On "The End" Of Black Beauty Culture

Black beauty culture isn’t disappearing; it’s being revamped.

Jun 15, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

It’s a rite of passage romanticized in almost every books, movies and television shows with black women as characters -- that weekly visit to the beauty shop. The blow-dryers, the shampoo girls, the pressing irons and flamboyant stylists. Gossiping with other women in "the shop" while waiting two, three, maybe four or five hours before your hair is done. Blocking out an entire Saturday just to make sure you can get your wig straight. It's all there, but will it be forever.

Maybe not, says college professor Cassandra Jackson, who recently lamented what she called the “end of black beauty culture” -- that is, the social hour that is the visit to the hair salon.

Why is this rite of passage falling by the wayside, you as? Because of the natural hair movement; the growing trend of Black women deciding to no longer chemically straighten their hair and instead opting to wear their curly, kinky or coily texture in its natural state.

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My hair now. Haven't been to a salon in almost year, so I get most of my help from Oyin Handmade, and my diffuser. (Also: This photo reached an unprecedented number of likes within a half-hour. My boyfriend thinks I'm a Facebook celebrity.

Professor Jackon writes in the Huffington Post:

While many, including me, celebrate the natural hair movement's emphasis on self-discovery, I cannot help but wonder if something has also been lost with this cultural shift. For all the horrible things about hair straightening, the experiences associated with it have created a powerful thread that connects the vast majority of black women. Even if you have kinky hair now, you probably have memories of time spent with family and friends in kitchens getting your hair done by someone who loved you and who you trusted enough to wield a sizzling hot straightening comb next to your ear. You probably remember that first trip to the beauty shop where black women talked about grown folks' business, and nearly every sentence began with the endearment, ‘girl.’’

Except -- I don’t. 

I’m a black girl. I used to wear relaxers in my hair. But my life never included that five-hour visit to a crowded shop where everyone dipped a toe in everyone else’s business, like in the movies “Beauty Shop” or “Deliver Us From Eva.”

While I was growing up, my mom and I visited the one white guy who knew how to do black hair in Pittsburgh -- Weavin’ Steven from Latrobe, Pennsylvania. You may have seen him on "America’s Next Top Model" or "Split Ends" a few years back. But before he ran of to be a reality TV star, Steve Noss would gently relax and flat iron my shoulder-length hair every few months, while daring my mom to put a trendy new style in her silky, jet-black tresses.

Steve and my mom would laugh, joke and yes, gossip, but it was much more personal, much more intimate than the canonized image of a gaggle of women under hair dryers. And if Steve wasn’t available? My mom and I would just wait until he came back in town to refresh my relaxer. “No one else is touching your hair,” she'd say. 

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I took that mantra with me when I left Pittsburgh for college in Washington, D.C., not trusting strangers to know what to do with my hair. That’s when I ended up “going natural.” As my last relaxer from Steve grew out, I noticed a wavy, curly texture at my roots. It was different, and it was cool. Eventually, I grew all my relaxed hair out, leaving behind a mop of freewheeling curls.

That was when I started bonding with other women over hair. 

My friend Tara helped me look for products that would keep my curls defined. I’d end up in discussions with random women who’d ask, “How’d you get your hair that way?”

One time, when I was having a particularly un-hot hair moment, an Ethiopian woman stopped me on campus to offer tips on moisturizing my hair. (I’d have been offended if my hair hadn't looked a hot, ashy mess that day.) As I got more comfortable and confident in my own hair, I became the one doling out advice to others, to women in my social circles and at my job.

I can count on one hand the number of times I visited a salon after going natural. The first few times, I ended up in the places that Cassandra Jackson recalls so fondly, with women gossiping and stylists taking their time. I didn’t feel comfortable there. I didn’t know anyone well enough to join in on the gossip, and I certainly didn’t like waiting around for someone to blow dry my hair. I had more fun experimenting with products and styles at home.

But as for finding that tribe as a woman with natural hair? At this point, it feels like I’d only be mentioning the obvious. We’re everywhere. With blogs, vlogs, magazine features and product lines. You know we’ve made it when there’s a video about us on the New York Times website. Shoot, even I had a (mildly-popular) natural hair YouTube channel at one point. I stopped making videos sometime in 2010, but just a few months ago, my friend in graduate school realized why I had looked familiar on the first day of class.

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Screenshots from my YouTube days. My friends don't love me. They let me go on the interwebs in rollers. 

“Waiiiit a minute,” she said. “You had hair videos, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I answered, sheepishly, as I am now mildly embarrassed that I broadcast myself in rollers on the interwebs.

“Yeah!” she said. “I used to watch them all the time! They helped when I was going natural.”

All this to say that the "movement" is far from the end of “black beauty culture.” From Afrobella to Oyin Handmade, black women are simultaneously embracing their own beauty and bringing their friends along for the ride. I love that when I buy products, I’m supporting another woman who believes in our unique “brand of beauty.”

I love the moment when I pass another natural on the street, and we start gushing about each others’ hair. I especially love the men who respond to it all so enthusiastically, and the moments when I catch my boyfriend playing in my curls.

Black beauty culture isn’t disappearing; it’s being revamped. I like to think of it as a renaissance. Without the relaxers.