Return of the relaxer? Why some Black women are embracing the chemical hair treatment after years of going natural.
Just For Me, Creme of Nature, Dark & Lovely: For Black women, these relaxer brands likely bring up memories of chemical aromas, pressed roots and a girlhood coiffure nostalgia. And while the relationship between the Black hair community and relaxers has ebbed and flowed quite a bit over the past 20 years — vilified, for a time, by natural-hair enthusiasts — the controversial hair treatment has recently made its way back into the Black beauty zeitgeist.
First things first: What is a relaxer?
A relaxer is a chemical treatment that permanently loosens or "relaxes" the hair, leaving straighter, less curly strands in its wake. There are various chemical formulations, including lye and no-lye versions, and their origins can be traced back to the early 1900s, though they became a staple in Black salons and households in the '90s as a means of ease and assimilation.
"Having a relaxer helped to lessen the time spent on getting my hair ready for the school week," Dana Oliver, the founder of Beauty for Breakfast and a former Yahoo beauty director, tells Yahoo Life. "And then a part of that, too, goes back to those beauty standards, right? Like, you look more polished, you look more sophisticated."
In the early aughts, relaxers were used as an avenue to acceptance for Black women in social and workplace settings that typically displayed biases toward natural hair.
In fact, according to a 2021 Dove CROWN research study, 66% of Black girls in majority-white schools report experiencing hair discrimination, compared to 45% of Black girls in all schools. And 100% of Black elementary school girls in predominately white areas who report experiencing hair discrimination say the discrimination began by age 10. Spurred on by its findings, Dove, in collaboration with the CROWN Coalition, created the CROWN Act, prohibiting discrimination based on natural hairstyles and textures associated with particular races. The act was first passed in California and has since been passed in 18 other states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and is under review by the United States Senate.
Relaxers in youth
Long histories of Black women being ostracized for sporting natural hair made relaxers a staple for many young Black girls.
"My mom put a relaxer in my hair when I was in fifth grade, and I remember my first time ever having it was for our class pictures," says Asia Ware, a fashion writer at The Cut who has been on both sides of the natural and relaxed hair movements.
Getting a relaxer at a young age was quite a common thing, but as is the case with many permanent chemical processes, relaxers can make hair more susceptible to damage and breakage, as it damages the integrity of the hair strands. Relaxers have also been linked to an increased risk for traction alopecia due to the weakening of the hair strand.
"Back in the day, we decided to relax our daughter's hair young, which is not always the best, because sometimes it'll stunt the growth or you'll see the little girl's hair fall out," says Ray Christopher, a celebrity hairstylist who has been doing hair for 15 years. Now, however, Christopher says parents seem to be holding off on making such major hair decisions for their children.
"Now parents have more knowledge, they move a little more cautiously, and they're older when they do it. So they have it for a certain purpose," he says.
The rise of natural hair
As with many shifts in beauty, trends change as new information is presented or reignited. When rhetorics of "self-love" seemed to hit the mainstream again in the 2010s, natural hair began to rise in popularity for the first time since the Afro era in the '60s and '70s.
"In the 1970s, natural hair was essentially like a resistance to Eurocentric standards of beauty, kind of in line with the social and racial justice movements that were happening at that time," says Quani Burnett, an inclusion strategist and creator of beauty4brownskin.
This back-and-forth of relaxers and natural hair throughout the years mirrors trends in the socio-political state of society, adds Kadian Pow, a sociology and Black Studies lecturer at Birmingham City University in England.
"In the early 2000s 'natural hair' wasn't quite yet the norm. The natural hair movement was certainly brewing and it was gaining a lot of traction but it was not the norm. At that time, there was a notable shift from the way natural hair was perceived [from] the '90s, where it was definitely associated with a kind of Afro-centric, Pan Africanism neo-soul movement and a certain 'type' of Black [person]. In the 2000s, you started to get away from natural hair being associated with a certain kind of aesthetic or Black identity and it just morphed into becoming about synonymous with Black liberation," she says noting that the pendulum started to swing back a few years later.
"The early 2010s — I would say between 2012 to 2015, when you had a huge kind of a Black liberation movement with Black Lives Matter happening — that lent a lot of credence to people embracing their natural hair, because Black hair has always been a really integral part of Black identity, even if people don't consciously recognize it as such," says Pow.
Social media also played a significant role in the ascent of natural hair around this time, namely YouTube, which fostered a natural hair community highlighted by Black women embracing their natural hair. These videos also taught a lot of women how to manage their natural hair for the first time.
"In the late '90s, early 2000s, I didn't know what I was doing with my hair," Pow tells Yahoo Life. "I used to go to bed with a ponytail; I was not wearing a silk scarf or even a bonnet [to protect her hair] or any of those things. I didn't know so many things about what to do with my hair until I went on YouTube, starting in about 2010. Being able to access information and to see people that look like you talking in an informed way about their hair and sharing tips and tricks made it feel less daunting to wear your hair natural and you had community and there's safety and camaraderie in numbers."
