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Viola Davis’ courageous act of pulling off her “How to Get Away With Murder” character’s much-criticized wig and dabbing off her makeup cum façade was more than a dramatic Shonda Rhimesian plot point: The act illustrates an act of courage many African-American women express regularly, bucking aesthetic traditions by wearing their natural hair -- outside, all day, every day.
The presence of wig shops and a hunger for hair weaves in largely black cities across the United States might suggest black women are obsessed about long flowing locks because of a European standard of beauty they’ve come to accept, like the character Annalise Keating, until that fateful moment in front of her mirror last week when she decided it was time to get real with her husband.
Or consider CCH Pounder’s turn in last-season’s “Sons of Anarchy” on FX as a district attorney who pulled off her wig, revealing natural twists and a renewed resolve to get the bad guys.
In fact, growing numbers of black women are in search of a beauty aesthetic that offers authenticity, ease of movement and styling options that support their lifestyles rather than the pursuit of a hairstyle substituting as a lifestyle in itself.
This is a freedom women of other races with straight hair or big loopy curls experience as a default, as a standard black women are rarely ever allowed to be.
But as with all things identity related today, it gets better:
“Natural may be the new normal in black haircare,” according to Mintel, the market research firm’s recent sector report. “… as relaxers account for just 21 percent of black haircare sales and the sector has declined 26 percent since 2008 and 15 percent since 2011 when sales reached $179 million -- the only category not to see growth.”
Natural is certainly normal for Jakina Dortch, 24, who is bald.
The Chicago youth facilitator lost her hair between ages 9 to 11 because she has alopecia areata universalis. She took to wearing wigs, even learning how to make her own, until she had a eureka moment while a student at the elite University of Chicago. She couldn’t figure out which wig to wear, out of about 150 she owned, to go to class.
“I felt like I was allowing wigs and weaves to define my beauty,” Dortch says. “I didn’t want to be captivated by that anymore. So I was like, ‘I’m done.’ ”
Dortch describes her childhood, growing up on Chicago’s West Side, where hair was considered a “naccessory” instead of an “accessory,” taking on social significance that could overshadow everything else:
“I was a girl, and I wanted to be a girl, and I wanted to express my girlyness,” says Dortch, describing taunting so unbearably consistent, she recalls a girl who stopped in her tracks one day to make up a song about her wig. “The harassment, the things people said to me, I wouldn’t have wished that on my worst enemy.”
Today, Dortch has fashioned an anti-bullying campaign, The Baldness In You, which empowers young people to consider how identity plays a role in bullying, encouraging them to avoid allowing misguided cultural expectations damage their sense of self.
Eschewing relaxers and the cycle of touch-ups and styling utensils required to upkeep chemically straightened styles is freeing other ways, according to women who say they don’t miss languishing in beauty shops, waiting for service or being able to exercise and swim without worrying about their hair “going back,” the phrase for having to go back to square one with blow drying and curling for a fresh style.
In fact, Mintel says 48 percent of women believe “natural or curly hairstyles exude confidence, and the same percentage consider them daring.“
Octavia Daniels, 32, a Chicago compliance officer, certainly feels more edgy wearing a neatly styled afro, this day, pulled back on one side for a sexier look. Her shiny hair is healthier than ever and longer, no longer suffering the breakdown that comes with relaxers, she says.
“I worked in corporate American for 10 years, and I was very concerned it would not be accepted,” says Daniels, who “transitioned” one year by wearing sew-in weaves that allowed her to grow out her straight relaxed hair so new growth, her naturally curly locks, could grow in fresh. After that, she underwent The Big Chop, where she cut off what had become the relaxed tips, unleashing curly virgin hair.
How did her natural look go over at work?
Well, she did get a double take when she first started because she interviewed with a sew-in but showed up on Day One with a ’fro. Daniels does blowdry her hair into a straight style for certain client meetings so she doesn’t have to “think about it.”
“You have to be bold," Daniels says. “You have to be willing to stand up for yourself and really own that you’re natural.”