A return to what is considered "natural" hair for African-American women is also showing up on Europe's top fashion runways. The afro used to be a political statement, today it's more likely a fashion statement.
Solange Knowles is a DJ, singer, composer --and a mother. She is also Beyoncé"s sister. But lately the public has only been interested in one thing: her hair. The 26-year-old decided to start keeping her hair natural, Afro-style, rather than straightening it. It's a "transition" --that's the term used by African-Americans-- that she talked about on Oprah Winfrey's show. Since then she has become the ambassador of the "transitioning movement" for a range of beauty products for natural-style hair.
African-American women have long tried to erase their blackness. They abandoned the plaits and the braids that reminded them of the years of segregation and adopted straight, permed blow-dried hair. A flourishing cosmetics industry developed around the treatment of black hair. The return to a more natural hairdo is therefore welcomed with fascination. The topic is debated on media outlets geared towards the African-American community, with explanatory YouTube videos on how to progressively revert to your natural hair.
Opinions are split on how this movement started. Charing Ball, columnist for online magazine Madame Noire, says some credit the influence of Chris Rock's 2009 movie Good Hair that denounced black women's dependence on chemical straightening treatments. "I think it has more to do with the apogee of the "neo-soul" movement in the early 2000s, which brought forward artists opposed to those usually in black music," says Ball, citing such stars as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott or India Arie, and Maxwell for men.
"These artists rekindled the interest for natural hairdos like Afros, dreadlocks or bantu knots," says Ball. "It helped show another aspect of black life but it also made frizzy hair more culturally acceptable." The Afro haircut is still linked to the political liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and to its icon, activist Angela Davis. At the time, many followed in her steps and rejected straightening as a norm, affirming their freedom and their heritage. In the movies, Pam Grier embodied the black woman's pride. Others made their hairdo a symbol, like writer Toni Morrison. Today her thick, grey dreadlocks are an integral part of her public image, but the author of Beloved once bore a straight-up Afro.
But the return of big, free hair doesn't automatically underline a political message. The connection is being made a bit too fast, according to Brian, from the specialized website Treasured Locks. "It's more of an individual choice more than an identification with a movement," he says. "Women have become aware of the toxic ingredients in their hair products and they don't want to use them anymore. Besides, the term "natural" applies both to hair that isn't transformed as it does to hair that was straightened by the heat. There are even women who use keratin treatments and call it natural…"
An opinion shared by Charing Ball. "Before, choices were limited to the social or political message you wanted to share. In the 1980s, dreadlocks systematically classified you as a Rastafari or as another alternative movement, whereas a neater appearance made you more socially acceptable. Today, I have the feeling that there are fewer political undertones. You can get an Afro one day and straighten your hair the next without making it anything else than an aesthetic choice."
But the columnist is quick to point out the exceptions. "When Malia, the Obamas' oldest, had her hair braided, there were outraged reactions on conservative forums. Similarly, when a picture of Michelle Obama (already at the center of a controversy in France) with an Afro hairdo was published, it was hailed and admired throughout the black community, even though it was a photomontage. This shows that we are still in a country with racism and that skin color is still a polarizing theme. I would say that many women send out a political message with their return to natural hair without even being aware of it."
What about in Europe? British über-model Naomi Campbell was photographed with an Afro several times, but it was a wig. Since the 1990s, model Noémie Lenoir or German-Nigerian singer Ayo bear their frizzy hair. According to Geneviève Desclous, from the Afro 2000 African hair salon in Geneva, "everybody wants volume. Here too, many women are coming back to natural!" The reason? "Simply a return to the 1960s, which you can also see in fashion, clothes and shoes. Even Europeans are picking up on the trend and have frizzy hair during fashion shows."
Several days ago, Solange Knowles decided to dot the i's and cross the t's. Hotly criticized for the small amount of care she gave her hair, she took to Twitter to say that her own hair didn't interest her that much. The musician Erykah Badu sighed that "for a black woman, almost everything is a political choice."
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