"Hi guys, welcome to my channel," played like a broken record in my head throughout my college days, during which I was consumed with the growing natural hair community on YouTube. "Today I'm gonna show you how I achieved this twist out on transitioning hair," were usually the words that followed during the hour-long style sessions I would have in my bedroom.
I started getting perms at age nine. It's hard to forget sitting in the bathtub in my childhood Brooklyn apartment, watching neutralizing shampoo go from yellow to pink when the formula was all rinsed out. Or, rummaging through my scalp to pick at the scabs from the burns I'd get from scratching before my perm. As an adolescent child, straight hair was all that I knew. Relaxing my head of curls provided an easier solution for my mom who didn’t have time to detangle and style my kinks every day. I didn't know or miss the idea of my "natural hair" because I didn’t know what it was.
That is, until I discovered YouTube.
Taren Guy, Naptural85, Hey Fran Hey, Blackonyx77, and Mohogany Curls were just a handful of many channels I've spent hours clocking for guidance on growing out my natural texture. I was fascinated by photos of other natural hair transformations online, and was curious when I saw what Black hair looked like without relaxers. I trusted and looked to these women for inspiration on how to blend my six-month new growth with my straight hair because I was too scared to big chop. I spent more hours in the hair aisle at Target than my broke college-student self could afford, buying every leave-in conditioner and curl butter I could find. Today's internet would probably classify me as a product junkie. Still, I'd argue that I was living amidst a transformative movement that changed the lives of so many Black folks around me.
The Roots Of The Natural Hair Movement
The natural hair movement existed long before I took a permanent vacation from the creamy crack (a slang term used by the Black community to describe hair relaxer). Hair has long been an integral part of Black history. Natural styles like cornrows, locs, and afros have been an expression of our culture for decades. However, ideals deeply rooted in Eurocentrism and white supremacy have co-opted these styles, influencing how they’ve evolved. Smoothed, straightened hair became very desirable, and it’s evident in the trends we see throughout history. Society was unabashedly more accepting of European traits, and the more Black people assimilated to these traits, the more conventional they were considered.
In the late 1800s, hot combs, which a French man named Francois Marcel Grateau reportedly created, became popular stateside and were marketed and used primarily for smoothing hair. Soon after, in the early 20th century, there was a boom in products available to alter Black hair texture, in large part to the success of Black people. Women like Annie Malone and Madame C.J. Walker created historic wealth by finding new solutions for styling and hair care like Malone’s Poro Preparations products and Marcel curling iron, and Walker’s famous Wonderful Hair Grower.
During that time, Garret Augustus Morgan Sr. of Kentucky created the first chemical relaxer after discovering a formula while working on sewing machines. Morgan found that the formula containing lye, a chemical straightener, successfully loosened curly textured hair and launched G.A. Morgan’s Hair Refiner in 1913. Soon after, Johnson & Johnson released the first “no-lye” relaxers, with fewer harsh chemicals. As new modules and results emerged, chemical relaxers became a popular treatment of choice, heavily marketed and used among Black consumers.
For decades, the styling of Black hair evolved from perms to Jheri curls, to wigs and braids, but the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s marks a pivotal time in the history of natural hair in the United States. During this time, African-American activists like Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale, and other supporters of the Black Panther Party wore Afros and different natural hairstyles as a political statement during the Black Power movement. “The Black liberation movement in the early 1960s laid the foundation for the movement we see today,” Kristin Rowe, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton says. “This isn’t the first time these conversations have been had, but I believe different motivations are part of why the conversation has lasted and evolved in such a way.”
The Social Media Effect
Social media didn’t exist during the early Black Power movement in the ‘60s, but it has played a massive role in the mobilization and impact of the modern natural hair movement that became widespread for various reasons. “What was once heavily driven by civil rights has now become more nuanced, and it’s important to look at it from all lens’,” Rowe explains. While larger movements, like Black Lives Matter, go hand in hand with embracing and protecting your Blackness, the motivation for going natural looks different for everyone in 2021.
“For some people, the decision is firmly rooted in embracing and declaring your Blackness,” says Rowe. “Others have gone natural for health or environmental purposes.” The aftermath of the 2001 recession also influenced Black spending habits, Rowe explains. “Some women weren’t willing to go to the salon or spend on expensive things,” she says. “These were all factors.” For some, discovering the versatility of our beauty came from watching other Black women do it first.
