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.
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