“Natural hair is hard.”
This viewpoint is common among women nearing the end of their braided, bantu-knotted and picked rope styles lengthening their getting ready process to hours. It’s also a popular sentiment with those who prefer relaxers and sew-ins with treated leave-outs. Both sides have supporters.
Following an uptick in early influencers like Vanisha S. and Kendra and Kelsey Murrell sharing takes on why chemical-free hair was worth trying, the second wave of the natural hair movement grew roots in the 2010s. With the advent of social media, it was easier than ever to build a platform, share information about hair and find community. Unlike its predecessor over 50 years earlier, this natural hair wasn’t solely a political statement; it was about Black women’s health, too.
When Daniella Emilien, a former celebrity hair stylist based in Florida, began working as a full time stylist in 2015, she soon found herself routinely working with people whose hair had been damaged by relaxers. In conversation with ESSENCE, Emilien revealed one star developed a medical problem doctors linked to her hair routine.
“One of my clients, who was actually a celebrity, ended up [with] fibrosis,” she says. “When she went to a specialist, they told her it was the brand of the relaxer, which was Motions. They had a recall and a lot of African American women [were] affected.”
The potential issues stemming from relaxers are well known and documented, but between the increasingly extreme criteria “Instagram stylists” place on clients and people’s busy schedules, some women are choosing to do what works for them. Relaxers, the chemical treatment that knocks some of the curl out of Black hair, is a quick solution.
At the beginning of 2021, Diamond Rawlins, a mother of two, felt overwhelmed by her thick, tightly coiled hair. She was wearing her natural hair for roughly 12 years. After the birth of her second daughter, she decided to turn back to a technique she knew well; getting a relaxer.
Rawlins’ mother had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel when she was 10 years old and she was given her first relaxer shortly after to make it easier for her mom. By the time she was 16, Rawlins was administering her Olive Oil and Creme of Nature brand products herself. When she was exiting her teen years in 2009, she decided to do a big chop, but for her, it ultimately became too much to handle and she began processing her hair again.
“I kept cutting my hair, because I was just starting to get very unmanageable for me,” Rawlins says of her natural hair. “It’s a lot of work. I feel like natural hair is a lot of work.” In 2021, she became pregnant, which foiled her plan to get a relaxer at the beginning of the year. So she waited until March 2022 and has no regrets about her decision. Sure, she was initially hesitant, but trusted herself to do what suited her.
“I was iffy at first. I’m like, ‘Oh, do I want to do it? I’ve been natural this long—I think I can do it,” she says. “But it just started to get a little bit too much for me. So I waited until after I was pregnant to actually do it, because they say don’t do it while you’re pregnant because of the chemicals.”
Now, she goes to a shop in Texas for a relaxer and says she has more time to focus on her daughters’ hair.
In recent months, Chiquita Davis, an Atlanta stylist, has seen a spike in customers requesting relaxers, and she’s also doing her part to help clear up misconceptions. “Some of our relaxed clients, we’re not completely removing the curl pattern,” she says. “Just enough to where it’s more manageable for them to do at home.” She advises against giving yourself a relaxer, though.
“I personally don’t think that relaxers should be done at home. Like it should be done in the hair salon. It’s a very harsh chemical if it’s not in the right hands.”
Similar to relaxers, sew-ins are a hot hair trend—or are they?
LeAna McKnight, founder of SL Raw Virgin Hair, believes they never really fell out of style. “Sew-ins have always prevailed [in] my business just because of the fact of it being a protective style,” she explains via Zoom. However, she does acknowledge educational online platforms (think TikTok, YouTube and Instagram) have made consumers more aware of their options. “I do feel like there is a higher jump when it comes to sew-in extensions, just because of the knowledge that is accessible now online. People are understanding how to care for their hair.”
Sew-ins are conceptually simple and have been around since the 1940s. Christina Jenkins, a Black woman who worked at a wig manufacturing company in Chicago, is credited with inventing the method. Her goal was to have wigs sit more naturally on the wearer’s head. They’ve evolved a bit since then (for example, getting braids before having a sew-in done is rather standard now) but the idea of adding length and helping women achieve a desired look without a number of visible clips is still very much present.
McKnight says there are multiple ways to approach the technique. “A sew in can be anything from a partial sew in where you’re getting hairs left out and your hair is being used to be able to cover the extension tracks..or it can be roll-sewn,” she says. And it’s not irregular for women to relax the hair that is “left out” for a silky, straight, seamless look. Davis noted people are coming in and asking her for sew-ins and u-parts, which are not too far removed from a sew-in , you just don’t have to sew the track. “They already sew onto a weave cap and then you just still attach it the same way. I’ve been doing a lot of those,” she said.
There are major advantages to sew-ins, too. “One of those benefits is being able to conceal your hair and being able to lock that moisture in when your hair is put away,” McKnight shared. “You don’t have the worry and stress of putting heat on your hair and manipulating your hair and snagging it, causing frizziness, causing split ends, and pulling throughout the duration.”
In 2018, research from Mintel found that 33 percent of women are most likely to wear their hair natural. Forty percent of the subjects also divulged they’d wear their natural hair if they could add heat to it. So with a not necessarily dominant, but still wide range of women interested in maintaining their hair’s unaltered state, why the willingness to embrace relaxers again? The COVID-19 pandemic.
With government-imposed shutdowns of non-essential businesses, including beauty salons, many were left to their own devices. Emilien believes it was a struggle and thinks women don’t fully understand how their hair works.
“A lot of women don’t know how to maintain their hair,” she said bluntly. “They don’t know how to shampoo, condition, or treat their hair.” She also considered the women who didn’t have the luxury of working from home and had no other option than to do their best.
Davis agrees the pandemic impacted women’s relationship with their hair. “People wanted something that was either easier for them to maintain at home or something that they could get done often, but not too often to where, you know, they have to be in a salon every two weeks, she said.” She also mentioned people are eager to cut their wash days down by hours so they’re not spending an entire day washing, rubbing, rinsing and styling. “Quick” just may be the most trendy approach of all.
“In the end, healthy hair is what matters most.”
For rigid naturalists, the idea of a relaxer is rock bottom. This has contributed to the tension between those with relaxers and those without. The clear divide is possibly best exemplified on Twitter, where folks try to convince others to cross over; though sometimes it can go as far as bashing. In October 2021, Twitter user Zenizole Gquada wrote, “Relax your hair honey, stop suffering,” with four photos of her hair attached. People ratioed the post. Rather than argue with Gquada, some figured it would be best to share photos of their natural curls.
“You’re not living that person’s life,” Rawlins says, regarding the online snark. “You’re not in their shoes..Sometimes I think it’s more of a cultural thing.”
In the end, healthy hair is what matters most.
“I tell my clients all the time, it really don’t matter what you have in your hair,” David explains. “The thing for me is, is it healthy for your hair? Or is [your hair] healthy?” Hair with volume, sheen, and no damage are all signs of a good, sustainable method.
Yes, fads will come and go, preferences will stand tall and debates will trudge on. What actually counts is how women feel about themselves and what they can maintain. Only you know what works for you.