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Black Hair Care: Are We There Yet?

Black Hair Care: Are We There Yet?
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BY NAAKAI ADDY

In each era, hair has served as a reflection of the values and constraints of the times. For black people in America, the correlation between available beauty products and social expectations prompted an extraordinarily diverse history of hairstyles, products and business ventures.

Major retailers used to approach black hair care as a fringe category, but many are starting to recognize its incredible market potential. This change is impacting women who for years had few product options to choose from in stores, and it has affected overall beauty trends for women of all races. The progress has been a long-time coming, however.

From the inception of the slave trade, natural black hair was assigned connotations of coarseness, roughness and difficulty as a means to reinforce inequality. These connotations played, and continue to play, a significant role in the journey of beauty products for black women.

The start of the black beauty business is usually credited to early 20th century entrepreneur, Madame CJ Walker. Walker developed a high-grossing business and invented the hot comb as we know it today–then, it was an updated version of the pressing comb brought to the states by the French. Her version was made specifically for black hair. (http://www.refinery29.com/black-hair-history#slide-2) Through her innovations she became the very first self-made female millionaire–of any race–in the country.

Since her time, straightening products like hot combs and relaxers have been embraced in some decades more than in others. Their association with assimilation to European beauty standards has always been an issue of contention, as has the severe damage they can do to black hair.

Almost a century after Madame CJ Walker left her extraordinary legacy, another black entrepreneur created an empire from black hair care products, but this time the focus was on nourishing and celebrating black hair in all of its forms. Lisa Price created Carol’s Daughter in 1993 out of her Brooklyn apartment, eventually expanding it into a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Unlike many of the chemical-heavy relaxers and straightening products on the market, Carol’s Daughter products center around organic ingredients and are heavily geared towards natural hairstyles. A few years ago, the company struggled with sales as competition increased, and it was bought by L’Oreal. (http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/10/24/358263731/a-black-cosmetic-company-sells-or-sells-out)

The sale was controversial, but it in many ways it coincided with a fast-paced transition taking place in the retail sphere.

It used to be that black hair care products were nowhere to be found in most stores. Then, slowly, stores in some cities might reserve the edge of one aisle for a few different products–usually relaxers and oil-based conditioners.

Even a few years ago, there were few options in middle of the Shampoo aisle. That is, other than Pantene’s Relaxed and Natural, which for reasons that one assumes were intentional, came in brown bottles. Understandably, not every black woman wanted to have such limited and oddly marketed options on the off-chance that her local store didn’t have a black hair care edge of the aisle.

Now, the options are broader than ever, and it’s not just because of entrepreneurs like Lisa Price. It’s because “mainstream” (which, from the perspective of product marketers, generally means white) hair care is taking a page out of the hair care traditions of cultures around the world, including black cultures.

Take conditioners, for example. Black women have been using deep conditioners and leave-in conditioners for a long time to retain moisture and softness in our hair, but these products, whether they were homemade or store-bought, seemed to perplex people of other races in the past. Now, go to almost any store in the country and you will find in the main Shampoo aisle not only standard conditioners, but leave-in conditioners and deep conditioners marketed to everyone. Many of them use shea or cocoa butters, and coconut or olive oils, natural ingredients that have long featured prominently in black hair care regimes.

The trend towards natural hair care is impacting women of all races. Products free of harsh sulfates, parabens and all of those unidentifiable chemicals on the ingredients list are universally a good idea, whether a woman’s hair is chemically treated or natural, and whether she wears extensions, braids, locks, or nothing at all.

This is also an important trend for women in their fifties and up who faced pressure to use relaxers for years and, as a result, may have experienced accelerated hair loss or hair thinning. Many of the products out there are designed to help restore and regenerate hair that experienced extensive chemical damage.

As with all issues pertaining to racial equality and inclusion, there is, of course, still a ways to go. Even still, what’s happening now in black hair care indicates that a broader set of options is near. One where a black woman can decide which hairstyle works best for her and have reasonable access to the tools, products and services to make her vision of herself a reality.

It shouldn’t be a privilege to have such access, nor should it be to enjoy your hair without being weighed down by the politics and social ramifications of it. In an ideal world, any person’s hair could be what it should be–a means of expression. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

 

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