How professional women put glam in the hair care movement
By Ariel Worthy
Times Staff Writer
For decades, black women have been told that their natural hair— unaltered by chemical straighteners, such as relaxers and texturizers—is unattractive. And, for years, some believed it … until recently.
In the mid-2000s, the natural hair movement took root in the black community and reminded men and women of color that their hair in its natural state is beautiful and healthy.
Natural hair artist Shawn, owner of Natural Elements, a Homewood salon specializing in natural hair care and styling, said she has seen many women go natural for health reasons.
“A lot of people don’t like to tell you ‘I’m going natural because of chemotherapy’ or because of medications they take,” said Shawn. “A lot of the baby boomer generation is going natural because they don’t have a choice. That’s one of the reasons I got into natural hair.”
Everyone’s natural hair journey is different. Shawn’s began with a haircut 16 years ago.
“I sat in the mirror one day and started cutting,” she said. “I had a beautiful texture of curly hair. That was the first time I got introduced to my hair. That was the first time I met me.”
Natural hair is not a new phenomenon in the black community. The movement, in fact, has roots dating back to the early 20th century.
Today, natural hair is also showcased in influential media outlets— including magazines like Essence and Black Enterprise, and online blogs like Madame Noire and NaturallyCurly.com — as well as at hair shows and expos nationwide. For the past five years, Birmingham has hosted the Natural Hair and Health Expo, which attracts thousands of women to the Magic City.
The Choice is Yours
Thanks to the natural hair movement, women have myriad resources available if they choose to sport their kinks and curls. Whatever the reason for the decision, though, it’s important for women to know it’s OK to go the natural-hair route.
“Some women may have decided to wear their hair natural for a trend or a fad, and that’s OK,” said Javacia Harris Bowser, 35, who has worn her hair natural since 2002. “I think we need to let that be OK.”
Bowser, who is founder of See Jane Write, a popular local blog, chose to go natural out of frustration.
“Growing up, I lived in a household where straight hair was considered pretty hair,” she explained.
Even with a relaxer, however, Bowser still had to straighten her hair — and the process would take hours.
“When I was 21, I was an intern, and it would take me forever to get ready for work,” said Bowser, who is also an English teacher and freelance writer. “One day, when I was going through my three-hour straightening process, my roommate looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you wear your hair curly?’ No one in my 21 years of living had ever suggested to me that it would be OK for me to just let my hair be the way it naturally is.”
WVTM-13 news anchor Eunice Elliott chose to go natural for health and professional reasons.
“I had a perm for 30 years, until about two years ago, after I had gotten a job on TV,” said Elliott. “I was putting heat on my hair every day, so my hair wasn’t healthy. I decided to give my hair a year off, and I wore a wig on TV.”
Elliott said her intentions were never to go natural. She just wanted to give her hair a break. Throughout the process, though, she enjoyed learning about her hair.
“While learning about it, I got to a point to where I knew I would never relax my hair again.”
Women who have observed how the natural hair movement has taken off have credited it to many things. Some say social media played a role.
“I think with social media, you’re able to see more,” Elliott said. “I think it’s also taken off because as you get older you want to spend time doing other things besides sitting in a hair salon. Trying to have your hair look a certain way requires a financial commitment and a time commitment. When you’re natural, you have more versatility with your hair, and you actually get more creative.”
Bowser feels the natural hair movement started with frustration, and social media is only part of it.
“Women, overall, are tired of people telling us what we should like. I think that is especially true for women of color,” Bowser said. “We’ve been told the way we look naturally — our hair, our noses, the size of our lips — is wrong. I think we’re just sick of it.”
With social media, Bowser thinks it is helping because of the blogs, images and YouTube for hair tutorials.
“We can scroll through our Instagram now and see all of these beautiful brown women, of all different shapes and sizes and all different kinds of hairstyles,” Bowser said. “And you see it and say, ‘wait, this is beautiful, so why don’t I think this is beautiful when I look in the mirror? And eventually you do; you recognize the beauty you see on your phone and you recognize it in the mirror, too.”
Natural hair is just one element of women accepting themselves for who they are, according to Bowser.