In the early 2000s, natural hair content surfaced online in various mediums from discussion forums, personal blogs, and social media platforms. “Women organically gathered in these chatrooms and were like ‘I'm not going to relax my hair anymore. What's next?” Rowe explains. Fotki, a photo-sharing service, was one notable site where many Black women — like your favourite OG bloggers — shared images of their hairstyles and journeys before Instagram and YouTube existed.
Bloggers & The Black Beauty Space
Patrice Yursik, the founder and creator of the award-winning blog Afrobella, was one of the first digital creators in the Black beauty space. She created her blogging platform in 2006 to fill a void because, despite forums where Black women convened, information and inspiration catered to women with natural hair were glaringly limited. "Black hair and Black beauty weren't recognized and celebrated in a magazine-style format, which is what I craved," Yursik says. "I wanted to find information about us that was written to shine a light on our beauty, and that's why I started Afrobella."
Yursik, a newspaper editor at the time, started her blog as an outlet to write about hair products, icons who inspired her journey, and other happenings in her beauty sphere. Her readership steadily increased and established Yursik as an authority on natural hair, even earning her recognition from the Barack Obama inaugural office to attend his presidential bid events in 2009. This trajectory inspired Yursik to quit her job and make a full-time commitment to Afrobella long before full-time "influencing" was a thing for the masses.
But Yursik's natural hair journey started before her internet success as a three-year-old girl who experienced hair-related trauma. "There were some older girls in the neighborhood who braided my hair into the chains of a metal swing one day while I was unsupervised," she says. "I remember them playing in my hair and then running away. Then I was unable to turn my head because all of my hair was tangled in the swing." The incident resulted in Yursik's parents having to cut her hair to free her from the swing, an experience that changed her relationship with her hair during her childhood.
"I had a TWA [teeny-weeny Afro] up until I was five-years-old, and I had an early understanding of the femininity of hair," Yursik says. "I knew at a very young age that hair is what people saw when they looked at a little girl." Soon after that traumatic event, Yursik got her first relaxer and continued to chemically straighten her hair until she was 18.
Like many Black women, a relaxer became part of Yursik's regular beauty routine. "I had relaxed hair through high school until I migrated to Miami from Trinidad and Tobago," she says. "When I came into Miami, I had to figure out how to deal with my own hair for the first time in my life, and I didn't know what I was doing." It wasn't until Yursik was left to relax her hair on her own that she began to question the point of perms. "I remember reading the box warning, which emphasized using gloves and thinking to myself: 'why am I putting something that could burn my hands on my head?" she said. "Ultimately, that led to me not wanting to use perms anymore." Yursik got her last relaxer for her wedding day in 2002.
Her natural hair journey isn't an unfamiliar story. Much of the early days of the modern natural hair movement were sparked by Black women looking for information that wasn't readily available and questioning what was fed to them for years. Take Whitney White, who you may refer to in your household as Naptural85. White started YouTube in 2009 and could be considered a pioneer in the natural hair social media world. After losing love for her straightened hair, White decided to stop the treatments and grow out her natural texture. "I entered the scene in 2009, and at the time, there weren't a lot of women with my hair type," White explains to me on the phone. "I saw a few videos, and they were inspiring, so I decided to post about my hair journey to thank the women who inspired me. As more women found that video, more of them wanted me to share more about my hair."
Since that fateful clip in 2009, White has cultivated an audience of over 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube, who turn to her for natural hair advice and inspiration. "A lot of women who came up at the same time as me would agree that we were just a small, tight community sharing information," White says. "We were just leaning on each other because we didn't necessarily have that support in the real world."
As Black women rediscovered their natural hair texture with the help of budding online communities, conversations and curiosity about product efficacy and health grew. The assortment of products and education available to today's consumers was limited, leaving many women to experiment with DIYs and other methods for tending to their curls.
White became more ingredient-conscious early on in her natural hair journey after reading a book about toxins in beauty products. "I started making my products like hair mayonnaise and deep conditioner recipes I learned from my mom and other women online," says White. "I was also a recent college graduate and couldn't afford natural products, which were expensive at the time." Black women were no longer willing to accept formulas for their hair without questioning ingredients first and demanding results which, over time, would create a billion-dollar segment in the beauty industry.
