. I never paid attention to the texture of my hair as a kid. It was just thick and kinky and straightened every Saturday with a heavy comb heated on the stove. My hair was permed at a young age and, for the next twenty years, that’s all I knew. Every few weeks, my “kitchen” would get out of control and I knew it was time for a touch-up.
During my freshman year in college, I couldn’t get home to get my hair done for a few weeks. My roots began growing out and I just threw my hair in a ponytail every day. One night, I was trying to figure out how to skip class and get home to get my hair done. I touched the roots to figure out how long it had been since a perm. I actually felt my roots. My hair was tightly coiled and super soft. I was shocked. Is that what my hair felt like?!
I went to a mirror, parted my hair down the middle and pulled out a section. Yup. There it was: my hair. It was naturally kinky. It had texture. It would be three more years before I would get the courage to do what is now cutely referred to as "the Big Chop." But that moment stands out to me as my first realization that I wanted to see what was under that perm.
From my peers, I didn’t have a lot of support at Rutgers University that year. My friends looked at me crazy when I said I wanted to chop my hair off. My boyfriend said it would be over. (And he wasn’t kidding, I found out later.)
The only woman I knew with a TWA was a stunner named Retha. She set trends. We tried to follow them. I mentioned to my boyfriend that I wanted to cut my hair and cited Retha as an example of how a TWA could be stylish. He looked me up and down and said, “But you’re not Retha.”
But OK, I survived. By the time I graduated from college and started life in the "real world," I was (mostly) confident about my natural hair. My hair grew out — a lot! But I literally had not a single person I could talk to about styling. There was no YouTube. There was no Google.
I did the best I could. I picked out my Afro. Sometimes I got it braided. There was a lot of scooping it into a bun. As time went on, I noticed that many of the naturalistas I knew had a particular type of hair — loose curly coils that moved.
Think of Freddie from A Different World. Freddie’s appearance onscreen was a seminal moment. She was clearly a woman of color but she had this unruly mop of curls that was playful and fun — far from what we called kinky and nappy. It was natural. But it was special.
I coveted Freddie’s hair — as many women did. But I knew my hair was completely different than hers. (“She got a good grade of hair,” my hairdresser would say about some of her clients. Not me, in case you were wondering.)
By 1999, I gave up on a style and let my hair start to lock. Even that was an annoying process because my hair was too soft to lock easily. Within a few years, I went back to square one, cutting the locks off and starting over with a new TWA.
And this is where my products journey begins.
When I lived in Brooklyn in the late ‘90s, every self-respecting Black girl talked endlessly about Carol’s Daughter, an organic line of beauty products catering to kinky and curly hair and skin products as well.
I skidded to a halt when I saw the prices. Clearly, this was not Pink Oil Lotion. Did they really expect me to pay $10 for a miniscule container of something everyone was now calling butters and creams?
Eventually, I started coughing up the money, telling myself it was an investment. But honestly, it didn’t seem to change my hair much. It would be shiny and soft. But it didn’t seem more effective than the cheap stuff I was raised on.
“But it’s organic,” I was told. “It’s all natural! None of those icky ingredients you can’t even pronounce! Plus you are supporting Black businesses!”
For the next twenty years, I spent thousands on “natural” hair care products. I learned how to achieve the looks I wanted. I found the community I’d been searching for and learned about co-washing and no-poo and washing my hair with vinegar and how to apply product to my hair and sit under a dryer for what felt like three days.
The result? In 2017, I realize there is no such thing as a natural hair. All the women I knew who wave the natural hair flag are essentially using tons of chemicals to achieve a particular look. Oh, they're not? OK, and those are Kylie's original lips.
I think it's important to define what natural means. I looked it up for you! Here it is:
Existing in or caused by nature. Not made or caused by humankind.
Another thing. Just because something is natural doesn't make it healthy and non-toxic. Tobacco is natural. So these "natural" hair products, they might not be all that good for us.
Let’s take something like benzyl alcohol, a substance found in many cosmetic products. It sounds scary and damaging — made in a lab by a mad scientist. It’s actually found naturally in plants. And it does lots of things, from killing lice to cleaning rugs.
And guess what else? This natural product is also toxic to newborns and can cause skin allergies and be highly irritating to the eye.
Not quite the same as coconut oil and mashed avocado.
Several of the best-selling natural hair care products out there contain hexylene glycol, a substance recognized as a hazardous substance in its pure form that can affect the liver, kidneys and nervous system.
So, I'm going to be as bold as to say there is no such thing as natural hair. We just traded one group of chemicals for another one. Unless you wake up in the morning, spritz your hair with water and keep it moving — your hair is not natural.
But wait, you say. Our creams and butters are not as bad as a perm!
That’s true. But with the right care and the correct usage, I think a perm properly applied every few weeks is just not that deep.
I know a lot of women with natural hair look down at women who are still perming their hair. But we can’t put our noses up and think we’re some earthy naturalistas who are achieving something special by putting toxic chemicals on our hair that just happen to come from flowers.
Still not sold? I get it. But I'm in this for the long haul, so let's continue. One line of products that insists it is all natural (whatever that means), lists decyl glucoside as one of the ingredients. Right next to it, in parentheses, it says coconut oil. But it’s NOT coconut oil. It’s a cleansing agent that is derived from coconut oil. You can’t crack open a coconut and miraculously end up with decyl glucoside on your hair. I find it interesting that every non-natural sounding ingredient on the label is paired with a cutesy translation like macadamia oil and sunflowers.
They probably do it because using decyl glucoside doesn’t quite match the company history written on the back highlighting a sweet story about how the company was founded by a woman in a far-off land who just happened to break open nuts and seeds and create all kinds of wonderful skin and hair products.
**insert eye roll here**
My point? We’re all using chemicals. We’re all training our hair to look a certain way. I remember when Solange was criticized for letting her hair just be. She said she had no time to spend trying to tease every single curl out of her hair. I connected with that. Just about every single woman I know with natural hair spends an inordinate amount of time in search of the perfect curl. (Myself included.)
Is there anything wrong with this? Absolutely not. I’ve finally made peace with my hair. I blow it out. I press it. I tease out my curls with products. I braid it. I weave the hell out of it. I twist it. And sometimes I wear it in a bun every day.
Rock whatever style you want. Use whatever product you want. Just think about changing the word. Your hair is not “natural.” It’s just...hair.
(Photo: portishead1/Getty Images)
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