Five years ago, Kansas City, Mo., jazz singer Bukeka Shoals woke up one morning and decided she was through with chemical relaxers.
“I was tired of wearing my hair a certain way to feel acceptable,” says Shoals, who now wears her hair in a fluffed-out curly ’do with slanted bangs framing her face.
For Shoals, embracing her African-American hair the way God made it was part of a midlife transformation to express her true self in every way, to get back to a cultural identity she had chosen as a young girl but then drifted away from.
Shoals grew up in California in the 1960s and ’70s, when black leaders, entertainers and athletes wore Afros as a political statement. While most of the nation was mesmerized by televised images of civil rights activist Angela Davis and her amazing Afro, Shoals and her family saw her in person at rallies.
“My whole family wore Afros then. And my sister and I had wigs that looked like Angela’s hair because ours wasn’t long enough,” she says.
In her late teens, Shoals started relaxing her hair and wore it that way for more than 20 years. When she decided to quit, she discovered natural hair has practical benefits. It requires less time at the hair salon, costs less money and makes it easier to maintain an active lifestyle, because relaxed hair can lose its shape if exposed to water or sweat.
For Shoals, who works out four to five times a week and likes to swim, natural hair is “freeing.”
Stylists say there has been a sea change in the last decade, with percentages flipping from 80 percent of their black female clients using relaxers 10 years ago to only 20 percent using them today.
As with most trends, the movement toward natural black hair started on the coasts, with celebrities such as Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding and Rihanna frequently seen rocking natural locks. In September, Oprah went au naturel, sporting a full mane of real curls in her cover shot for O magazine for the first time.
Celebrities have always driven trends in hairstyles. Just as Angela Davis and the Jackson Five ushered in Afros during the black-is-beautiful movement in the ’60s and ’70s, Michael Jackson and Prince ignited a relaxer revolution with their Jheri curls in the early ’80s.
Kevin Young, a senior on the University of Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, lets his hair grow during basketball season as a way to stand out. “I like wearing an Afro. Not a lot of people have one. A lot of people say I’m like Samson because I can’t cut my hair,” Young says, laughing.
Students sometimes come up to Young on campus or at the grocery store to compliment his hair. And he does the same thing. “I don’t see many Afros around here, but when I do I make sure I stop and say hello.”
LaRon Green, owner of Shampoo by Salon LaRon in Kansas City, Mo., emphasizes that natural black hair doesn’t have a single expression.
“Natural black hair can be styled to be super curly or stick straight or anything in between,” Green says.
In fact, natural hair gives women more styling options than chemically relaxed hair. That’s because sodium hydroxide, or lye, the active ingredient in relaxers, makes hair more susceptible to breakage, so stylists don’t want to add highlights or use heated styling tools.
Natural hair, however, can be colored, flat-ironed or blow-dried. Green uses chemical relaxers on clients who want them, but he tries to talk them into going natural. Relaxers, especially if applied improperly, can burn the scalp and permanently damage hair follicles, leading to thinning hair and bald spots.
The latest generation of heated styling tools and natural creams and oils has helped swing the tide by expanding the styling options.
Today, natural hair can be styled to look even sleeker than relaxed hair. “By using a pressing comb around the hair line and then flat-ironing the hair, you can add more body and bounce to the hair,” Green says.
Queen Latifah’s silky straight look comes from pressing combs and flat irons, Green says. You can tell because photos of her in a pool show her hair reverting to natural, tight curls.
Another option is the Brazilian blowout, says Trae Smith, a stylist at Paul Smith Salon in Kansas City. The technique, popular with Caucasians, seals keratin and collagen into the hair using high heat. Keratin is a protein that hair needs, and collagen provides elasticity. It “tricks” the hair cuticle into lying down flatter, which reduces frizz for several weeks.
Stylist LaToya Rivers, owner of Espresso Culture, used to relax her hair, having gotten her first perm at age 6. But a visit to a hairstyling seminar in Atlanta in 2007 changed her life.
“I saw these women getting their hair straightened with just heat, using a blow dryer and a brush. It was flowing like relaxed hair but without the chemicals. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’ ” she says.
Because she knew her clients who used relaxers would be hesitant about giving them up, she decided to make herself an example and shaved her head.
“I didn’t just want to show them what natural hair looked like. I also wanted to prove that my hair was just an accessory to express myself. You shouldn’t define yourself by your hair,” Rivers says.
Today, Rivers wears a style of tiny individual locks of hair that move and bounce and are soft to the touch. Other popular natural looks include popcorn twists, two-strand twists, coils, poufs and braids without extensions.
Devynn Moore of Independence, Mo., is in the transition phase, wanting to move from relaxed hair to natural. Moore is planning to wear a weave until her own hair is long enough to style.
She says she doesn’t know what kind of a style she will ultimately choose. “All I know is I’m going to let my hair come out the way God intended it to come out and take care of it. I’m going to have an amazing head of hair.”