In an almost pandemic-like fashion, natural hairstyles have slowly become more and more commonplace among women of color. While it was once seen as taboo in the entertainment world, this infusion of curly locks and effervescent afros has been mirrored in media outlets across the country. The current generation of interest has resulted in more black women with natural hair to grace television screens and magazine advertisements. In my time observing this metamorphosis, I’ve heard testimonials from several different women that have embellished their crowns with these earthy looks. Some cite how the transition has made it less troublesome to maintain tedious hairstyles, which is complemented by the ease with which they can quickly adjust their tresses to fit the environment. Others had become overwhelmed by the expense of visiting hair salons every week and expressed a feeling of deep relief at saving both money and time that went along with pricey appointments. A third group was reeled in by promises of stronger, healthier hair and has managed to achieve that result. While all of these are inspiring reasons to tout natural hair, as a 23-year-old black male, I find my pleasure in less than their motivations behind it. My elation gravitates instead to the fact that it is being done.
I developed an infatuation with natural hair a few years ago when my eyes first opened to the existence of a larger community of women with afros and dreadlocks. I found something so graceful about it and felt an instantaneous connection to any woman with natural hair. At one point, I had even sported a larger than life afro that caused people to compare me to a certain cartoon character. I remember on more than a few occasions, women would come up to me and compliment me on my hair while expressing a desire to grow their own out the way mine was, and I immediately encouraged them to go for it. I look at the vast sea of women who have gained the courage to tout natural hair as a symbol of the bravery to fight for one of the most central components of their lives: self-image. There is too often a force from external sources that sets the standard for what is beautiful, and this demanding voice is often masculine. This is why I view the natural hair movement as a step forward for all women, not just black, as a retaliation against the invisible hand that directs them to what is and isn’t acceptable and attractive. Hollywood is an agent of misinformation that stresses the need for prosthetics and makeup in order for a woman to feel good about herself. As unconnected as it may seem, the transition to natural hair can become a movement for women of all races to reclaim their self-image. It is powerful and beautiful.
New Orleans has always been a cultural mecca, and with the new prevalence of interest in natural hair, we have seen how women of our city have created their own interpretation of the look. Kartis Lewis is one such woman. I met Kartis only a few weeks ago after photographing the International Natural Hair Meetup Day in Baton Rouge hosted by Red Stick Naturals, an organization dedicated to strengthening the natural hair community in the Capital City. Kartis is a New Orleans native that describes her transition as something of a relay race that didn’t have a clear-cut finish line until the baton reached the final runner. She explains that it wasn’t a particularly bad experience, but many family members and friends were originally skeptical about her decision. “They had it in their head that going natural is for people who have problems with their hair. It took them a minute to get used to it,” she explains. While many women mention easy breakage and difficulty in gaining length, Kartis found herself able to attain longer hair before abandoning hair-relaxing products. This contributed to the ease of her being able to undergo her transition. Instead of cutting it all off at once as some women choose to do, she was able to relieve herself of a few inches at a time as she grew out her relaxed hair and replaced it with her newly growing natural hair. Her transition process is one of many that can be implemented.
An unexpected outcome Kartis has experienced since going natural is the sweeping good will the natural hair community has towards its members. “Women can be really competitive,” she notes. “I like the fact that the natural hair community is so open and accepting.“ Whereas some women refrain from complimenting their peers on their looks, members of the natural community do not hesitate to express their admiration for each others’ hair, Kartis says. This humility is another aspect of natural hair that makes it so much more of a welcoming experience.
Kartis is one of the many women living in New Orleans that have embraced a natural hairstyle and become privy to an elevated sense of camaraderie. It is this kinship combined with the distinctive flavor of New Orleans that makes natural hair a unique experience in the city, and it is here that I will document it.
Patrick Melon is a student, photographer and aspiring filmmaker. Constantly creating, his work can be found at his website, PatrickMelon.tumblr.com.