Even though you will never see my natural hair, I am natural. I ditched relaxers when I was in college, and now exclusively sport-protective styles like wigs and sew-ins. These offer me a look that I can’t get with my natural hair alone. A look that, ironically, feels the most “natural” to me. And while I don’t spend my nights searching for the best product cocktail to achieve the elusive wash-and-go, I’m still a part of the natural hair community. Yet it doesn’t always feel that way.
Going natural feels like you’ve seemingly leveled up your blackness by falling in love with your natural hair, taking ownership of what you like, and breaking out of the Eurocentric beauty mold. This ideal is rooted in the natural hair movement of the 60s and 70s, which was intertwined with the Black Power movement.
“While it was seen as this kind of artistic shift in one’s presentation, it was also very much about urging or questioning or even demanding a shift in how we acted ideologically,” explains Kimberly Moffitt, PhD, author of Blackberries and Redbones: Critical Articulations of Black Hair and Body Politics in Africana Communities† “Going natural is one of those acts of resistance or empowerment, because you have to make a statement to do it, and you’re comfortable with that.”
Fast forward a few decades, and the current natural hair movement is still rooted in those ideological shifts, as well as individual expression. And however you slice it, the choice is still political, she says, because it goes against what society expects of you. Only recently, in April 2019, did California become the first state to ban racial discrimination against people with natural hairstyles. New York followed in July.
“We let women embrace their hair and who they are,” says Dr. Moffitt, “But now we look at the ones that aren’t. [wearing their natural texture] and say, ‘What are you hiding? Or “What are you still afraid of?” Or “What still makes you uncomfortable that you don’t want to do this either?” And I think the beauty of what we should be encouraging is the fact that we have the agency and the freedom to do what we want to do.”
I once tried to wear my hair natural, without a wig. I got long box braids before flying to London to spend a semester abroad, and six weeks later, when I was ready to have them redone, I struggled to find a braider. Tired of searching, I untied my braids and decided to figure it out myself. Straight, my hair reaches down to my collarbones, but if left natural, the curls shrink up, giving me a little frown. For a more defined curl, I bought perm bars along with my first curl cream determined to make the look work. Styling my hair took forever, and while the result was cute enough, I never felt like myself. I wore the haircut for a few days, and still not quite pleased, I blew out my hair and wore it straight.
So am I missing some kind of black gene? Because embracing your natural hair seems like a rite of passage that I will never complete.
Like me, Savitri Dixon-Saxon, PhD, LPC, NCC, is natural but wears wigs and sew-ins. She experimented with her first sewing when she was 21 years old, and in the 30 years since then, she has never looked back. However, she tells me that as a black woman in academia, she feels that her hair choices are viewed as anti-black by her black peers. She said something I couldn’t put into words: “I’m an African-American person and I’ve been influenced by American society. So there can definitely be that part of me that likes to wear a wig or a weave and have long, luxurious hair,” she says. “But the reality is I’m not denying anything.”
As the movement of natural hair continues to rise, I believe the way we define “natural” will change. Relaxer sales dropped nearly 20 percentage points between 2016 and 2019, while wig sales rose 79 percentage points. Black women have so many more options for how to wear their hair, and that should be embraced. I know what makes me feel beautiful, so why spend time working on a look I don’t care about? Does this mean I’ve fallen prey to Eurocentric beauty standards? In the eyes of some, the answer would be yes. But dr. Dixon-Saxon shares a quote from Audrey Lorde: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I’d be crushed into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” How I wear my hair is my only decision, and doing what makes me feel beautiful and happy should be my only concern.
I take two hours every other week to do my own gel manicure. I will make time every day to be active. I’m going to cook for myself. But spending hours on my hair doesn’t fit my version of self-care. And that doesn’t make me any less natural. Slightly less black. Me less.
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