Jillian Blackmon had gone without chemically relaxing her hairall of her life. She’d often go to a salon to get her hair pressedby way of a straightening comb or flatiron.
Last summer, she decided to stop pressing herhair and wear it in its naturally curly state. “I was sick ofsitting in the beauty shop for three to four hours,” Blackmonsaid.
The popular kinky twist style and a ponytailwere her favorites, and both provided carefree alternatives togetting her hair pressed. But after challenges such as the humidweather of her Atlanta hometown and little knowledge about how tocare for natural hair, the sophomore HamptonUniversity politicalscience major didn’t want to deal with maintaining it. Blackmonworked as a supervisor at a Six Flags amusement park and her workenvironment was just not conducive to wearing a naturalstyle.
“I used to have to wash it every week,” shesaid. “It was just too much.”
She’d often look at other women with longstraight hair and think of herself having that look again. Aftergetting a job at a hometown courthouse where many of her co-workerswere white, she was advised to get a more “professional look.”
“My mom told me that natural just isn’tprofessional,” she said. “She thought that maybe the [whiteco-workers] would question me too much, and I didn’t really want tobe scrutinized.” After going several years without chemicallystraightening her hair, Blackmon decided to get a relaxer.
“My hair is easier to maintain,” she said.”Now, I can just put it in a ponytail with no problem.”
Sitting five or more hours at a beauty shop,ducking and dodging rain drops, or stressing in the mirror over thefirst sight of new hair growth are all situations many black womenwith chemically straightened hair have been through.
HamptonUniversity women are no exception, withmany having their own hair triumph-and-trial stories to tell,living in a society where Eurocentric beauty standards have been amajor influence on them. The debate about what’s more acceptable,”au natural” or “bone straight,” still rages, and the choice can beboth life-changing and life-altering, often raising questions ofpersonal, social and even spiritual significance.
For Tiffany Perkins, a freshman publicrelations major at Hampton, her hair journey has been a game ofback and forth. Last summer, after being used to straightening herhair via a relaxer, Perkins decided to grow out her perm. She saidshe had no definite indication of the product’s safety.
“I noticed that I didn’t see an FDA-approvalsign on [at-home perm] kit boxes,” Perkins said.
The chemical relaxing process can be long andexpensive, and safety may definitely be an issue when it comes tochemically straightening black hair. A 2001 Food and DrugAdministration Consumer Magazine article titled, “Heading Off Hair-Care Disasters: UseCaution With Relaxers and Dyes,” said that many of thetop complaints to the agency’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors areabout chemical hair straighteners.
The problems included baldness, scalp rashesand sores, and hair thinning. The article also said that consumers’complaints often stem from incorrect handling of a product, ratherthan the product itself.
For Perkins, wearing a natural wasshort-lived. At the end of a sixth month without a perm, she wasfrustrated with her hair. She, too, went back to chemicalstraightening.
“It was far too thick and my hair is reallycoarse,” the Chicago native said. “I just couldn’t do anything withit.”
From the long blond tresses of BeyoncÃ© to thesilky straight hair extensions of stars such as Lil’ Kim and VivicaFox, the entertainment media have bombarded the pubic with imagesof women who are said to encompass a more European standard ofbeauty.
At HamptonUniversity, some students believethose images have had a major effect on black women.
“Women really have issues with their hair nomatter what the texture is,” said Brandy Chambers, a seniorsociology major.
“The images of Europeans on TV and in othermedia tell us that a certain kind of hair is much more beautiful.That sends a message that our own natural hair is not.”
For Chambers, leaving her relaxer behind was amatter of acquiring self-love.
“I’ve admired natural hairstyles since highschool,” Chambers said. “I thought of it as a way to appreciate thenatural me.”
When she first decided to venture into theworld of natural hair, the reactions from family, friends and peerswere mixed. Coming from a hometown environment where having naturalhair was not the “in” thing, Chambers can remember high schoolpeers who did not look approvingly at “kinky hair.”
“I remember two young girls on the bus havingan argument,” Chambers said. “And one of the girls alluded to thefact that her ‘good hair’ was better than the other girl’s ‘nappyhair.’ That really blew my mind.”
She said many of her family members were slowto accept her new hairdo when she went natural at the end of herfreshman year of college.
“Sometimes I’d have an Afro and they’d belike, ‘When are going to do something with your hair?'” Chamberssaid. “Older people have been more bold with their comments, somevery negative, while younger people are more quick to compliment myhair.”
Chambers, who typically likes to wear her hairin an Afro, coiled knots or twists, said one of the major perks ofwearing her natural locks is versatility.
“I can get weaves, I can get cornrows, I canwear an Afro,” Chambers said. “I think it’s the best of bothworlds.”
“They’re like, ‘Stay true to yourself.'”
Talking about whether to wear black hair inits natural state or chemically straightened raises the question ofwhat defines blackness. Sometimes, a woman is said to bediscrediting her heritage by getting her hair relaxed.
Chambers embraces her African roots and issupportive of causes that fight for the rights of blacks, but saidshe didn’t want to be put into a box.
“Oftentimes, people who choose to wear theirhair natural are stereotyped as being on that ‘black power tip,'”she said. “I don’t have to fit into some standard. I’m trying tovalidate myself for me.” She said she hopes that she can be apositive example to others who want to wear their natural hair.
“Embrace your natural beauty,” advisesChambers. “Straight hair is not the only type that isbeautiful.”
For Nere Ayo, junior psychology major atHampton, wearing her natural-textured short cut is a way todistinguish herself from the usual standard accepted by mainstreamsociety.
“Everybody likes the whole long, straight hairthing,” Ayo said. “I feel more comfortable making a statement withmy hair regardless of what’s current or in style.”
Ayo, like Chambers, likes the versatility ofher hair. “I can do whatever I want with it now that it’s natural,”she said. She plans to begin locking her hair soon and said shejust likes wearing different styles.
Although a natural hairstyle just wasn’t forPerkins, she said she admires the beauty of natural hair.
“I think it’s gorgeous for some people,” shesaid. “If you can do it, more power to you. It just wasn’t forme.”
Blackmon echoes those sentiments and is happywith her relaxed mane today. She said she doesn’t think getting arelaxer should be seen as a cop-out from blackness.
“I’m still black and I’m going to be blackregardless,” she said. “I define myself. My hair doesn’t defineme.”
Carmen Belcher and Janell Hazelwood arestudents at HamptonUniversity. Belcher writes for the HamptonScript and Hazelwood is lifestyles editor.