A look at an age-old, intrinsically Black tradition
“Hair is a woman’s glory,” expounded American author and poet Maya Angelou in the documentary Good Hair, a 2009 exposé on the lengths black women go to in order to obtain long, lustrous hair. As far back as the 1950s, women of colour (and some men) have resorted to relaxers and other chemical processes to straighten the tightly-curled hair they’ve inherited, which can cause irreparable damage to their mane. Everyone from comedians to civil rights advocates have weighed in on the possible reasons behind such “drastic” measures and now, we shed light on the age-old ritual, and the ensuing “relaxed vs. natural hair” debate.
Way of the world
For black women, getting a relaxer can be likened to a rite of passage. Between learning how to ride a bike and getting her driver’s license, a young black girl’s hair will undoubtedly get the proverbial hair care treatment, paving the way for years (even a lifetime) of adherence to this aesthetic ritual. Whether at home or at the neighbourhood salon, numerous black girls all over North America get their hair doused in a white, strongly odorous cream in order to straighten their natural hair.
The first relaxer saw the light in 1913—invented by the late African-American clothing manufacturer Garrett Morgan—but the practice came into prominence in the 1950s. The relaxer was branded a miracle remedy to black women and men’s naturally frizzy, and believed-to-be unmanageable hair. But beyond controlling an alleged unruly mane, the relaxer was also perceived as a way to narrow the evident racial divide between blacks and whites, by enabling women to emulate the perceived prettier and bouncier manes of their white counterparts, all the while appeasing Caucasians who felt ill at ease with the militant look of the Afro, Black hair in its natural state. In the words of comedian Paul Mooney, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.”
While race relations have since improved, the practice and its racial implications have remained rooted in Black cultural traditions. But not all black women choose to prescribe to this indoctrinated aesthetic ritual.
Away we go
“I don’t remember at what age [I got my first relaxer], but my mother began relaxing my hair to make it easier for her to manage it,” recounts Nancy, a 32-year-old graphic designer who eschewed relaxer and went back to her natural hair texture in 2009. “I kept doing it, because everyone in the community was doing the same, and I didn’t know anything else.” But gradually, Nancy began noticing some worrisome changes to her mane.
“Over the years, my hair progressively got shorter. I thought maybe my own hair was getting over-processed,” explains Nancy.
In addition to the racial ideations wrapped up in this beauty ritual, health specialists have spoken out against the use of relaxer, mainly because of its damaging effects. The main ingredient in relaxer is sodium hydroxide (also known as lye), which is a potent chemical substance. Sodium hydroxide can burn through the skin. A splash in the eyes can potentially lead to blindness. Lastly, inhaling sodium hydroxide can permanently damage the lungs.
As a result, cosmetologists take extra care to protect themselves by wearing gloves, and greasing the ears and hairline of their clients before applying relaxer. What’s more, they must take care not to leave the chemical cream in for more than the recommended amount of time, and thoroughly rinse it out to prevent the formation of scabs and burns. Despite these efforts, specialists argue that sodium hydroxide breaks down hair’s protein and if it penetrates the scalp, this can lead to bald spots. Hence, a woman who repeatedly relaxes her hair risks losing it!
The latter reasons, coupled with the amount of time and money the process demanded led Nancy, who held the preconceived notion that natural hair is difficult to manage, to forgo the lifelong ritual. “I believe chemicals and their improper application led to the damage of my hair,” explains Nancy, who had also experienced thinning of her hair.
“I prefer natural hair because you don’t put any chemicals in your hair. There are times when it is a little time-consuming, but I would never go back.”
Natural conquers all?
Despite the known health risks, black women the world over continue to relax their hair. However, many, like Nancy, have decided to go natural. But is one better than the other?
While proponents of natural hair passionately argue against the use of damaging chemical creams (although no-lye relaxers, which contain calcium hydroxide, a milder form of the chemical cream, are becoming more and more prevalent on the market), some black women, like author Cathy Howse, believe that chemically treated hair can remain healthy and strong when properly cared for. In Ultra Black Hair Growth II, she argues that “chemically treated hair can be worn successfully without excessive hair loss if done properly at application and maintained afterwards.” If Howse’s long and lush relaxed mane is any indication, perhaps the solution lies not in what we use, but how we use it.
As for those pesky racial assumptions still attached to the act of relaxing one’s hair, while it may be true for some, it is far too simplistic to assume that it is true for all. Other reasons may motivate black women to relax their hair, just as not all women who go natural are motivated by the desire to take a stand against European ideals of beauty or the status quo. Each woman is unique and as such, her motivation to relax or sport her hair natural is her own.
Author’s note: While I can’t speak for all black women, behind my relaxed hair, you’ll find a woman who doesn’t wish to resemble anyone but herself, and having run the gamut from the hot comb to braids to curly perms, embraces the transformative nature of the hair she’s inherited.
To all women out there: Are you happy with the hair you’ve inherited? Do you believe your self-identity is wrapped up in your mane? Have you ever chemically treated your hair (perms, dyes, relaxers, etc…) and if so, why? Sound off in the comments section below.