The mobilization of the movement on social media was paramount. No longer could brands ignore natural hair in their product offerings and advertisements. Natural hair blogs and YouTube channels rapidly multiplied, and the influence of the community grew. Hollywood artists spotlighted the natural hair conversation with films like Chris Rock's Good Hair, released in 2005, and Sanaa Lathan's Nappily Ever After, released in 2018. The influencer space grew on Instagram, and now, a quick search of the #naturalhair hashtag on Instagram populates over 28 million images. Pages dedicated to sharing inspiration for women with natural hair, like Natural Hair Loves, Natural Hair Does Care, and 4CHairDaily, multiplied, making getting online and seeing a Black woman styling her god-given curls nearly impossible. Communities within the natural hair world began formed and developed into meetups and global events like CurlFest, Curly Treats, and statewide expos across the United States.
The Business Of Natural Hair
As the beauty industry continued to boom, the natural hair movement grew rapidly, and the gap in product offerings on the market became even more glaring as more perm boxes remained on shelves. Black women became more knowledgeable and experimental with natural ingredients and brands had to adapt to serve the evolving consumer's needs better. Shelves that were once exclusively plastered with relaxer formulas and Luster’s Pink Lotion began to transform.
Brands like Carol's Daughter, Shea Moisture, and Miss Jessie's became widely popular in department store aisles, with offerings like leave-in conditioners, deep treatments, and curl styling products available in mounds. Like Dark & Lovely, most famous for its perms and at-home colour kits in the early 2000s, legacy brands quickly pivoted to expand collections catering to the emerging natural hair market. "Dark & Lovely's mission is to bring salon technology home, and we've done this with many of our ranges including Au Naturale," Melissa Hughes, marketing director for the brand, says of the line tailored to natural hair, which launched in 2014. "Salon offerings for these styles were limited, and we wanted our consumer to be able to care for her natural hair from the comfort of her home."
The time proved valuable for brands both existing and emerging, as the power of Black women spending power shook the market. According to Romina Brown, CEO and President of Strategic Solutions, in 2009, chemical relaxers accounted for 60 percent of the multi-cultural hair category. In 2019, that market share only grazed five percent. “The natural hair category is growing significantly, and it’s very healthy,” Brown says. “In ten years, we’ve seen consistent growth.” In 2011, the dollar share for natural hair was only six percent. In four short years, that number spiked to 35 percent in 2015. “As of December 2020, products marketed to address the specific needs of textured hair in the multicultural market account for 60 percent of the multicultural hair care category, which has now topped one-billion dollars in revenue,” Brown reports. Those numbers speak to the transformative power of the Black dollar.
The natural hair movement has transformed the market, making products more accessible to people globally. It's also created more opportunities for Black entrepreneurs looking to enter the hair market through new products and innovations. Many creators who found success on social media have created brands catering to the women they serve online. In 2018, White launched her first-ever brand Melanin Hair Care, heavily influenced by the DIY remedies she'd post about for years on YouTube. "No matter what I was testing at the time, I would always go back to my homemade hair products," says White. "So when we were formulating the line, I went back to DIY formulas I always relied on." White developed a four-product hair collection inspired by recipes she's made on YouTube for years featuring ingredients like shea butter, mango butter, and her custom natural oil blend, which is all now sold at Ulta Beauty.
Rochelle Graham, better known by her internet pseudonym Blackonyx007, has also transitioned from blogger to CEO of Alikay Naturals, a complete collection of hair and body care products made with clean, naturally-derived ingredients. "I couldn't find products that were safe and affordable," Graham says. "So I made one product, which would end up being our Essential 17 Hair Growth Oil, but at the time, it was just something for myself." That fateful product is now sold at all CVS locations nationwide.
According to Brown, Black-owned brands have seen a massive growth opportunity in the thriving natural hair market. Celebrities like Tracee Ellis Ross, Tararji P. Henson, Issa Rae, and Gabrielle Union have also identified opportunities to launch hair care brands. "Black-owned brands that are entering the market are performing well," Brown says, noting that Mielle Organics is one of the most rapidly-growing Black beauty brands on the market. Currently, African-American shoppers dominate the ethnic hair and beauty category, accounting for almost ninety percent of the overall spend, a 2019 Neilsen study revealed. Research also shows that Black consumers are more inclined to support brands that agree with their lifestyle and values. The 2019 Neilsen report revealed that 42 percent of Black adults expect brands they purchase to support social causes. Brown adds that Black consumers have been more disposed to patronage brands beneficial to their health and communities, reflecting in the market trends.
