#TeamNatural is changing the way black women regard their natural hair. BeautyBlowFlow/Shutterstock.com
“You know what I love? Thats right: My hair!”
These are words from a Sesame Street song sung by a little girl with a big, bold afro. In the song, the puppet Segi (named after Head writer Joey Mazzarino’s adopted Ethiopian daughter) wears her hair in a variety of ways to sing the ditty. Mazzario is said to have been compelled to write the song in response to his 6-year-old daughter stating that she wanted her hair to be flat and straight, and he wanted her to be proud of her natural hair.
The hair care industry is said to be worth over $600 billion dollars, and black women spend nine times more on beauty than the general population, according to a 2013 study by the Nielsen company. But a spate of complications—from particularly rigorous state laws on licensing for black hair care to a lack of awareness about its distinctness—has provided barriers for African-American women to break into the mainstream beauty industry for decades. The high expectations, steep complications and expense are another factor that burdens a demographic historically known to be the most marginalized intersection of race and sex.
But the movement for natural hair seeks to pivot the conversation on black hair. Like much of the movement, the name itself was coined on social media by the women that embody it. The women come from all walks of life and are as diverse as the hairstyles they love to share and talk about. They all have one thing in common: they want to empower black women everywhere to embrace the natural hair movement’s core principle: natural is beautiful.
For generations, black women have been styling their hair using increasingly uncomfortable and drastic measures. Whether it’s the itchiness of a wig, the expense and damage done by wearing a glued on weave for years and years, or the chemical damage caused by relaxing treatments, these popular options have forced black women to cover, hide or disguise their natural hair.
Some women who identify with the movement’s core ideals see deep rooted problems with the idea that only long, flowy, straight hair is desirable. They attribute that desire with the same culture that tells women natural is not beautiful, but that perfection is, that only Anglo hair is alluring and acceptable and that is what women should want.
Vivian is the founder of myhaircrush.com, a website that celebrates and sells snarky merchandise and shares lifestyle information and advice supporting the natural hair movement.
“Resistance is often necessary for real change to emerge. This is not a fad- it’s a cultural shift,” she says.
Although the movement started off in the United States, it was exacerbated on social media from Tumblr to Twitter and has now caught the attention of black women worldwide who are posting pictures of themselves with the hashtags #teamnatural and #naturalhairmovement. These women are carving a new identity for themselves with the underlying principle of unabashed existence in their natural form. And though onmipresent on social media, Vivian says they are part of a bigger network.
“This movement has continued to gain momentum through these ‘pocket communities,’” says Vivian. She says the community thrives off of the quick and consistent feedback on social media.
“Women that normally don’t find depictions of themselves in mainstream media are creating these affirming images for themselves. They have found a way to teach themselves…that they are beautiful and worthy through various social media platforms and online groups,” she says.
According to the Nielsen company’s 2013 African- American Consumer Report, black women spend nine times more on ethnic hair care products than any other group in the U.S. But, only three percent of the $75 billion spent by advertisers on tv, magazine, internet and radio is specifically aimed at black audiences.
“Hair care is serious business in the Black community at all income levels,” the report reads. ”The beauty supply store channel, in particular, offers Consumer-Packaged-Goods (CPG) retailers and manufacturers an opportunity to increase market share as Black shopper penetration and annual spending with this channel both increase with higher income.”
Advertising often features people that look nothing like African-American women, and so they simply don’t engage with the advertisements and products being sold to them. Such negligence has cost companies like L’Oreal, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson fortunes because the natural hair movement has drastic financial implications on the beauty industry.
Over the last five years, big beauty companies have been losing business, as millions of dollars are funnelled away from their generic products that don’t cater to black hair, and aren’t being spent on unique black hair care brands. CEO of natural hair care provider Jane Carter Solution, Jane Carter says it’s a market that is untapped. Carter makes and sells hair care for kinky, curly and coily hair and has been operating salons along the East Coast for over three decades.
“The natural hair movement is an energetic movement,” she says. “Women are no longer afraid to go out because of the rain or exercise because they’ll need their hair redone. It’s liberating.”
Carter says she has seen “definite” changes in the hair industry as black women chose to spend money on nurturing their hair rather than disguising it. Women no longer must bow down to straight hair and the perfection demanded of them in glossy magazines and celebrity culture and are making a statement, she says. Women that really take a stance like this—whether it is political, or to say “‘I love myself,’—are making the same statement as those who moved forward in the civil rights movement.”
She says that only in the last six years has she seen young women decline to relax their hair, making it smoother and silkier.
“There is a new pathway for young women to be comfortable, for natural to be an option,” she says.
But can this new pathway lead you out of a job? Black women in the U.S. military recently fought against rules about wearing their hair in natural black styles that were deemed ‘inappropriate.’
In the best case scenario, this is an example of the Army’s negligence, and in the worst, it can be seen as racial discrimination. In the end black women in the Army spoke out and questioned these rules and forced an about turn last September, allowing more natural black hair styles.
But it does get worse. Take the braiding laws in places like Arkansas and Missouri where it is illegal to braid hair without a cosmetology license. The license isn’t easy to come by, for two reasons. If you wanted to braid hair professionally you would need to invest thousands of dollars in courses and exam fees, and commit to 2,100 hours in class learning everything but braiding to qualify. In some states, you can become a firefighter with less training and expense and buy a gun with much less regulation than trying to become a hair braider.
Arkansas and Missouri are not exceptional in this, says Paul Averlar. Averlar is an attorney for the Institute of Justice, a civil liberties law firm fighting for the right of braiders across the US. He says similarly restrictive laws exist in 22 other states and 11 other states operate laws that are still mountains to climb for people who want to braid hair for a living.
“Braiders are obvious victims of irrational laws,” he says.
“[The laws] prevent them from supporting themselves and their families through their own unique skills. When they learn about the situation, people, judges, lawmakers, and the general public understand their plight.”
The situation is so bad for black hairstyling that via the Institute for Justice, braiders took the issue to the courts and in many cases they’ve beaten the licensing regulations. Laws like this are restrictive for several reasons. Not only do they mean that people, mostly women, can’t make an honest living out of something they love to do that requires no chemicals or equipment but it also marginalises a thriving industry and community and those that want to celebrate the hair they were born with. The Institute for Justice is in the courts now fighting several other cases on behalf of women that want the regulation changed so they can practice a beauty regime that’s been around for over 5000 years and is in fact making a strong and healthy come back.
When a titan of child development such as Sesame Street cues the message, it’s a telling sign. It’s a show of the true significance of hair when it comes the psyche and cultural identity of African-Americans and whether through spending power or stylistic flare that individual women are making choices to change the guganoughts of industry and iconoclasts of fashion and style.
Hair isn’t just a fashion statement but a political, racial and economic one too. Hair and a woman’s rights to choose how to wear it should be her prerogative. If big business wants to continue making the kind of money that they are used to then there’s no better place than with black hair care. The natural hair movement is a cog in the overall aim of creating a African-American culture that is strong, healthy and vibrant, much like the hair itself.