African-American women are increasingly abandoning chemicals and relaxers for healthier, less-damaging, all-natural methods.
The UM Women of Color Network presented the first part of the two-night event, “Pressed by Perceptions: Natural Hair Care and Cultural Expression on a College Campus,” which is aimed to provide advice for women on how to maintain healthy hair, to conclude Black History Month.
Women gathered at the Robert C. Khayat Law Center Weems Auditorium for two natural hair panels, a hair tutorial by stylist AJ Lester and a “product” talk with free samples, door prizes and a question-and-answer segment.
Rachel Coleman, an academic advisor at the Center for Student Success and First-Year Experience, moderated the event.
The first panel was led by students. Miss Ole Miss Acacia Santos, a senior mechanical engineering major; Kalah Walker, a senior IMC major and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha; Tiara Mabry, a senior psychology and nursing major and member of Sigma Gamma Rho; Randon Hill, a sophomore English and Spanish major and member of Zeta Phi Beta and Janell Granger, a senior IMC major and member of Delta Sigma Theta took their seats at center-stage.
As the girls answered questions, photos of their hair transitions from childhood up to now were displayed.
Walker said that growing up, her mom didn’t know what to do with her hair, so she just put a perm on it. When she “big chopped” at 5 years old and cut off the relaxed or permed ends of her hair in order to transition from chemically processed hair to natural hair, she was devastated.
“I was crying,” Walker said. “I felt like the world was over and I was losing my mind.”
She decided to use wigs for a while until making the transition to natural.
Mabry was natural until she was four and her mom gave her a perm. She had a perm every two months or so until the summer before her freshman year of college when she decided to transition to natural.
Mabry decided to go natural because she “really just didn’t know the reason” behind having to put so many chemicals in her hair.
Santos has had natural hair since she was born because her mother didn’t believe in letting anyone touch her hair. Santos’s mother had always taken care of her and her three sisters’ hair. Only since her sophomore year has Santos been looking after her own hair.
“I’ve always tied my hair to my beauty, and that’s because I let other people do that to me,” Santos said. “People used to tell me, ‘Acacia, you’d look so much better if you straighten it, do this hairstyle, do that hairstyle.’”
The student speakers all agreed living with a roommate and finding time to wash their hair is a challenge.
“It’s really important just to have your time to do your hair and having people understand that,” Granger said. “And that’s difficult for people living in the dorms, especially when you have people who wash their hair every single day and it doesn’t take three to four to five hours.”
Not only is natural hair time-consuming, but it also leads to resistance and perceptions by society, according to the panel.
“My favorite experience is walking into a classroom when my hair was an afro one and the next day straight,” Granger said. “And my teacher said, ‘Ohhh, that’s different.’”
Granger said she can’t switch up her hair without receiving comments. Some of her white teachers have told her she should wear her hair straight more often because it shows how pretty she is.
“You have to realize you’re wearing your hair for you and not for other people around you,” Granger said. “You’re not wearing it to impress other people. It’s my crown, not theirs.”
Coleman asked members of the student panel how they feel confident in their natural hair and if they have any advice for those transitioning to natural hair.
Everyone has a different curl pattern, Walker said, so she can’t really give a lot of tips about products. She said people will ask her what she does to her hair, but she admits what works for her might not work for someone else and vice versa.
“It’s just learning the basics,” Walker said. “Get on YouTube. It helps. I swear.”
Santos said her current hairstyle makes her wake up and realize she is beautiful and strong.
“Society’s idea of beauty isn’t the only idea of beauty,” Santos said.
The staff panel consisted of Jackie Reed, a library specialist; Davita Watkins, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Charlie Burrell Ball, the associate director at for academic support at student-athlete development and Jennifer Sadler, an IMC instructor.
Reed said she started her hair transition in August 2014 and finished exactly a year later. When she was finally able to cut her hair off in June, she was thrilled because dealing with the two textures, chemical and natural, was awful.
“My grandma always told me, ‘Your hair is your crown and glory,’” Reed said.
Her grandma loved Reed’s long hair, but Reed knew it wasn’t healthy because some of her hair was falling out.
Reed said it took trial and error, but she finally got into a routine.
“Everything does not work for everyone,” Reed said. “Only your hair knows what your hair needs.”
Burrell Brown said she had an allergic reaction to a perm and so a student would come over and braid her hair every few months. Burrell Brown realized “something’s got to give” because the student was about to graduate and then grabbed the scissors and cut her hair off. The next day she cried.
“After I went through that phase, my mom decided to do the same thing, and after, my grandmother cut hers as well,” Burrell Brown said. “That was my support system.”
As natural hair becomes more popular, product prices are shooting up as well. Sadler said at salons in Memphis, Tennessee, used to charge her $30-$40 extra to treat her 8-year-old daughter’s natural hair.
Sadler said many stylists don’t know how to treat natural hair. She never realized until recently that her hair wasn’t supposed to burn while being treated.
For the most part, in the media, black women still have straight, unnatural hair, Sadler said.
“Producers want a specific look,” she said. “There are also people who are pushing the boundaries. Viola Davis took her wig off in ‘How to Get Away with Murder.’”
Sadler said the more people who are comfortable wearing their hair naturally, the more representation will be in the media.
“I want my daughter to see people that look like her when she watches the television,” Sadler said.
The natural hair movement has gotten stronger over the past 15-20 years. Reed said that when she was an undergrad 15 years ago, she only saw one girl on campus with natural hair.
Now, at Ole Miss, Reed has noticed students walk by in the library with natural hair every day.
“This is beautiful,” Reed said. “I love that everyone is embracing themselves.”
After the faculty panel, AJ Lester from AJ’s Hair Addiction gave a demonstration on how to do a twist-out. Lester emphasized that everyone’s hair is different.
Everyone who attended the event also received a bag full of natural hair samples and recipes.
The second part of the “Pressed by Perceptions: Natural Hair Care and Cultural Expression on a College Campus” will include a cultural expressions panel and kinky, curly and conversations mixer from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Robert C. Khayat Law Center Weems Auditorium.