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I was natural for a decade, from age 18 to 28. I relied on an industrial size bottle of Pink Oil moisturizer that lasted for months, a .50 cent rat tail comb and the wherewithal to twist my hair on Sunday nights, then release it and style it into a healthy, gigantic ‘fro that lasted a week. I reveled in the freedom of not fearing moisture, and my bank account liked it too as I was no longer reliant on expensive salon visits and costly products to shape shift my coiled, fluffy hair into long, straight locs.
Back then, I was a novelty for letting my hair — outside of New York City and my hometown, D.C – just be as it grew unaltered out of my head.
There’s a noticeable spike in the number of Black women who are opting to wear their natural hair. Just look around. If anecdotal evidence isn’t convincing enough, know that in the last two years, chemical hair relaxer sales have dropped by 12 percent, according to Mintel, a consumer spending and market research firm.
While more and more women embracing their natural hair is a great thing, Janell Ross, a Huffington Post writer who penned “Natural or Relaxed, For Black Women Hair is Not A Settled Matter” observes that even the naturals are spending at great cost to maintain their hair. Her article detailed her attendance at the Spring World Natural Hair Show in Atlanta, where she observed dozens of women clamoring, even waving money, for pricey and popular natural hair care products.
The vendors sold $38 sixteen ounce jars of product that promise to “transform shrunken kinks to super shiny stretched out curls” or $25 for an ounce of product that boasts its ability to “tame frizz” and “elongate curls” (think going from Angela Davis’s fluffy ‘fro to Cree Summers’s crisp ringlets.)
While there may be a down turn in the number of perms bought, the hair industry continues to thrive. African Americans spent $507 billion (out of a total estimated buying power of $836 billion) in 2009 on hair care and personal grooming items, according to an annual report published by Target Market News. This figure is up 16.6% from 2008.
A recent NY Times story about Black hair, “A Thriving Growth Area in a Weak Economy,” suggests what we may be still spending on. The article, which focuses on natural hair care salons, points out that despite the on-going recession, the number of salons in Washington, D.C. has jumped eighteen percent. Writer Sabrina Tavernis found that customers at natural hair care salons refused to cut back on the money they spent on their hair, even as they scrimped on things like vacations. “It’s just part of my budget, like keeping the light on,” said Rochelle Milles. “I’ll forgo a lot of things, but not my hair.”
In going natural, it seems like many Black women are trading one costly expense for equally pricey one. Is that freedom? Maybe for our hair, but certainly not our pockets.
Demetria L. Lucas is the Relationships Editor at ESSENCE and the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. She has recently been nominated for an African American Literary Award. Vote for her now on literaryawardshow.com