Reclaiming natural beauty

I couldn’t see the cold, unfamiliar hands disappear within my thick patch of curls claiming ownership over my head. But I felt them.  

To my classmates, my Mulatto, chocolate curly texture was an unknown phenomenon that sparked awe and wonder among them.

But for me, the constant state of being ridiculed over how different my hair was became a barrier that kept me from ever feeling beautiful.

Seemingly everywhere I looked — long, straight, luscious hair spilled down the backs of women. Meanwhile, my hair barely kissed my shoulders, and despite my efforts, it would not grow.

I would spend the next 10 years attempting to alter and hide the natural texture of my hair. And as each new weave and hairstyle gracefully obscured my natural roots, I felt beautiful. 

I was addicted to the feeling.

But, I wasn’t alone.

Since slavery, African Americans have altered and changed their hair in attempts to mimic whites.

Today, it can be seen as a personal struggle and a struggle shared by many within the African American community. Despite changing fads throughout the decades, the Natural Hair Movement, a movement that encourages individuals to wear their natural hair, is becoming popular once again. 

Through my reporting at the Daily Illini, I uncovered the riveting stories of other women and their unique hair journeys.

I, and many others, are reclaiming the beauty of natural hair. 

Concealing natural beauty

I was around 13 years old when I got my first weave.

Over three and a half hours, my hairdresser tightly braided down the thick sections of my hair and weaved down new strands. In the mirror, I watched her hands, disappearing and reappearing, weaving the fake tresses over my knotted-down locks. 

Little by little, she was making me beautiful. 

But the pain would come after. Often times, my scalp bled from the strain of the braids and the persistent needle slicing over my scalp. Sometimes, the needle was so close to my roots, it felt like she was sewing through my scalp. 

I’d often suffer from migraines due to the hair’s weight pulling on my scalp. But every time I would whimper or complain, my hairdresser assured me, “It hurts to be beautiful.” 

”There are still some girls who will not wear their hair natural because they’re not comfortable with it yet … because they’re wondering what men are going to say, what employers are going to say, what society is going to say,” said Janel Simpkins, senior in Business.

Around the 1990s, black women began wearing their hair in a variety of styles, including braids, weaves, locks, twists and more. But a common style, especially in the late ‘90s, was relaxers. Relaxers chemically straighten the hair and make curly and thick textures easier to manage. 

Ariana Taylor, senior in LAS, grew up embracing her permed hair and her best friend, Simpkins, has been by her side since kindergarten. Together, they conquered every obstacle and insecurity about their hair.

“I have some friends that have a weave nonstop — they take their weave out, they get another one installed,” Taylor said. “In that hour where their natural hair is out, they have hats on, ducking and hiding from people because they don’t want anyone to see their real hair. I don’t have a problem with weaves. I have a problem with the self-hate that a lot of black women still have about their hair.”

The Natural Hair Movement 

The Natural Hair Movement first rose to prominence in the 1960s, when the Black Power Movement was gaining momentum and blacks wore their natural hair with pride.

Over the next two decades, hair continued to impact society with controversial and political statements. 

However, in the 1990s, black women began to deviate from wearing their natural styles. The use of relaxers strayed from the progress women were making with the Natural Hair Movement, but, the movement regained eminence a few years ago, and today it prospers again, gaining influence as women share their hair journeys via YouTube and other online communities. 

As of 2013, Mintel reports that relaxer sales have dropped by 26 percent since 2008. Mintel also reported that because more women favor a natural look, they are spending money on hair products for hair growth and maintenance.

For today’s generations of black women, many of their hair journeys begin with a moment of consciousness — the chilling moment they realize they’re different.  

“I was probably six or seven, and my dance school was predominantly white, so they would ask us to do hairstyles — like high pony-tails and other things that my hair just wouldn’t do,” Taylor said. “And if it did, it would be in a puff. That’s when I realized my hair was different.”

To Taylor, the movement is about reclaiming something that was supposed to be hers. 

“A lot of other ethnicities and races from birth accept their hair. But we’ve already been conditioned to not accept it and to treat it in all of these different ways to make it look different,” Taylor said. “If from birth we would have just been taught to accept our hair the way it grew out of our head … Where would these negative stigmas about natural hair come from? We’re trying to relearn something that should have already been taught.”

Transitioning back

After her first perm, Simpkins noticed her hair became paper thin. In an attempt to regain her strength and texture, she started transitioning back to natural hair. But a few months later, her hair broke off.

Feeling fed up, she decided to do “The Big Chop.”

The Big Chop is one of several paths women can take to transition back to natural hair. It entails cutting off all permed, unnatural hair and regrowing the hair from the roots, said Kyla Chriss, sophomore in LAS. Chriss, who does hair on campus, grew up around hairdressers who gave her the confidence to accept her hair. 

“It was hard because my family didn’t really understand it. … My mom and my aunt had perms for over 40 years,” Simpkins said. “When I decided I wanted to cut my hair off, they were like, ‘No, you’re going to look like a little boy.’ I got backlash from family, from people I knew.”

Taylor began transitioning by late high school.

“I think it does take a lot of confidence to wear your hair the way it naturally grows out of your head,” she said. “That hasn’t been the ideal image of beauty for so long, so it’s hard to be confident and find beauty in something that everyone else is saying isn’t beautiful.”

But the journey does not come without repercussions.  

Simpkins remembers going to a party before The Big Chop, and was shocked to be ridiculed by other women for not having permed hair. Still, she found the courage to chop her permed locks off and soon after, women on campus began approaching her. 

“Girls on campus started asking me about the steps of transitioning and Big Chopping,” Simpkins said. “I even had a friend that called me while I was at work crying because she had started The Big Chop but couldn’t bring herself to finish it.”

Ayanna Williams, senior in LAS, also possessed the courage to do The Big Chop and is enjoying embracing her hair at every stage of its growth. 

“Natural hair alone is so versatile and you can do so many different things,” she said. “It is just a part of the learning process of finding your style and seeing what your hair can and cannot do.”

The road to acceptance isn’t just about hair. It is about accepting a new idea of beauty that may go against pre-conceived conventions.    

For me, it wasn’t just seeing women embracing their natural hair, it was seeing women whose hair deviated from mainstream standards stand up and be confident in themselves. It was hearing other people’s stories and the roads they took to acceptance that made me want to forge my own path.

“I don’t think anyone’s natural story or natural journey is ever going to be identical to anyone else’s,” Taylor said.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

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