YouTube videos also showed Black women partaking in ceremonial "big chops," in which all the hair is cut to the root for a fresh start. Since there is no way to remove the results of a relaxer from the hair, the only options are to transition the hair and slowly trim the ends or to chop it all off, which made the decision a difficult one for many young women who had never even seen what their natural hair looked like.
"I think once the natural hair movement started, I was in college and I kind of felt a little pressure to go natural," says Ware. "I was at an HBCU, you know? I would get to see a lot of women who wore their natural curls and all the things and I wanted to, but I was like, 'college doesn't feel like a good time to transition.'" When she graduated, she says, "I was like, 'You know what? I'm gonna go natural.'"
Return of the relaxer
But as many Black women will tell you, the upkeep that comes with properly caring for hair with tighter coils can take considerable effort and time compared to those with looser curls.
Along with this, choice and an informed perspective seem to be major driving forces in the re-emergence of relaxers — as well as social media, of course, which has allowed women to find others on similar hair-care journeys. The "relaxers are back" hashtag on TikTok has over 4 million views, and there is no shortage of content featuring Black women relaxing their hair either at home or in a salon.
"The past year, I was just like, I do not like being natural. I work out every day. I also have work events every day where I have to have my hair done and all the things, and it just stopped making sense for me," says Ware, who made the decision to go back to relaxing her hair after six years of being natural.
She is not alone in her back-and-forth journey, as many other women have decided to return to relaxers for personal ease as opposed to the assimilative origins of the treatment.
"As a culture, we've evolved, and you know, we're just learning. I mean, a decade ago you look at red carpets, and it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, are we just conforming to their [Eurocentric] standards and stuff?" notes Ware.
There have also been changes in the way relaxers are formulated and handled.
"Over the years, it's gotten better. At one point, we felt like it was terrible for the hair and it puts terrible chemicals in our body. So then a lot of the brands decided to reformulate," says Christopher.
In lieu of lye, many brands began using less harsh ingredients in efforts to make relaxers safer for at-home and salon use.
"There are some brands who specialize in making sure the hair still keeps the integrity, going through the relaxing process. So I feel like it has definitely gotten to a better space now," says Christopher.
Beyond chemical reformations, many Black women are just happy to be in a space where they can do whatever they want with their hair without fear of ridicule from outside groups or even from other Black women.
"Black women are allowed to have a choice. And also, we don't all want to look alike. I think that the narrative is certainly changing into 'just give Black women grace'... what's easy for you may not be easy for somebody else. Some people say it's easy, taking care of their natural hair," says Ware.
Extending grace and allowing Black women to show up as their most authentic self is becoming an increasingly celebrated idea in both natural and chemically treated hair circles.
"Black hair doesn't have to be some political statement. I don't think that it has to be policed. I think it's best when we can do what we want with our natural hair without being demonized for it," says Burnett, who is completely natural but believes Black women should be granted full autonomy to do whatever they wish with their hair — even if that includes relaxing it.
Thanks to the community-building properties of apps such as TikTok, women with all hair types and styles are able to gain varying perspectives on the nuances of Black hair in all its forms.
"I remember seeing a TikTok recently of a beauty editor and she got the relaxer and she was also speaking to the ease of it, right? Like, you know, 'now I can get my hair relaxed, and I can get out the door …' but it was her decision," says Oliver. "It wasn't so much, like, outside influences putting that pressure on our hair, which I really love."
The TikToker she mentioned is Blake Newby, the former editor of fashion and beauty at Essence, who tells Yahoo Life she couldn't be happier with her decision to relax her hair after 10 years being natural.
"I will scream it from the mountain tops, I'm not going to be convinced anymore," says Newby, admitting that she did get considerable pushback in the comments of her videos.
"When I first said it, women had such a visceral reaction to it. I was like, why? And you realize it's because there are bigger ramifications of it," says Newby of the comments she received after she announced she was going back to relaxers, including drawn-out "noooos" or followers questioning her decision.
Ware had similar experiences with judgment from the natural-hair community about her decision to relax her hair.
lol has nothing to do with confidence, I wish this question would be packed up. Let Black women do what they want.
— Asia Milia (@MissAsiaMilia) July 23, 2022
"Let Black women do what they want to do. Everybody wants to say, 'Oh, live a soft life,' and I think a part of that is letting Black women decide what they want to do when it comes to everything, not just what you deem the soft life. If Black women want to get a perm because it makes their life easier, so be it," says Ware.
This sentiment is echoed by Newby, who says she is tired of the idea that Black women have to exist as a monolith to prove they love themselves.
"For so long, we've been policed. It was like we had to go natural and if we were natural, it's like, well, you don't wear your hair. There were so many things. So I am a huge proponent — not of the relaxer, but us doing what the hell we want for our lives," says Newby.
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