But where there's money, there's complexity. The number of Black-owned and funded businesses on shelves is still limited compared to conglomerate mass-market brands that sell products catered to people with curly hair. Graham says that supporting Black natural hair businesses' is critical to making sure the natural hair narrative remains honest and authentic. "Black-owned businesses are the ones who built and cultivated the natural hair community," Graham says. "My concern is that as the movement grows, there will be big companies and people who don't care about the community or hair health but will put the word natural on a product and profit from it."
The Future Of The Natural Hair Movement
In this case, generational wealth holds more than monetary value. The natural hair movement has grown from the ripple-effect of Black women saying “no” to beauty standards dictated to them to reclaiming power and autonomy over their hair and how they wear it. That liberation has also influenced the CROWN Act legislation in the United States, which stands for Creating A Respectful And Open World For Natural Hair. The bill was first introduced in 2019 by California State Senator Holly Mitchell and was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsome. The CROWN Act prohibits race-based hair discrimination in the workplace and in public and charter schools, places that may limit a Black woman’s ability to wear her natural hair how she pleases.
Since being introduced by California lawmakers, six other states including New York, Washington, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Colorado have made the CROWN Act law. It has also been passed by the United States House of Representative, where it now awaits approval by the United States Senate. The legislation marks a pivotal moment given the history of race-based discrimination Black people face, oftentimes based on physical features like skin colour and hair. "A lot of people are unaware that this type of discrimination even exists in our laws," Professor Wendy Greene of Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law explains. “The natural hair movement has helped to deconstruct those negative experiences as it relates to our competency, professionalism, and even our innocence.”
Rowe adds that the emphasis put on hair from early childhood is very specific to Black people and has resulted in the harmful ideals the CROWN Act, and other empowering movements, aims to break. "We have to think about what it means to say to a child that your hair grows out of your head, the texture it is, the shape that it takes on is unprofessional or is less than," she says. "Historically, Black hair has not fit all those notions of professionalism, appropriateness, and formality. So it begs the question: what are those things?" These discussions uncover the harmful ideals that many Black men and women have lived with for decades, but it creates healthy dialogue to protect generations to come. "People are already speculating about our hair texture before we even leave the womb," Greene says. “This movement has helped to deconstruct negative stereotypes and stigmas that are affixed to our professionalism, competency, and even our innocence.”
It's a harsh reality that forces us to look within the Black community at how colourism and texturism play roles in how natural hair is perceived by society. Still, it's why Rowe says representation that we see today is so important. "Texture gets wrapped up in the conversation of beauty and femininity because early on, there was still a specific type of curl that was more socially glorified," she says. "It's valid that some Black women would feel marginalized in a community that is really for all of us."
Significant strides have been made, though, and we have each other to thank for that. A Black woman's choice of style for her hair is hers, a rebellious act of self-love whether your hair is picked into an Afro, straightened into a silk press, or tied up in braids. “We're in a space where Black women have agency over their bodies," Rowe says. "It's your hair, your body, your right to take up space in the world, and it looks different for everyone, but it's okay."
It creates an uplifting atmosphere for young Black girls and boys who will grow up viewing their natural hair as normal and — most importantly — beautiful. "Our natural hair is supposed to be the norm, not the exception to the rule," Graham says. "No one else has had to justify or create a movement just to tell the world 'this is who I am, and I'm not going to change it." White says she's optimistic about the future of natural hair and says the common goal should be encouraging women to do what makes them feel beautiful. "In the beginning, there were people who felt like you have to go natural and go about it in a specific way or else it was wrong," she says. “You don't even have to be natural. Whatever you want to do to your hair is what you should do. We have to stop judging each other for our choices and start empowering one another.”
R29Unbothered continues its look at Black culture’s tangled history of Black identity, beauty, and contributions to the culture. In 2021, we're giving wings to our roots, learning and unlearning our stories, and celebrating where Black past, present and future meet.