“Women are not only accepting themselves but also celebrating themselves,” Bowser said. “We’re saying, ‘I don’t care what you think. I am beautiful whether you think so or not.’ ”
Evolve or Get Left Behind
Hair artist Shawn feels the natural hair revolution has forced a lot of stylists to learn new hair techniques.
“It’s time to either step into the 21st century or get left behind,” Shawn said.
A few misconceptions have come with the natural hair revolution, Shawn said. One being that it is easy to take care of and requires little maintenance.
“You still need to take care of your hair,” she explained. “You can’t just wake up and think it’s OK and it’s cute because its natural. A lot of maintenance is required with natural hair.”
Another misconception: People think everything they see on YouTube will work for them, as well.
“I think YouTube is dangerous. We have to correct a lot of hair because of YouTube,” Shawn said. “It’s deceiving. It’s just like finding a doctor. Would you find a doctor on YouTube and try to operate on yourself? YouTube is kind of like Craigslist for natural hair: buyer beware.”
When it comes to natural hair in the workplace, the debates and discussions are ongoing. One common question: Is natural hair acceptable in a professional setting, or is it is a distraction?
“You have to know where you work,” Shawn said. “The first thing I ask a client is what kind of work they do. I need to know whether you’re a nurse or lawyer. There are different looks for different professionals.”
Elliott feels natural hair isn’t unique when it comes to professional presentation.
“People who don’t have natural hair can be considered unprofessional because their hair is purple or reaches the ceiling,” she said. “I think you always want to look well-groomed. If you have an afro, make sure that afro is well-groomed. Professionalism comes from a grooming, not a style.”
In Elliott’s profession, everyone’s appearance is scrutinized —blacks and whites. “When I went natural, I didn’t have a discussion with my managers or bosses before I took my wig off,” she said. “And they didn’t have a discussion with me afterward. They have never had a conversation with me about my hair.”
Bowser said her hair has helped in professional situations, especially when networking with other black women.
“I am aware that I have ‘safe’ natural hair,” Bowser said. By “safe,” she means her hair texture is similar to that of whites with curly hair, so people are more accepting.
“With other black women, my hair becomes an icebreaker,” Bowser said. “If I walk into a room full of black women who are natural or thinking about going natural, there is going to be a conversation because they want to know about my hair.”
Shawn feels it is important for women to know that they have options with their natural hair, especially when it comes to their careers.
“You can wear a wonderful blow out,” she said. “You can do a flexi-rod set, and it be just as beautiful and bouncy. Some people are natural, and most people have no idea.”
When not in a professional setting, Bowser said she gets more questions from black people than white people — and not all of them are good questions.
“I get ‘What are you?’ a lot because I’m dark-skinned with hair like this,” she said. “I also get ‘What island are you from?’ I usually respond, ‘I’m from the isle of Ensley.’ ”
Bowser said a lot of people also question whether her hair is actually hers.
“My hair is what people foolishly call ‘good hair.’ I don’t like that term,” Bowser said. “Because my hair is long and in ringlets and because I’m black, people assume it’s not my hair.”
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?
More and more people in the black community are choosing to wear their hair naturally. But some wonder whether this is simply a fad or if the trend is it here to stay.
“People have been asking that question for more than a decade, and the fact that they have been asking for more than a decade is proof that it’s here to stay,” Bowser said.
“For so many women, it’s more than fashion. That’s why it’s here to stay.”
Elliott believes that as time goes on, people will continue to experience and embrace different types of beauty, and natural hair will take different forms.
“Right now, it’s considered a fad because of social media and the marketing being driven toward natural-haired women,” Elliott said. “If you watch commercials with black women, their hair is natural. I don’t think it’s a fad, but I think that over time people will become more accustomed to it.”
Shawn feels natural hair will be here for a long time, particularly now that the fashion industry has caught on. The fact that so many natural hair products exist is proof that natural hair isn’t going anywhere.
“They have made our jobs easy,” Shawn said. “Anything I can dream up, they already have product for it.
“It’s wonderful to give a woman with a beautiful head of hair, who thinks she doesn’t have a lot of options, a beautiful style,” Shawn said. “When she goes out into the world and they tell her how beautiful her hair is naturally, that’s a healing process.”