8 truths about natural hair no one understands

In recent years a new (yet old) hair trend has emerged in the black community — natural hair. For decades, black women and some black men have used harsh chemicals to straighten their hair. But for one reason or another, so many — two-thirds of black women according to some estimates, including myself — are choosing to stray from the chemicals.

Wearing natural hair isn't easy or cheap. And many natural hair women face discrimination and emotional strife. But the chief issue in the natural hair movement is that so few people understand anything about natural hair. Seriously, I spend a weird amount of time explaining to people I don't take my dreadlocks out every night!

So if you've ever wondered about natural hair, here are a few things you probably didn't know.

Going natural

The world of black hair care has a language all its own. It's seldom talked about in-depth or truly understood in the mainstream. But to truly understand black hair care — natural or otherwise — it's important to get up to speed with some of the major terms and tools of the trade.

Relaxers are often called perms, but don't confuse them with the type of perm that curls straight hair — this one does the opposite. A relaxer is a chemical lotion that's applied to extremely curly, coiled hair to make it lay straight. Though these products are less harsh than they used to be, they can still do some damage to both your scalp and your hair.

Another term you'll hear often (especially in this article), is going natural. To be or go natural is a somewhat less concrete idea. In general, being natural means you don't use any chemical to change the texture or natural curl pattern of your hair. So that means no relaxers to straighten hair, no permanents to curl naturally straight hair, and no texturizers to loosen up tight curls. However, there are some that believe coloring your hair with dyes is not natural, either.

The big chop

If you are making the decision to go au natural, you also have to decide how to make the transition. The chemicals in relaxers, permanents, and texturizers are very strong and cannot be reversed. This is because the hair shaft is instantly weakened by the chemicals. So once you apply it to your existing hair, that hair will forever be straightened or curled. However, it doesn't change new growth.

In transitioning from relaxed hair to natural, many women choose what is called "the big chop," meaning you chop off all or most of your hair. This way, you don't have a mix of natural hair and frayed, relaxed ends. This concept can be challenging for so many people — me included.

Hair doesn't just represent a woman's beauty, it has been used throughout history to indicate a woman's health status and social position. Today, long hair is associated with youthfulness.

So chopping off your hair, even knowing it will likely grow back healthier and stronger, can cause grief. It's not an easy decision.

The transition

The big chop isn't mandatory for a successful transition. Personally, the idea of chopping off my hair caused so much anxiety, I pushed off going natural for three years. And when I did finally take the plunge, I avoided the big chop like the plague.

Instead I opted for protective hairstyles that I wore consistently for a year, cutting off the relaxed ends every month, until I was ready to show my natural hair. Protective styles are as they sound — hairstyles that protect hair from abrasive actions we normally put our hair through. Protective styles range from wearing wigs and full head weaves with the natural hair tucked away, to wearing box braids or twists.

The reason women in transition should consider protective hairstyles is because it decreases tangling, shedding, and breakage. It also limits the odds of engaging in bad habits like repeated combing, over-styling hair, heat-damaging hair, or over-washing hair. However, protective styles aren't maintenance-free. It's recommended to allow hair to breathe, don't let too much lint and dirt build up, and don't neglect to moisturize the hair and scalp.

Feeling is believing

In the world of natural hair, texture is of huge importance. Oprah's hairstylist, Andre Walker, created a system to categorize the varying hair textures. In his system there are four major hair types with subcategories in each. The four main categories are straight, wavy, curly and kinky. Not only do these four textures vary widely in appearance, but also in how they should be cared for. Knowing the texture of your hair is important, as it dictates how often you should clean your hair, what products to use, and often what styles work best.

Black women have natural hair that run the full spectrum of Andre Walker's texture system. In having natural hair, the key is often feeling your hair to know what your texture really is and caring for it accordingly.

Money is a thing

It's easy to think wearing your hair in its natural state would be the most cost-effective hair care plan ever, but you'd be wrong.

Natural hair care products are pricey in comparison to the general hair care products one might buy to maintain relaxed hair. When I relaxed my hair, I had a bi-monthly hair care budget of $50 — $35 every eight weeks for a relaxer at a salon and the remainder went to shampoo (which lasted me about six months) and headbands (I'm obsessed with headbands). Now that I have dreadlocks, I've lost count of how much I spend every month on hair care — I treat myself to a salon trip once a year, which costs between $100 and $200 depending on the what I get done.

I'm not alone in this hair care budget battle. In an opinion piece for Ebony magazine, one writer lists the hefty price for self-maintenance products — a 16 oz jar of Miss Jessie's Buttercream moisturizer is $58, a 1 oz dropper of Jane Carter Scalp Nourishing Serum is $14, and a 32 oz bottle of Dr. Bronner's almond pure-castile liquid soap (which I use for shampoo) costs $17.99 — I go through a bottle every couple of months.

There are a lot of reasons why those products are so expensive, but often it boils down to the ingredients. These products tend to have natural ingredients that nourish the hair without a bunch of dangerous chemicals, and they do have their benefits. Once you've applied a shea and cocoa butters loc butter that provides the hold you need, while simultaneously deep conditioning your hair without causing nasty build up, you'll never go back to that $4 locking gel that smells and feels like Elmer's glue.

Shrinkage is real

Anyone with curly hair deals with shrinkage, but black women with kinky hair types deal with it on a whole new level. When wet, kinky-textured hair tends to shrink because the coils come in close together. It's believed that when the hair is able to shrink after straightening or other types of styling that stretches the hair, it means the strands are still strong. It's kind of like a coiled spring — the really good ones can be stretched, but will come back to its natural state no matter what. Shrinkage is also a natural protective style. If your hair shrinks, it's less likely to brush up with clothing, and generally be manipulated into damaging styles.

Dandruff and scalp care

Kinky hair is naturally drier and less oily than straighter hair, so dandruff can be a problem. Dandruff is the remains of dead cells from the scalp. Though it tends to build up in areas where hair grows, dandruff actually has nothing to do with hair. It is most often caused by a fungus on the scalp. People with darker skin tend to suffer from dandruff and other skin shedding conditions more often than those with lighter skin.

Because of the combination of skin conditions and less hair oil, it is recommended that black people use sulfate-free shampoos that do not strip the natural oils from the scalp. For those with itchy, dry scalp due to eczema, sulfur and tar-based shampoos are the best options. Over-the-counter dandruff shampoos, like Selsun Blue or Head and Shoulders are not recommended, as they may inflame existing skin conditions.

Psychological warfare

In a fall 2008 issue of the Michigan Feminist Studies, Cheryl Thompson wrote, "For young black girls, hair is not just something to play with, it is something that is laden with messages, and it has the power to dictate how others treat you, and in turn, how you feel about yourself."

For many black women — natural or otherwise — hair isn't just about a crown. It's a force, guiding your life and defining who you are. The greatest truth of natural hair is that no one can understand the depth of feelings this hair can evoke. It changes everything. It changes the kind of men that are attracted to you. It changes friendships. It changes families. It may cause new issues in the workplace. Most importantly, it changes the person, maybe even bringing up old issues of insecurity or low self-esteem. Keep in mind that how you wear your hair should be no one's decision but your own. If you want natural hair, it may take some work, but you can rock it.