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Natural vs Relaxed

2009 February 8
by Alex M.

Reading Anne’s post on Michelle Obama reminded me of another appearance altering process that is so ubiquitous I doubt many notice it: the relaxer. The process of “relaxing” is a way of chemically straightening Afro-American hair so that it is transformed from naturally soft yet dense curls to a more European style. Michelle swears that she does not use a relaxer and I believe her because it is possible to achieve the same style with heat treatments (ex. blow-drying, flat irons). But for those of us with denser hair, the chemical straightener is our only option for straighter hair.

Since its debut and subsequent switches from lye to more gentle chemicals, the debate has not been whether or not this treatment is necessary or not. Rather, one wonders if the purpose is to make African-American hair more manageable or to emulate their European counterparts. Personally, I have had my hair relaxed since eighth grade in order to avoid the memories of afternoons spent in the kitchen with my mother washing, raking, and braiding my tangled hair in an attempt to impose some order on it. The phrase “Go get a comb” is still associated with tears in my mind. Relaxing my hair was a way to escape these painful hours and gain some independence as I was able to style my hair however I wanted.

The relaxer has its downsides. While it provides one with more manageable hair, it is still comprised of harsh chemicals which may damage one’s hair over time. It can cause hair to become brittle and fall out, depending on how often it is applied (which is usually every 4-6 weeks). If left on for too long, it can burn the skin on your scalp, but if it is not left on for long enough, the relaxer will not fully straighten the hair. One has to find a relaxer that is gentle on the skin and will thoroughly straighten the hair.

But I am not naive. It is almost akin to the rhinoplasty in the Banales article, in that straightened hair is considered more professional. It is rare to see woman of African descent with her natural hair in a professional setting. Employers are more likely to hire a woman of color with more European features. Natural hair in the form of an afro or braids is seen as unkempt, giving the wearer the appearance of being disorganized and less employable. I know that when I enter a professional setting, my hair will be judged, whether it is straight or curly. African-American women in the media usually have straight hair and are viewed as being more attractive and desireable. Yet either way, I will probably keep relaxing my hair. For me.

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