No more chemicals: More black women choose to go natural

Mo Williams, a natural hair culturalist, uses an interlocking technique for her client, Elante Richmond at a hair salon in Detroit.

DETROIT — Pregnancy motivated Gwen Jimmere to stop using chemicals to straighten her thick, curly hair.

“I was pregnant and I knew anything I put on my body goes to the baby,” says Jimmere, 29, of Canton, Mich.

She had tried wearing her hair without a chemical straightener a decade earlier. But the fervor for the afros of the ’60s and ’70s was long over, and there was little information or encouragement on how to pull off a natural style.

Most black women were perming, hot-pressing or flat-ironing their kinky, curly hair. Straight hair was the way to fit in, the way to be pretty and conform to the standard of American beauty.

Fast-forward to 2011 when Jimmere chose to set her own standard by rocking her hair in all its natural glory. This go-round, she found an abundance of support.

Perhaps the biggest signifier of the current natural hair movement is found online.

A community of women created a virtual pulpit for natural hair that includes social forums, video instructions, tutorials, product websites and personal testimonies.

It’s not that black women aren’t straightening their hair, but a growing number of women of all ages are finding beauty, acceptance, liberation and business opportunities in wearing natural hairstyles.

“Women are sharing information on Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, everywhere. It’s endless,” says Espy Thomas, 31, of Detroit, who with her sister Jennifer, 29, hosts periodic natural hair meet-ups that attract hundreds of women.

“More and more black women are opting to wear their natural hair and discontinue use of relaxers,” says a 2011 Mintel report showing that from 2006 to 2011, the sales of relaxer kits dropped 17 percent to $38 million.

A consumer study it conducted showed that the percentage of black women who said they wore their hair natural jumped from 26 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2011.

“The shift from relaxed to natural is becoming so common that it has spurred growth of a whole new sub-segment of products for women who are ‘transitioning,’ with products that minimize breakage as hair transitions from chemically straightened to curly or kinky,” the report states.

It’s also a booming business, says Sue Silva, marketing director for the Sofn’free, a hair care line.

“Everybody in the business is starting to manufacturer a curly line,” she says.

She noted that Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, now has a section devoted to natural hair products in most of its stores.

Sharon Madison, president and CEO of the engineering firm Madison, Madison International in Detroit, went natural after chemicals made her hair weak and caused it to break off nearly 15 years ago.

“I wanted to symbolize that whether or not you’re in business, in the arts, whatever your field, you can be yourself, and we have beautiful hair,” Madison, 58, says.

She knew she’d made the right decision when she got a treasured compliment a few years ago at a gala of the Friends of African and African-American Art at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

“Sidney Poitier told me my hair was gorgeous,” Madison says.