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FROM HAIR TO IDENTITY: Whether heavily coiffed or all-natural, black women struggle with hair issues

This article was featured in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on March 17, 2013.
Writer: Karen Hill

I had the pleasure of being apart of this article and one of many African American women who were interviewed. The African American hair industry is a million dollar entity. However the "Natural" movement amongst women of African decent is on the rise. Check out this article and leave a few comments and tell me how you feel.

Try to touch Olivia Millsaps' hair and she'll likely smack your hand.

"No one puts their hands in my hair because it costs too much money and takes too much time," Millsaps says.

Millsaps, 49, a medical secretary and heart monitor technician at Memorial Hospital, spends more than $1,200 each year to have her hair relaxed and coiffed. She says she's not alone when it comes to guarding her meticulously handled hair and that most black women feel the same.

"Our hairstyles cost a lot and takes a lot of time to do and, unlike white women's hair, ours does not fall back into place when it's touched," Millsaps says.

Millsaps says it takes nearly four hours to have her hair relaxed -- a procedure that lasts about four to six weeks. She then gets a wet set, an additional 21/2-hour process that includes getting her hair rolled and dried before being styled. The process averages a little more than $100, she says, and she has no intention of stopping.

But there is a nationwide movement among black women to get away from chemical relaxers -- which can burn hair and the scalp if used improperly -- and other high-maintenance techniques and embrace their natural hair.

"The natural hair movement is really about women of African descent to break away from using a relaxer or hiding our hair underneath wigs and extensions by embracing who we are, owning it, and being proud. It also has to do with being a role model to our younger sisters and helping them to build their self-esteem in who they are," says Lorean Mays, 28, a professional model who won Miss Black Tennessee USA in 2006.

Several local black-hair stylists contacted for this story refused to comment. But in a story that ran recently in the Kansas City Star newspaper, stylists in that city say there has been a massive change, with percentages flipping from 80 percent of their black female clients using relaxers 10 years ago to only 20 percent using them today.

Comedian Chris Rock addressed the hair issue in his 2009 documentary "Good Hair," an in-depth look at what Rock discovered was a $9 billion industry. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Rock said men are forced to adopt a hands-off policy when it comes to black women's hair.

"You cannot touch a black woman's hair," Rock told Winfrey. "You are conditioned not to even go there. They say it's for the men, but it's really for the women because guys don't care."

In September 2012, Winfrey went natural for the first time on the cover of her O magazine.

The natural movement began on the East and West Coasts, then moved inland, and now celebrities such as Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu and Rihanna are frequently seen with their natural 'dos. But the famous have always fueled hairstyling trends. In the '70s, political activist Angela Davis and the five brothers in the Jackson Five, including young Michael, helped drive the popularity of the Afro. Later in the '80s when Michael Jackson was older -- and before the multiple plastic surgeries -- he sheared off the Afro and opted instead for a Jheri curl perm, which helped mainstream that style.

In a 2009 story on CNN, Ingrid Banks, an associate professor of black studies at University of California, Santa Barbara and author of "Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women's Consciousness" (New York University Press, 2000), said hair in the black community is a way of expressing "racial identity, identity based on gender and ideas about power."

"It's not about hair per se, it's about what hair means," she said in the story. "On one level, hair matters because race matters in our society. For black people, our hair has been infused with these racial politics.

"When we think about that, there is no other racial or ethnic group in which those ideas come to bear on someone's politics," said Banks, who wrote her book after visiting black hair salons nationwide. "No one is saying that about white women, Asian women or Latino women."

Banks, who wears her hair in a natural style, also said there are lingering feelings that, if a black woman straightens her hair she is "selling out the race" or "embracing the white standard of beauty," while women who wear their hair in natural styles are "blacker than thou."

Jacqueline McMillian, 25, of Mesa, Ariz., says she has been wearing her hair in its natural state for 10 years, styling it into dreadlocks. McMillian is an educational support specialist at Miller Motte Technical College, which has a location in Chattanooga and, among other classes, teaches hair styling as part of its cosmetology program.

"I guess I have a bad attitude because I don't understand why women are willing to spend so much time and money on things like having fake hair and fake nails," McMillian says. "I know people who spend a lot of money every month on their hair but they can't pay their bills. It's not a healthy way to live."

Some women have tried to go natural, but couldn't do it. Local attorney Yolanda Mitchell says her recent attempt to embrace her natural hair lasted about nine weeks.

"I couldn't go through with it," she says. "While it may look good on others, it just wasn't for me. African-American hair is nappy, and it's hard to get a comb through it, and it takes a lot of work. I didn't have the time to fool with it."

Instead, Mitchell says she styles her own hair every six weeks by using a relaxer kit purchased at a drug store for around $7. The product relaxes the hair enough for her to be able to use a comb, she says.

"Every woman wants good hair. It's just easier for white women. Even white women with frizzy, curly hair have hair that's manageable," Mitchell says. "When our hair is in its natural state or when the chemicals are growing out, you can't use a comb in it. It gets stuck."

Mays says her mother, a former cosmetologist, taught her how to take care of her hair.

"She taught me how to wash, deep condition, trim, cut, do color, highlights, etc.," Mays says. "I wear my hair flat-ironed straight most of the time due to my jobs. My hair routine takes place every two to three weeks. On average, I roll my hair once a week unless I have some things planned. I usually let the curls fall or wear it in a ponytail or high bun."

And the issue of no-touch hair goes beyond just looks. There's a health angle, too.

In 2011, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said highly-coiffed hair deters black women from exercising and cited a recent study, published last December in the Archives of Dermatology, which showed about 40 percent of black women skip exercising because of hair issues.

The study showed that, while all of the subjects understood it was important for them to exercise, 40 percent said they avoided workouts because of hair-related issues, according to "One-third said they would exercise more if it wasn't for their hair. Only 50 percent said they changed their hairstyle to be able to exercise," the story stated.

Mays says sweating can ruin a hairstyle.

"As a black woman, most of us do not wash our hair as often as our white counterparts, so we try not to work out or, instead, we opt to do something not as vigorous so that we can keep our hairstyles nice," Mays says.

But being a model, body image is important to Mays.

"Thankfully, Nicole Ari Parker, an actress, came out with a gym hair wrap last year called 'Save Your Do,' and it works wonders," Mays says. "It minimizes the sweat and keeps your hair dry. I was excited because I didn't have to go into damage control after my morning workouts before heading to a meeting or a fashion shoot."

Suzetta Parks Pennington of Kansas City, Mo., used to go through the hours-long task of getting her hair relaxed, set and styled, spending about $250 every two to three weeks. But she decided to go for what is called the "big chop," where the relaxed hair is shorn off, allowing new, natural hair to grow.

"I had to put on my big-girl panties and work it," she says.

Before the chop, Parks Pennington, an event producer and diversity trainer, worried that her clients might not like the new style and take their business elsewhere, but no criticism came. Some strangers even approached her on the street and said they liked her hair.

"That helped a lot," she says.

McClatchy Tribune News Service contributed to this story.



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