Black women returning to their natural hair roots

March 3, 2011 at 11 p.m.
Updated March 2, 2011 at 9:03 p.m.

A special curl formulation product is applied to the hair of Keisha Smith at the Split Enz salon. Smith who prefers to maintain her natural Afro hair, goes in for regular hair maintenance every couple of weeks.

A special curl formulation product is applied to the hair of Keisha Smith at the Split Enz salon. Smith who prefers to maintain her natural Afro hair, goes in for regular hair maintenance every couple of weeks.

For Simone George, cutting off her chemically relaxed hair and wearing her natural hair was not an easy decision.

George, who is a process engineer at Seadrift Coke, worried that both her boss and her colleagues would perceive her naturally kinky Afro as being unprofessional, even though it was not an unnatural color or cut in a distracting style.

"I was very concerned that it would seem like I was challenging authority," said George, 27.

The possibility of displeasing her employers with her hair posed a larger problem for George than it would for most other people.

"Most people who get laid off can just get another job," said George, a native of Dominica who is in the United States on a work visa. "If I get laid off, then I go home."

Despite the potential outcome of her decision to return to her natural roots, George decided to make the transition in December.

"I gauged the Human Resources Department to get their reaction," George said about her first day at work after cutting off her chemically relaxed hair. "I don't think they cared."

George is one of a growing number of black women in Victoria and worldwide who are opting to forgo the $9 billion black hair care industry of chemically relaxed and weaved hairstyles and return to wearing their natural hair.

Afrobella, a popular natural hair website, defines natural hair as Afro-textured hair whose texture has not been altered by means of a chemical relaxer, perm or any other chemicals that would permanently alter the way the hair grows out of one's head.

Often described in Western societies by adjectives such as kinky, nappy or spiraled, Afro-textured hair is characterized by coiled, zigzagged hair strands, according to

It also appears and feels denser than its straight counterparts, earning it the descriptions of thick, bushy, coarse and even wooly.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, nappy, kinky, curly hair was deemed inferior, ugly and unkempt in comparison to the flowing, bouncy hair of people from other cultures, according to a recent article in Black Enterprise Magazine.

The caricatures of blacks who surfaced during that time in movies, children's books, on laundry detergent and food products were commonplace, and they taught blacks and whites alike to loathe the appearance of black hair and to associate it with dirtiness, unruliness and even character traits like laziness and dishonesty, according to the article.

In the 1970s, natural hair took a slightly positive turn when Afros became known as a political statement for activists who wanted to revel in black beauty.

As a child, George recalled the pressure to get her natural hair chemically relaxed rather than wear her hair natural.

"It was a transition to becoming a woman," said George, who got her first relaxer at the age of 14. "The older you got, it was expected that you would get one."

She added, "Finally, my hair was not a curse anymore."

The negative connotation surrounding natural hair continued into George's college years as she prepared to become an engineer.

"We were told that we were entering a very conservative field," she said. "If you wanted to get anywhere, then you had to fit the mold."

It was not until 2009 when George began noticing a growing number of women in the National Society of Black Engineers, of which she is an officer, wearing their hair natural that she finally took an interest in breaking free from relaxers, commonly known as creamy crack.

"These women were my complexion and had my type of hair," said George, who had grown tired of the cost and time associated with maintaining relaxed hair. "Nobody seemed to treat them differently. I saw you could still wear your natural and still be vice president, president, and entrepreneur or even have a Ph.D."

A look at Black Enterprise magazine's 75 Most Powerful Women in Business list yields several women in power with natural hair, including Ursula Burns CEO of Xerox; Julia Brown, senior vice president of Kraft Foods; and Susan E. Chapman, global head of operations and strategy for Citigroup Corporate Realty Services.

For University of Houston-Victoria senior Keisha Smith, going natural was more about attaining a healthier body and healthier hair.

Smith, 24, was unable to go swimming or participate in any activity that caused heavy sweating because moisture prompted her relaxed hair to revert back to a kinkier state.

When her hair did get wet, constant heat styling was necessary to re-straighten it.

"Ponytails and heat styling was a lot for my hair," said Smith, who went natural in 2009. "I got frustrated."

During her 27 years in the hair styling business, stylist Lisa Smith said she has seen firsthand the damaging effects of relaxers on Afro-textured hair.

"You didn't really see as much breakage with relaxers back then as you do now. I'm not sure whether it is the chemicals in it," she said. "Anytime you use chemicals, if you are not conditioning and moisturizing, then it is going to be damaged."

The stylist recommends people with relaxed hair visit a trained stylist bi-weekly if not weekly for regular maintenance.

But no matter how many salon visits someone with relaxed hair makes, Smith said medications, stress and underlying medical conditions can all impact the effect of relaxers on Afro-textured hair.

Chemical relaxers, which are commonly made with harsh chemicals such as Sodium Hydroxide or Guanidine Hydroxide, can result in hair breakage, hair thinning, and lack of hair growth, scalp irritation, scalp damage and even hair loss, according to

"Just as people are becoming more conscious of the foods that they are putting into their bodies and the different beauty products and things we are using on ourselves and in our hair, I think the more people that know what goes into these products may inspire more people to start moving away from relaxed hair," said Keisha Smith. "It may continue the natural hair movement."

For the time being, George said she is happy with her hair and has no plans to return to a chemical relaxer.

She is even hoping to expand her engineering expertise.

"My plans are to get (my Afro) as big as possible," said George. "I've learned that you have to embrace yourself and love yourself."



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