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New York City Is Catching On to the Curls

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Here you’ll find an article about the complexity behind natural hair, a topic that is often ignored.

She walked into Miss Jessie’s hair salon in Lower Manhattan with a smile on her face, her honey-caramel curls bouncing as she proceeded to the washing station for a wash and go — a shampoo, some product, a quick blast under the dryer and then a blow dry with a diffuser to fluff out the volume of her ringlets.

There were no harmful chemicals used, no taut blow drying, no suppressing the mass of corkscrew curls that were her natural look.

For Loretta Rucker, the curly hair style is not just popular and fun. It’s a logical extension of her commitment to do what comes naturally and embrace the curls that had been tucked away for much of her life.

“I came up during the ‘black is beautiful’ era and immediately wanted to be in my natural hair and did that for years,” said Ms. Rucker, who lives in Brooklyn and is the executive director of the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Her natural styles have included, she said, Afros, cornrows and braids.

Now, she said, like many other women of color, she’s happy to let her naturally curly hair just “be.”

Celebrities like the singer Solange Knowles, the actress Tracee Ellis Ross and the Broadway star Josh Groban have also been rocking their curls lately. So, it seems, are ordinary New Yorkers, whose curls can be seen swaying along with the motion of subway cars.

More salons are offering services for curly-haired customers, and a number of bloggers are promoting the look as a way of self-acceptance and personal comfort.

For women of color in particular, it has become a way to shed long-held conventions of what is acceptable for them in a society in which “black hair” was often seen as unattractive and hairstyles are often interpreted in a harsh political light.

“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,” wrote Cheryl Thompson, in “Black Women and Identity: What’s hair got to do with it?,” published in 2008 by the University of Michigan.

It also can carry social and political weight, she said, citing the book “Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African-American Women” by Noliwe Rooks (Rutgers University Press, 1996).

“Hair in 1976 spoke to racial identity politics as well as bonding between African-American women. Its style could lead to acceptance or rejection from certain groups and social classes, and its styling could provide the possibility of a career,” Ms. Rooks wrote.

Even today, hair can be a subject of tension between black girls and white authorities. Twin sisters in Malden, Mass., were punished for having braids with extensions, which school officials deemed a distraction from learning. The dress code also banned hair coloring but was not enforced for white students, critics pointed out. The school district eventually reversed itself after the state attorney general said the policy violated state and federal law.

“Culturally we need to wake up,” Ms. Rucker said. “Is that so much different from judging people by their skin tone?”

The trend to curly hair is, in part, a reaction to those perceived restrictions. But it’s also part of a movement toward more natural treatment of hair, known as protective styles.

Women are avoiding dangerous chemicals that damage their hair and have been frequently used in salons to straighten or otherwise “control” black hair.

In early April, Michelle Obama gave a boost to supporters of protective styles when she was photographed with her natural hair — a departure after eight years as first lady in which her hair was almost always straightened or artificially curled.

Bloggers like Tyla Gilmore applauded Mrs. Obama and used the moment to encourage their followers to embrace the protective look. Ms. Gilmore shares her beauty tips on Instagram, where she has more than 88,000 followers.

Certainly, curly was not the style at the predominantly white elementary and middle school that she attended, said Ms. Gilmore, whose heritage is mixed. “I was super-insecure,” she said. “I just never thought I was going to put the straightener down.”

But in 2014 she went natural. Her curly hair, she said, gives her a sense of who she is as a person. “It’s my individuality, my strength.”

Ashly Rodriguez, a blogger and a friend of Ms. Gilmore’s, said she relaxed her hair for 10 years. At 23 she knew it was time to go natural.

“Make sure you’re doing it for you,” she said. “Don’t do it because it’s popular, don’t do it because all your friends are doing it. It’s not a trend but a lifestyle.”

Another blogger, Veronica Bonilla, said others have not always reacted well to her look. “I was working in a doctor’s office and sometimes they would ask me to tie my hair up because according to them it was too much,” she said.

“I’m not going to tie my hair up; my hair is who I am.”

Because of the popularity of the curly style, many companies are coming out with new products, while salons are learning new techniques.

Miss Jessie’s is doing both. Miko Branch and Titi Branch, sisters, started out by founding a salon in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn in 1997. In 2004, they came out with the first of their curly hair products, and now have a line with names like Pillow Soft Curls and Curly Pudding.

“I would be mistaken if I thought it was a trend,” Miko Branch said of the curly look. “But it is fun and it is very fashionable. And is it trendy then? Absolutely.”

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