Natural hair movement

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African-French woman with a tiny Afro.
African-American woman with natural hair

The natural hair movement is a movement which encourages women of African descent to keep their natural afro-textured hair. Born in the USA during the 2000s,[1][2] this movement is called mouvement nappy in French-speaking countries.[3][4][5][6]

Definition and features[edit]

The movement designates black women ( and black men) who wear afro-textured hair in its natural, coiled, coarse or curly state (as well as those who do not chemically straighten their hair but may still choose to wear it straight). The word "nappy" has been subjected to denigration since the Atlantic slave trade. Thereafter, some Afrodescendants have positively taken the word back, considered in francophone countries as a backronym made up of "natural" and "happy."[3][7][8][9]

These women, give up "relaxing" and let their hair grow in its natural texture. Their hairstyles can be simple or more sophisticated, by the adoption of hair twists, braids or even locks.[3][10] Not everyone who wears their natural hair chooses to forgo all (non-chemical) forms of straightening or styling. Additionally, "being natural" does not necessarily indicate a strict adherence to any particular type of product or styling regimen; nor should it be tied exclusively with certain social or political beliefs. Women (and men) choose, or are forced into, being natural for a wide variety of reasons. Some may even not like the term "nappy/nappies."

Nappy hair: History of Afro-descendants[edit]

The unconscious relationship that some Afro-descendants have with their afro-textured hair can be approached in a reverse chronological order.

Around 2005 an underground documentary film hit the independent film circuit called "My Nappy ROOTS: A Journey through Black Hairitage". The highly acclaimed film won multiple awards and played on the college circuit. With years of research, the film historically looked at the word "Nappy"; "My Nappy ROOTS" chronicled over 400 years (and 200 hours of footage) of Afro hair culture starting in Africa through the middle passage, reconstruction the creation of the Black hair industry to current day 2008. It became the definitive film on the history, culture, and economics on Black hair. The urban story postulated the word 'Nappy' came from the cotton plant, the small cotton ball inside the plant was called a 'nap'. The word nappy was born because it resembled the texture of unkempt Afro-textured hair. In an effort to be more acceptable socially, it was more desirable to have straight hair like the dominant culture. Once mixed race children were born, Black people internalized that 'Nappy' hair was 'bad' unacceptable hair. This historic film has never been publicly released. It wasn't until the public lawsuit in 2009 with Chris Rock's "Good Hair" that the concept of Nappy (and use of chemicals) was publicized worldwide. The world understood the concept of "good and bad hair" or "political hair" commonly referred to in the African American community. My Nappy ROOTS began screening to sold-out audiences worldwide. International screenings of the film, MNR and the organization called International Black Hairitage and the internet helped to introduce the word "Nappy" to Afro cultures that did not know the word or its meaning. From the US to UK, France, and Africa, some black women have realized that their nappy hair can be beautiful to them. This calls into question the subconscious internalized association nappy = ugly; They stop therefore to comply with the dominant aesthetic ideal of beautiful hair = smooth hair. Through their hair, the nappies thus reconcile with their original African heritage.[3][11][12]

This return to naturalness, at the organic era,[13][14] has been encouraged by the awareness of the harmful effects of relaxers on the scalp: Itches, red patches, burns, broken hairs or worse: alopecia (hair loss). However, among black women, 98% have had their hair straightened at least once in their lives, and relaxers have represented no less than 70% of the cosmetic purchases carried out by the population. In the 1980s–1990s, hair straightening was mainstreamed.[8]

Sooner, in the 1970s–1980s, the ′Jheri curl′, another technique to loosen tightly curl hair, became fashionable in the African American community, popularized especially by some celebrities such as Michael Jackson, seen in the music video for his song Thriller.

During these same years, a new hairstyle appeared too: dreadlocks (naturally matted hair locks), popularized by Bob Marley and more generally by reggae music and the Rastafarian movement. This hairstyle can be a mark of social and spiritual distinctions: "The adoption of long or very atypical hair [can reflect] rebellion or a refusal of the dominant values."[9][15]

An ashanti African comb (Ghana).

