Wait, Were The 90s Hair Relaxer Girls Natural All Along?

Like many other Black girls growing up during the 90s, there was only one box that I was excited to receive outside of Christmas or Eid: an at-home hair relaxer kit. Whether it was Soft & Beautiful’s Just for Me no-lye conditioner, Africa's Best Organics Kids Organic Conditioning Relaxer or Dark and Lovely’s Beautiful Beginnings, which I used a few times as a teenager to chemically straighten my hair, I couldn’t wait to break into these boxes and get the styles I dreamed of. I still remember how excited I’d be when my mother would pull out either of these perming kits which she no doubt bought from South London’s East Street or Brixton market.
Printed on the side of Soft & Beautiful’s box was, according to childhood me, the ‘picture-perfect’ Black girl: ‘lightly melanated’ with a pearly white smile and long shiny and flowing curls propped up with colourful hair bobbles. She was an African-American girl, but for a Black girl on the other side of the pond, I immediately connected with her. I trusted her when I read the words ‘Just Like Me’ on the box, and erroneously mistook the words ‘no-lye conditioner’ for meaning ‘no lie’ conditioner. I’d grow up to learn that I was wrong on both counts. Yet, it was that growing familiarity with her that got me through the burns to my scalp as layers of pungent-smelling cream and a heavy concoction of chemicals strong enough to unblock drains were applied to my curls, permanently making them straight. Black girls like myself formed a parasocial relationship with these ‘relaxer girls’ every few weeks, months or years as we repeated the process  — never mind that we did not know them. And like so many figurines of our bygone childhoods, ‘those girls’ went into obscurity, until this month.
On October 2, Twitter user @prettiestluxury wrote: “I remember wanting to be the face of a hair relaxer so bad”. Another Twitter user, @AshTheDonLeon, quoted their tweet that same day, asking the girls on the boxes to ‘show yourselves.’  And they did. The thread featured their past and present pictures and went viral with over 230,000 likes and nearly 40,000 retweets. One of them, Natalie Githu said “oh we outchea…taller, blonder but the sass is still the same”, while @itsvictoria_ tweeted “I’m here”. 
 A good number of them are now natural, such as Jaelyn Evans. It hyped a lot of us up.
Yet a few of the ‘relaxer girls’ revealed they did not actually use the hair relaxers that made them famous, but rather, they straightened and used mousse to achieve their silky and glossy look. American rapper@imbabytate, who appeared on a Africa Best Kids Original relaxer box, tweeted, “Here I am today, a successful artist wearing 40” bussdowns on national tv, still with no actual perm in my head. #themboxesbelying”. Twitter user @OkayKarlae also shared a before and after photo, revealing that she was a Soft & Beautiful ‘perm box gal’ but never had a relaxer “only a press out”. Unbothered approached both Africa Best and Soft & Beautiful for comment, but they are yet to respond.
This riled some of us online, perplexed us even. Twitter user @kookiesrealwife said “All right guys so now that we know that the perm box girls never perm [sic] their hair can we all collectively do a class action lawsuit??? My scalp was burned like holy hell when I used to get a relaxer”.While others had a more lighter or comic reaction using all the sorts of memes that make Black Twitter, well… Black Twitter.

A few of the ‘relaxer girls’  revealed they did not actually use the hair relaxers that made them famous, but rather, their hair was straightened and mousse was used to achieve their silky and glossy look.

The fact that many of the women — literal posters girls of relaxed hair — grew up to embrace their natural hair texture (and in some cases always did) has been a huge revelation. As more of the women revealed themselves on Twitter, many expressed how their early experiences with hair relaxers impacted the way they think about their natural hair now. 
Speaking to Buzzfeed’s Ade Onibada, a 25-year-old nurse and natural hair blogger, Jordan Kelly, said that it was mandatory for her to use a relaxer for her cover for Dark and Lovely.  She reflected on how Black women’s hair is  “our unique crown” that it is “versatile and honestly trendsetting”. While 24-year-old film student, Natalie Githu mentioned that she was “honoured” her image was seen around the world. She stopped chemically relaxing her hair in 2018 and now has a full appreciation of the versatility of Black hair, saying, “Whether in an afro, relaxed, shaved, or braided, Black hair will always symbolize survival, resistance, and celebration”.  

Brands are notorious for not using ‘real life’ to sell us products, but it’s arguably not the same thing as using Black girls to emotionally tether us to a beauty technique that didn’t always deliver on the result it promised

Marketers and brands are notorious for not using ‘real life’ to sell us products, but it’s arguably not the same thing as using Black girls to emotionally tether the rest of us to a beauty technique that didn’t always deliver on the result it promised. From a health standpoint, one can appreciate that some of those girls were spared some of the negative experiences many of us had with hair relaxers.  But if there is a part of me that’s going to feel some way about it, it’s the little girl I used to be, whose eyes lit up at that Just Like Me box — because it was her that was sold the idea that straighter hair was better and she paid dearly for it in burns, years of hair breakage and low self-esteem. And that is the quaint lesson on eurocentrism that we have learned: it is a mirage, and it continues to use all sorts of apparitions to keep itself going. 
All this has also reminded me of how nostalgia has a funny way of glamorising past experiences. African American literature and culture professor, Badia Ahad-Legardy calls this ‘Afro-nostalgia’, “an expression of Black romantic recollection that creates and inspires good feelings in our dark moments.” It’s probably a fitting expression of the moment Black Twitter was in at the time, as we debated low-vibrational plates and Ye’s downward spiral. Beneath that though, those relaxer boxes and their cover girls were time capsules that took us back to our former selves. Some of us may have adulated those images, all the while burying the complicated feelings in reconciling with our own. However, hindsight, adulthood and knowledge have become a saving grace for Black women today, as we gain greater clarity over what it means to ‘own’ our hair and how we choose to show it some TLC. 
Perhaps that is why part of me was not entirely surprised at the revelations that the relaxer boxes sold us a lie, and now, there are those in the community who say they want to be more discerning in their consumer choices. In May, feminist campaign group Level Up and Black hair company Treasure Tress released findings of their study showing that ‘63% of more than 1000 Black British women surveyed’ had negative experiences with hair relaxers. The study also indicated more than ‘95.5% of Black British women do not trust brands that sell lye-based hair relaxers.’ It’s a damning indictment of an industry that has eroded trust in a significant part of its consumer base — Black women’s purchasing power is a good few billion dollars worth after all. 
At the same time, growing numbers of women are returning to chemically relaxing their hair in what just may be the segway into a  post-natural hair movement era’. In other words, the lines defining what it means to be a naturalista are becoming blurred. As Refinery 29 reported last year, on TikTok, hashtags #relaxedhaircare and #naturalnomore suggest relaxers provide a lot more flexibility for some Black women. And for as long as alternatives like keratin treatments, texture releases, and tex-laxing gain greater popularity, the debate on relaxers in the Black beauty community will no doubt continue.
And yet we can all agree that @AshTheDonLeon’s thread was a Black Twitter moment for the books. We got to see and humanise the faces on those boxes in a way we could never have thought possible as young girls and women growing up. But as we grapple with the legacy of what that era meant to all of us, it’s safe to say that we can accept how right we were in what we saw: the beauty of those girls.

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