On Jan. 13, Tamera Mowry-Housely, co-host of The Real (and formerly one half of ABC’s Sister, Sister and E!’s Tia & Tamera), took to social media to rave about her new haircut. Posting an Instagram photo with an accompanying tweet reading, “Love my big chop…love my curl doctor @shaiamiel You did it again.” Mowry was quickly hailed a role model for young women of color. She even received a congratulatory tweet from Dark and Lovely, a giant in the multibillion-dollar African-American hair industry.
Why so much hype about a haircut? Because by “big chopping,” Mowry became the latest high-profile woman to join the natural hair movement — a movement thousands of African-American women say is about much more than hair. It’s about identity, both cultural and divine.
In order to understand the natural hair movement, it is necessary to first understand the history of black hair in the United States, which begins with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Through the process of being bought and sold, Africans quickly learned that straighter, silkier hair was preferable to the coarse, coily hair most of them had. Slaves with lighter skin and straighter hair were worth more at auctions and, as Anaya D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps recount in their book, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, coily hair was often viewed as sub-human. They write, “In this new land dominated by pale skin and straight hair, African hair was deemed wholly unattractive and inferior by the Europeans. Many White [sic] people went so far as to insist that Blacks [sic] did not have real hair, preferring to classify it in a derogatory manner as ‘wool.'”
Anita M. Cobb, pastor of God’s Grace Christian Church in Indianapolis, said this significantly affected how the first African-Americans came to view God. “When somebody can talk to you in such a hurtful manner,” she said, “it almost separates you from God. Not that anything can separate you from the love of God, but sometimes you just can’t feel that connection anymore. When you are talked down to so much, you don’t understand how God could possibly love you. Why did God create you if people were going to treat you like this?” Ultimately, she added, this feeling of unworthiness manifested itself in the cosmetic practices early African-Americans adopted in an effort to be more accepted.
By the 1880s, many African-Americans were using hot combs to temporarily straighten their hair, and by the early 1900s, Cleveland inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan was marketing what is largely believed to be the first chemical hair straightener. Today, chemical straighteners are known as relaxers, and made of either sodium or calcium hydroxide. These creamy formulas break down the chemical bonds that cause hair to curl, then cap them so they cannot reform. For generations, relaxers have been a mainstay of the African-American beauty culture.
While there’s no official record of how many women use relaxers, The New York Times reported that in 2008, sales for at-home relaxers totaled $45.6 million — not including sales at Walmart. Many more dollars are spent at salons where women return every few months to get a “touch-up” in order keep their curly roots at bay.
But recently, a growing number of women have decided to “go natural,” forgoing relaxers or heat styling tools to embrace their naturally curly textures. Because a relaxer cannot be undone, to regain her curls, a woman must grow out her hair anew. Some, like Mowry, decide to “big chop” and cut off all their straightened hair. Others “transition,” keeping their straight ends while allowing their curly roots to grow out for a period of time.
Anyone recalling the afros of the ’70s knows natural hair is nothing new; but its recent pervasiveness proves what’s happening today is indeed a new cultural phenomenon. In September, the market research group Mintel reported that in the last five years, relaxer sales have declined by 26 percent. Celebrities like Viola Davis, Janelle Monae and Esperanza Spalding have brought natural hair to the red carpet. Adolescent girls are willing to risk expulsion rather than to straighten their hair, and thanks to the power of social media, there are now natural hair Internet stars with hundreds of thousands of followers on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. There’s even a natural hair anthem with an accompanying music video featuring some of these newly minted celebrities.
The reasons women go natural are various: some do it for health reasons; some do it because they want to reclaim as beautiful what African-American women have been taught is ugly; and some simply like the way natural hair looks. But whatever the reason, many women will also tell you that going natural was a deeply spiritual experience.
Paulletha Bruce, pastor of Freedom Baptist Church of Greenville in Greenville, S.C., big chopped five years ago when her hair became resistant to relaxers. Although her decision was based solely on personal preference, she said it makes sense that when a woman learns to embrace her natural hair texture, she also learns to embrace herself as a creation in the image of God. “The more you meet God, the more you meet yourself,” she said by phone, “And I think that the deeper your relationship with God, the more you begin to discover the love for yourself that’s always been there but has been tainted by the cares of this world.”
Anita Cobb, who likes to say she “returned” natural in 2008, agrees. But she balks against the divisiveness the natural hair movement sometimes causes, saying it’s important for women to keep in mind that it is their identity in Christ that makes them accepted by God, not whether they are Team Natural or Team Relaxed. “When we begin to love ourselves, however we are — whether it’s with our relaxers or with our natural hair, with our weaved hair or braided hair — when we love ourselves, then that love begins to overflow,” she said. “And then that goes back to the second greatest Commandment, which is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. And we have to get to a place where we love our neighbor, our sister girl, however she is.”