The Fascinating Evolution of Chemical Perms and Relaxers on Natural Hair

Updated 04/25/19

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Natural girls, let's take it back to the '90s. How often did you see big afros and kinky curls featured in beauty advertisements, the runways, or on the big screens? Instead, the only images we saw glorified were silky, straight hair with soft curls. So growing up a little black girl as a minority in Portland, Oregon, that was all I wanted.

If we're being honest here, I have a vivid memory from a class field trip to a water amusement park that was a defining hair moment for me. One of my close friends could get her hair wet and she'd come out of the pool with bone-straight hair. I want my hair to still look straight too, I thought to myself. I was so jealous that every time my natural, hot-combed hair would touch water it would immediately transform into frizzy curls. I went home and cried to my mom, begging her for a relaxer like my best friend's so my hair could stay "pretty and straight." My mom refused to let me put chemicals in my hair. "Once you put chemicals in your hair, your natural curl pattern is going to change for a long time," she warned me during the time that she was trying to grow out her relaxer from her hair and go natural. 

You see, chemical relaxers were all my mom and grandmother saw. Naturally curly hair was nowhere. I talked to celebrity hairstylist Nai'vasha Johnson of Exclusive Artists Management about the evolution of chemical perms and relaxers on natural hair and how its transformed over time. 

 First, it's important to differentiate a chemical perm and a relaxer. "A chemical perm and relaxer are two totally different directions. A relaxer is designed to straighten your curl pattern, so if you want your hair straight or to loosen your natural hair, relaxers are for that. A perm is designed to create curl, waves, and texture that is not natural. You’ll mostly find women of color wearing relaxers instead of perms," says Johnson. 

This statement is surely true. If you're wondering why women of color gravitate more toward relaxers, Johnson notes that it's closely tied to society's ideal beauty standards. "The media portrays the definition of beauty as being thin with really sleek hair, which in turn made women with textured hair feel like they need to relax their hair so they can be a part of that definition of beauty. Not necessarily because they even needed it, but because that’s what was defined as put together, refined, polish, sexy, and sophisticated." 

In the '90s, these stereotypical beauty standards related to chemical relaxers were the most popular. "The '90s was a huge, huge era for relaxers," says Johnson. Most actresses, entertainers, and models in the media chemically relaxed their hair. 

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"In the past three or four years, society has embraced curls. Now, all textures matter. Consequently, perms and relaxers are now viewed negatively in the natural hair community," says Johnson. "I have two daughters who wore dreadlocks until they were 4. I took them down and one of my daughters has relaxed hair and the other daughter has natural hair." 

Being natural is not for everyone. It’s a beautiful thing, but just because you wear your hair kinky-curly does not mean that your hair is healthy.

It's vital to realize that all women have a choice with their hair. Whether or not you want to wear your hair natural or have chemically treated hair is completely up to you, and that should be free of any judgments. 

"If your lifestyle and your knowledge of how to take care of your hair does not make it easy for you to have natural hair, relaxed hair is better for you. Because at least your hair can be healthy," Johnson explains. "Black women are really embarrassed to say they have relaxed hair or have used a texturizer to loosen their curl pattern. When in reality, so many popular natural-haired beauty vloggers on YouTube are doing the same thing." 

Johnson points out that your profession or your lifestyle can impact your decision on the state you choose to wear your hair in. "Maybe your workload or lifestyle doesn't allow you to walk around with big and kinky hair," says Johnson. "Maybe you’re in the military and you need to be able to wear your hair straight so you can fit in with the dress code. That doesn’t mean you need to feel bad about it." 

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Contrary to popular belief, there are healthy ways to wear chemically treated hair. "One of the key components to maintaining chemically treated hair is moisture," explains Johnson. "Shampoo and condition your hair on a weekly basis. Once you condition your hair put a plastic cap on and sit underneath the dryer so the conditioner can penetrate your hair shafts. You want to steer away from as much heat exposure as possible." Johnson also believes that it's important to wait eight weeks to get a root touch up to stay on a healthy track.

With that, remember that you have a personal choice with your hair. And that decision is only up to you.

While we're talking texture, read Gabrielle Union's unfiltered thoughts on society embracing the beauty of black hair.

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