In the period between the 1960s–1970s, the racial segregation between the black and the white reigned in the United States. Angela Davis, a young human rights activist and member of the revolutionary movement Black Panthers created in 1966, made the Afro hairstyle famous. This dense and spherical hairdressing thus symbolized the emancipation and cultural affirmation of the African Americans. It was adopted by many stars like Diana Ross and the Jackson 5.[4][6][7][9][16]

A century earlier, in 1865, slavery was abolished at the end of the American Civil War. Nevertheless, black populations looked for straightening their hair, so as to move closer to the dominant aesthetics, if only to find employment. At the time, the most used instrument was the hot comb, until 1909, when Garrett A. Morgan invented a revolutionary relaxer cream.[6][7][15][17]

During the Atlantic slave trade, the conditions of servitude did not allow to take care of one's hair, which was subjected to denigration by the master: "Nappy′" became a pejorative term.[18][19]

The deportation of millions of Africans get them separated from their originally aesthetic activities regarding hair care.[17]

In the ancestral traditions, hairdressing was "an activity during which the genealogies' history and many other cultural features were taught to children. Every African hairdressing was codified according to the ethnic group and by status."[6]

It is the loss of this instrument [the African comb], all the more valuable that it is essential to the nappy hair care, which was going to dissociate Black people from the nature of their own hair, considered therefore as "difficult to comb".... The African was snatched from his comb when he was snatched from his native land and thus taken away from an irreplaceable cultural symbol, legacy, and accessory from his beauty culture.

— Juliette Sméralda, Peau noire, cheveu crépu: l'histoire d'une aliénation

The natural hair movement today[edit]

For about ten years, thanks to Web 2.0, a growing number of people have been sharing their beauty advice via:

These websites have expanded the natural hair movement around the world so as to highlight the beauty of natural African hair.[3][4][17]

Each woman has her own reasons to retrieve her authenticity; some of them want to preserve their hair against aggressive hair styling methods such as weaves being too tight or harmful straightening chemical products. Other women simply prefer nappy hair aesthetically or in spite of the pressure from the dominant aesthetics.[6][7][8][11]

The natural hair movement has been encouraged by the choice performed by some stars to abandon straightening in favor of a comeback to their natural hair. Among the nappies icons, there are Erykah Badu,[68][69] Aïssa Maïga,[3][70] Lupita Nyong'o,[71][72] Solange Knowles,[3][9][11][17][73] Inna Modja,[3][8][74] Janelle Monáe,[4][70]Viola Davis,[75][76] Tracee Ellis-Ross,[75][77] and Teyonah Parris[75][78].

Outside of USA, several events have developed in order to accompany the natural hair movement, particularly in France and in Africa:

  • The salon Boucles d'ébène: A demonstration, has existed for ten years, dedicated to the black hairdressing and beauty.[3][43][44][79]
  • The Miss Nappy Paris′ competition: The election of "Miss Nappy" so as to promote the Afro hair beauty.[3][80]
  • The Massalia Nappy Days: Lectures, projections of documentaries and fashion shows.[81]
  • The Crépue d'ébène Festival at Abidjan (Ivory Coast): Dedicated to the natural beauty of the African woman and to the highlighting of the nappy hair.[82]
  • The Natural Hair Academy: Event to better understand the nappy hair, days of advice by speakers.[3][47]
  • The AfricaParis Festival: Dedicated to the "Afropean" culture.[3]

Branding "ethnic" hair[edit]

With the popularity of "going natural", hair care suppliers have seen a rapid decrease in the purchase of relaxers, the harsh chemical hair straightener. An industry that was once worth an estimated $774 million, relaxer sales have gone down 26% over the last five years, 2013 numbers report.[83] Sales are estimated to decrease to 45% by 2019.[83]

