Press | Detroit Free Press

Written by Cassandra Spratling
Detroit Free Press Staff

June 10, 2012

Pregnancy motivated Gwen Jimmere to stop using chemicals to straighten her thick, curly hair.

"I was pregnant and I knew anything I put on my body goes to the baby," says Jimmere, 29, of Canton.

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She had tried wearing her hair without a chemical straightener a decade earlier. But the fervor for the afros of the '60s and '70s was long over, and there was little information or encouragement on how to pull off a natural style.

Most black women, like Jimmere, were perming, hot-pressing or flat-ironing their kinky, curly hair. Straight hair -- better still, long straight hair -- was the way to fit in, the way to be pretty and conform to the standard of American beauty.

Fast-forward to 2011 when Jimmere chose to set her own standard by rocking her hair in all its natural glory. This go-round, she found an abundance of support -- meet-ups of women wearing natural hairstyles, books on natural hair care, celebrities talking about their stylish, natural dos.

But perhaps the biggest signifier of the current natural hair movement is found online. A community of women created a virtual pulpit for natural hair that includes social forums, video instructions, tutorials, product websites and personal testimonies.

It's not that black women aren't straightening their hair -- most still do. But a growing number of women of all ages are finding beauty, acceptance, liberation and business opportunities in wearing natural hairstyles like braids, locks, twists, knots, afros and various creations in-between.

"Women are sharing information on Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, everywhere. It's endless," says Espy Thomas, 31, of Detroit, who with her sister Jennifer, 29, hosts periodic natural hair meet-ups that attract hundreds of women.

"More and more black women are opting to wear their natural hair and discontinue use of relaxers," says a 2011 Mintel report showing that from 2006 to 2011, the sales of relaxer kits dropped 17% to $38 million. The trend is "expected to continue," the report states.

Mintel is a global market research company. A consumer study it conducted showed that the percentage of black women who said they wore their hair natural jumped from 26% in 2010 to 36% in 2011.

"The shift from relaxed to natural is becoming so common that it has spurred growth of a whole new subsegment of products for women who are 'transitioning,' with products that minimize breakage as hair transitions from chemically straightened to curly or kinky," the report states.

It's also a booming business, says Sue Silva, marketing director for the Sofn'free, a hair care line. "Everybody in the business is starting to manufacturer a curly line," she says. And not just for African-American women.

"Our target is 70% African American and 30% other. A lot of other women -- Jewish, Latina and redheads who tend to have coarse, wiry, coiled textured hair -- are interested in these products. Caucasian women have curly hair, too."

She noted that Target, one of the nation's largest retailers, now has a section devoted to natural hair products in most of its stores. And several of those products are produced by companies owned by black women, including Miss Jessie's and Taliah Waajid.

Sharon Madison, president and CEO of the engineering firm Madison, Madison International in Detroit, went natural after chemicals made her hair weak and caused it to break off nearly 15 years ago.

"I wanted to symbolize that whether or not you're in business, in the arts, whatever your field, you can be yourself, and we have beautiful hair," Madison says.

Much to her surprise, people in the corporate and civic circles she frequents complimented her hair.

"I think the issue is for us to embrace ourselves and recognize our own beauty," says Madison, 58.

She knew she'd made the right decision when she got a treasured compliment a few years ago at a gala of the Friends of African and African-American Art at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

"Sidney Poitier told me my hair was gorgeous," Madison says.

Women are going natural for many reasons, including the desire to live a healthier lifestyle in general, growing pride and appreciation for one's own hair, more celebs -- Viola Davis at the Oscars and Solange Knowles at the Met Ball in New York City -- signaling that natural hair is in and beautiful.

There's also more variety and creativity in styles, says Mo Williams, who works in a barber and beauty salon where she's the only natural stylist.

"More people see it can be funky or appealing even in the corporate world," says Williams, 24, who works at Little Willie's Hair Salon in northwest Detroit. "People no longer think you have to have hair straight or laid down to be attractive."

Several women also say natural hair allows black women to be more physically active. Moisture from sweat, rain or pool water can cause some black women's straight hair to bunch up or tightly curl, requiring extra time to restyle.

"I can go the gym, I can get in the pool and not be concerned about my hair," says Jennifer Thomas, cofounder with her sister of the Detroit meet-ups. "I don't have to run from the water when it rains."

Whatever the reason, women say they experience a sense of liberation after going natural.

"It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt free," says Jahzara Swyer, 30, of Detroit who has been wearing natural styles for 12 years. Her daughter, Naja, 6, and son, Menelik, 9, wear locks.

"I just couldn't take the pressure of maintaining my roots, always getting a perm to make sure my edges were perfectly straight. I needed to be me."

More Details: Many different looks

Two-strand twists: Intertwines two sections of hair to form loose twisted strands.

Cornrows: Braids that lay on the scalp and that are designed to form various shapes.

Twist-out: Styles created by simply untwisting strands or unbraiding hair.

Natural: Afros of various shapes and sizes.

Locks: Coiled, rope-like strands of hair of various thickness and length, created in various ways including allowing strands to form naturally by simply leaving the hair alone after washing, rubbing pieces of hair in the palm of the hand or using styling implements.

Sisterlocks: Super-thin, uniform, rope-like locks formed with a crochet-like needle. They can be styled many different ways.