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Many African-American women are forgoing the hair relaxer and returning to their hair’s natural texture. Why?

To understand this, one must first understand what a hair relaxer is and what it does. It is a chemical that is applied to the hair, left on a set amount of time, then rinsed out, all in order to straighten naturally kinky hair. The straightening components are either sodium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide (thus the “lye” versus “no-lye” distinction). This is a permanent process that must be reapplied to the hair’s new growth as it comes in to keep a straight, uniform look.

Although proclaimed as a safe procedure, there are risks involved, especially if the relaxer is left on the hair too long or comes in contact with the skin. Women have been left with scarring from chemical burns when the relaxer was improperly used. There have been cases where the hair follicles were damaged beyond repair; consequently, these areas no longer will grow hair.

But it’s not only damage that is making many black women forego straightening their hair. The reasons are as varied as the women themselves.

Since many women have had their hair straightened from a young age, they may have no recollection what their natural hair looks like. They might be curious to rediscover their roots. Some women grow tired of the constant maintenance required of relaxed hair. On average, the process needs to be applied to the new growth every four to eight weeks. Factor in the time it takes to set relaxed hair on rollers or to blow dry and style and it can be quite time-consuming to keep up.

Still other women are embracing their natural heritage and a natural lifestyle. One of the surest ways to differentiate themselves from others is by wearing their natural hair proudly. Only tightly curled or kinky hair can stand up and out in an Afro.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many blacks wore their natural hair in Afros, in part as a spurning of the subjugated way of life they and their ancestors were forced to live. It was a time of racial pride and upheaval. Once the Civil Rights Movement came to an end, many black people who wanted to join corporate America found they had to “assimilate.” To blend in with the powers that be, it was necessary to conform. For women, this most often meant straightening the hair. For men, it was a low haircut.

In the early to mid-1990’s, as black music evolved to include a Neo-soul sound, reminiscent of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, black style changed as well. Hair began to take a turn back. Braids and dreadlocks (or “locs” as most loc wearers prefer them to be called) became popular. Natural black hair began to be celebrated again.

At the start of a new millennium, more and more women are returning to their natural texture. Unlike the earlier wave of naturals, there are many more options for styling, instead of just the basic Afro. There are books and websites dedicated to the care of black hair, which are needed since so many women didn’t grow up caring for their hair in its natural state and don’t have a clue how to care for it.

Perhaps this renaissance will continue and natural hair will become the accepted norm. One day, maybe naturally textured black women will be the majority and few will remember a time when harsh chemicals were freely applied to kinky hair to change it into something it wasn’t meant to be.

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