Women who wear their hair natural are now spending more money on products that will achieve the best result for their hair, and hair care suppliers and markets are taking note. Black consumers represent a lucrative market for hair care suppliers, so the brands now have to adjust for the new hair movement.[83] Brands have greatly lowered their production of relaxers and instead now produce more natural-friendly products. In choosing what products to consume, black consumers rely heavily on social media to gauge results from others who have gone natural. They have done this by the use of YouTube videos as tutorials on how to use products efficiently and create reviews for potential consumers to watch. Popular brands and products include Shea Moisture, Deva Curl, and Carol's Daughter.[84]


Many black women have faced pushback from wearing their hair in naturally curly styles or other non-straight, protective styles. At the 2015 Oscars ceremony, Fashion Police star Guliana Rancic commented that the hair of teen star Zendaya Coleman—who chose to wear locs on the red carpet—must have smelled of “patchouli oil or weed.” This is in contrast to Rancic praising the look as “edgy” when worn by Kylie Jenner a white woman.[85][86]

Many women have found that they are treated unjustly simply because of the natural way their hair grows. Natural hair can be deemed as “unprofessional,” turning it into a fireable offense. For example, a 12-year-old student at a Florida Christian school with natural hair "was given one week to decide whether to cut her hair or leave the academy that she has attended since third grade" after she complained to school officials about being bullied by other students.[87] In March 2014, the Department of Defense issued a set of guidelines that banned all afros, dreadlocks, braids, and twists that were greater than ¼” in diameter. Guidelines such as these clearly disproportionately affect and target those of African descent.[88] They later rolled back the guidelines that same year in August, allowing two-strand twists, the Army increased the size of permissible braids, and the Army removed the word "unkempt" from their guidelines.[89] In April 2016, a female Toronto Zara employee was reprimanded for wearing her hair in a braided hairstyle, which resulted in her filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.[90]

Nappy lexicon[edit]

Bantu Knots styled into a mohawk.

Several words are frequently used in the vocabulary of the natural hair movement:[4][10][91][92][93]

  • curly girl: Black woman who wears her hair in its naturally coiled texture. This term is not a blanket statement for everyone that chooses to wear their hair in their natural state.
  • big chop: The "big chop" consists of cutting one's chemically straightened hair to let it grow in its natural texture.
  • bantu knot: Hairstyle that consists of twisted hair rolled up into small buns. See Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe (The Matrix).
  • transition: Period of time after last chemical straightening and before big chop.
  • protective hairstyle: Hairstyle that protects natural hair from the elements, includes braids, extensions, wigs, and weaves. See Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice (film).
  • TWA, Teeny Weeny Afro: Short Afro haircut. See Viola Davis.
  • twist: Double strands of hair wrapped around each other.
  • twist out: Hairstyle where twists are unraveled. See Corinne Bailey Rae.
  • yarn locks: Braids which are extended using wool.
  • frohawk: Hairdressing similar to the mohawk hairstyle.
  • shrinkage: Because Afro-textured hair is typically coiled in style, in its natural state it appears shorter than it would straightened.
  • nappex: Nappies considered extremists.
  • co-wash: Washing one's hair with conditioner instead of shampoo.
  • wash and go: Simply means you wash your hair and go on about your day. This means there is no drying or styling involved and the application of product is minimal (usually a moisturizer or anti-frizz serum). The wash and go is also sometimes referred to as the "shake and go" which further emphasizes the lack of actual styling involved.
  • braids : Hairstyle where hair is braided with extensions or with natural hair.
  • braid out : Braids are unraveled.
  • "dreadlocks" : matted or sculpted ropes of hair Dreadlocks
  • "Senegalese Twists" : Also known as rope twists where synthetic hair is used and twisted in with the natural hair
  • "afro" : A hairstyle created by combing the hair away from the scalp, allowing the hair to extend out from the head in a large, rounded shape, much like a cloud or ball. Afro


See also[edit]


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External links[edit]