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Afros, dreads, natural styles more popular, still controversial

Why is natural hair controversial?

Last June, Natalie Samuel went through with the "big chop."

The 33-year-old Columbia resident cut off all of her chemically straightened hair in an attempt to return her mane to its tightly curled, natural state.

Samuel said she doesn't regret the decision to leave behind salon appointments for relaxer treatments every three months and biweekly visits for upkeep.

"Now I just wash and go," said Samuel, a manager for an accounting firm. "It doesn't really require a stylist."

Samuel represents what has become a larger cultural movement to embrace chemical-free, natural and curly hair — especially among black women. And never before, it seems, has the styling of black women's hair been such a topic of national conversation.

When Zendaya Coleman, a Disney Channel star, went to the Oscars in dreadlocks, E! "Fashion Police" host Giuliana Rancic described the hairstyle as making the teen look as if "she smells like patchouli oil" or "weed." Coleman later called the comments "offensive," online outlets deemed them "racist" and Rancic issued an on-air apology.

In recent weeks, Dove launched a "Love Your Curls" marketing campaign for a new line of hair products, drawing praise in social media and notice from outlets such as the "Today" show," InStyle and Huffington Post. The ad features little girls, black and white, discussing how much they hate hair that fails to meet a beauty standard of sleek, shiny locks.

Last Thursday, Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore even joked at the opening of his "Nightly Show": "Are American offices inhospitable to black women? A white guy who just told his co-worker her Afro looks unprofessional says no."

"Unfortunately, the way we wear our hair is a political statement," said Karsonya Wise Whitehead, assistant professor of communication and African American Studies at Loyola University. "The decision to wear natural hair — whether it's dreadlocks, Nubian twists, braids — means that you are outside of the norm."

Whitehead said she was one of the many people offended by Rancic's comments.

"It's offensive to tell me how to wear my hair," she said. "And then it's offensive when you tell me my hair in its natural state is not acceptable. You're saying that I am not acceptable."

There's been an ebb and flow in the popularity of natural hair. Straightened hair had long been widely favored in the African-American community, but it lost ground to the Afro — seen as a symbol of black pride — during the 1960s. In later years, black women returned to chemical straightening treatments known as relaxers that loosened their naturally curly hair — often as a means of meeting the prevailing white standard of beauty, experts say.

But the number of women using relaxers has dropped in recent years and there's been an increase in the appearance of Afros, dreadlocks and other natural styles.

Sales of relaxers dropped from $206 million in 2008 to $152 million in 2013 — even as the black hair-care category showed growth overall, according to marketing agency Mintel. Weaves, in which natural and synthetic hair are woven into existing hair, are still popular, but about 70 percent of black women said they were wearing or had worn their hair naturally, Mintel reported.

The trend is seen on TV screens with actresses like Viola Davis in "How To Get Away With Murder" and Tracee Ellis Ross in "Black-ish" revealing the range of natural hair looks, from short and springy to long and voluminous. It's also visible on the red carpet with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, the face of Lancome, who is known as much for her tightly curled Afro as she is for her fashion choices.

In Baltimore, stylists say they have been inundated with curious clients looking to ditch relaxers in exchange for the natural approach. At IC Artistry, a hair salon in Glen Burnie, stylist Edward Harvey estimates that 85 percent of his clients no longer use chemical relaxers and instead have natural hairstyles.

"It's not for everyone," said Harvey, explaining that natural hair, which sounds low-maintenance, actually requires more attention to look healthy.

For black hair in particular, he said there is a transition period for those moving away from relaxers. Some women, like Samuel, opt to cut off all of their chemically treated hair and start from scratch.

"It's a lot of maintenance," he says. "Some love it and some hate it. Some people complain about it, but they don't go back to relaxers. It's easier just for them to braid their hair up or put it in a weave and move on."

When Bonita Chase began her career in hairstyling in 1989, almost all of her clients used a relaxer. Now, natural hair styles account for more than 20 percent of her business, and that number is growing.

"More [clients] are asking questions," said the 44-year-old stylist at Doing It With Style in Southwest Baltimore. "They want to know about upkeep. They want to know about the transition. Everyone seems to be on the healthy kick. They don't want the chemicals."

Six months ago, Chase cut off all of her relaxed hair and now wears her hair in twists, a tightly wound style popular for natural hair. "It's a really good experience," she said. "I feel so free with my own hair."

But as the Coleman-Rancic incident at the Oscars highlighted, the experience of going natural can be difficult.

"For a lot of non-black people, hairstyles like big Afros, cornrows and dreadlocks are still associated with degenerative living and or a countercultural lifestyle," said Lori L. Tharps, a journalism professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "And because we still live in an extremely segregated society, where most white people don't know any black people personally, they rely on age-old stereotypes and think they know something about the black experience. As a result, the joy and excitement of the natural hair movement happening now in black America, where natural hairstyles are being gloriously celebrated, has yet to truly penetrate the mainstream."

In her response to Rancic, Coleman wrote that there is "harsh criticism of African-American hair in society." She said she chose to wear dreadlocks to the Oscars to "showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough."

While controversy still exists, the natural look is going more mainstream.

There are blogs, video tutorials and tips on natural hair care on Instagram and YouTube. On store shelves at huge retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, new hair products geared toward natural hair are emerging with greater frequency.

Miri Marshall, a 30-year-old meteorologist at WBAL, decided to go natural after watching the 2009 Chris Rock documentary "Good Hair," which explores a number of issues pertaining to black women's hair.

At first Marshall was concerned about how the public would respond to her abandoning her super straight hair. She chose to transition her look by allowing her natural, untreated hair to grow in with her existing chemically straightened hair.

"In television there is a polished look that you have to uphold, so by making that choice, I was making that a little more difficult to do," said Marshall, adding that growing out her natural hair took two years but during that period her self-esteem also grew.

"We are taught to hate the kink, the curl and the nap," she said. "To the contrary, I've learned to love it. As black women, we have to learn to love what is natural for us."

Marshall said she hasn't received any negative response as a result of her natural hair, and she predicts more women will embrace the trend.

"I've gotten a lot of support," she said. "You are going to see more and more African-American women become natural. It's a movement. It's becoming the new way of life."

But Whitehead, who also wears her hair natural, said popularity does not equal acceptance — yet.

Last spring, the Army issued new grooming guidelines calling for "neat and conservative" hair, which prohibited many of the ethnic styles worn by black women, including twists, braids, dreadlocks and Afros. Within months, a backlash, including a petition that garned thousands of signatures and intervention by the Congressional Black Caucus, had military officials backtracking to modify the rules to allow more of the styles.

Whitehead, the Loyola professor, said she never felt any doors were closed to her because of her hairstyle, but she knows some professions still require black women to fit into the European mold of straight hair.

She said she remembers wearing dreadlocks in college in the mid-1980s, and the red-carpet criticism demonstrates how black women still have to change themselves to be accepted.

"It's 2015," she said, "and we still don't have the right to wear our hair the way we want."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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