The Natural Hair Movement: From Strife to Strength

By Leslie Huff
Jambar Contributor

The beginning of October marked history for Cincinnati as the first city in Ohio to join the fight against discrimination of natural hairstyles grounded in racial bias. 

The natural hair movement has motivated many people of color, especially millennial women, to shelve the push in western culture to only glorify straight hair.

According to a BBC News article published in 2015, the uniqueness of black hairstyles dates to early African culture as they were used to identify a person’s family, social status and tribe. Hairstyles were a part of Africans’ regal and royal identity.

Cryshanna Jackson Leftwich, associate professor and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Youngstown State University, recalled the decisive moment in her life to stop chemically processing her hair with relaxer — a cream which produces permanently straight strands from the root to the ends — after the procedure left her with burn scars on her forehead.

“I was looking in the mirror at these scabs and said, ‘This is so ridiculous,’” she said. “The only reason my hair has been straight is because I’ve been told that it needs to be straight.”

Jackson Leftwich said every month after that instance she reduced the length of her hair by cutting off 6 inches to remove remnants of the chemically enhanced application. 

Twists and Bantu knots are now Jackson Leftwich’s go-to natural hairdos.

The notion that Afro-textured hairstyles are considered unprofessional or unattractive has led many women of color to conform to “traditional” beauty standards, which has caused detrimental effects on a black women’s self-esteem, confidence and health. 

An article by The Philadelphia Sun reported that “a study done on 23,000 African American women showed that women who used hair relaxing products were more likely to have fibroids.”

 “I think that when we tell people there’s an assimilation to beauty — lighter skin, straight hair, … wearing makeup — that it makes women feel like they have to do these things to fit in and to be beautiful,” Jackson Leftwich said. “They look at themselves in the mirror, and they don’t feel that sense of beauty or that sense of pride.”

JaQuila Jones, YSU sophomore and respiratory care major, said she has never chemically altered her hair but has debated how her natural hair would be perceived on campus.

“Sometimes I would think of a hairstyle and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t get that because I’m on campus, going here, going there, and I could be judged.’ But recently, I don’t even care [about being judged] anymore,” Jones said.

According to an article on curlcentric.com, a pro-black natural hair website, going natural in modern society has transformed from an unacceptable choice by many, including some members of black community, to trendy with the help of public figures. 

The article also mentions that the decline of sales in the chemical processing market have dropped by more than 25% within the past five years.

Curly hair, ponytail puffs, braids, dreadlocks, twists, Bantu knots — hairstyles emerging from black heritage — represent a proud history, according to black hair care and styling website thirstyroots.com. 

There have been numerous cases throughout the country where black citizens were targeted and rejected for their natural hair texture and styling choices under the guise of school or workplace regulations.  

In December 2018, a New Jersey high school wrestling student was subjected to clipping the ends of his dreadlocks in front of an audience, according to a report published by The New York Times on Feb. 21. The referee, now barred from officiating sporting events, required the student to forfeit the round if changes to his hair were not instantly implemented. 

A similar incident, reported by NBC News, occurred August 2018 when a Catholic school in New Orleans asked a black student to leave the premises after arriving to class with braided hair extensions. The school argued the hairstyle went against academic policy, which prohibits students from wearing extensions. 

The controversial punishment by the school led to a state judge demanding the school negate the policy, according to NBC News.

Kameya Parks, junior theatre studies stage management major at YSU, said her natural hair is an essential part of her identity and natural hairstyles should not be attributed to lack of skill or knowledge by organizations.

“What does your hair have to do with your capability to do work, your capability to learn? I don’t understand,” Parks said. “My hair is my identity, and I’ve struggled for a long time with [embracing] having my curly hair.”

Among the few states that have either proposed or passed laws, California was the first to tackle the unjust policies from schools and workplaces this summer.

Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky have also proposed legislation.

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