How the Early Natural Hair Movement Changed the Beauty World as We Know It

We take a look at the movements of the past and where it's headed.

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byrdie editor olivia hancock for crowned


Welcome to Crowned, our new series about the history of Black hair. Hosted by senior social media editor Star Donaldson, Crowned explores the history and traditions that have shaped the Black experience and the hairstyles born out of them. In our newest episode, sponsored by Ulta Beauty, we deep-dive into the early aughts of the natural hair movement, which changed the beauty industry as we know it. Join us in learning more. This series is researched and fact-checked by Christine Forbes and Oluwatobi Odugunwa.

The way we think about, treat, and cater to natural hair these days is a lot different from decades prior, but much of it is credited to the natural hair movements of the past. In the latest episode of Crowned, executive producer and host Star Donaldson, explores the origins of the natural hair movements of the 1960s and early 2000s and how they both impacted culture as we know it. Read on for more.

The Early Natural Hair Movement

When you think about the boom that sparked a conversation about natural hair on various platforms, you may think about the movement that began around 2009. However, before that, the natural hair movement was seeded during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. 

During this time, activists like Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, and more, wore various hairstyles (like a picked-out Afro) as a symbol of support for the Black Panther party. Wearing your natural hair in this period was political and was against the status quo of manipulating your strands to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards.

The Social Media Impact

The natural hair movement continued to evolve well past the 1960s, but social media was a massive factor in catapulting it to what we know today. "At the beginning of the 2000s, ultra-sleek long hair was the look," Donaldson says. "Picture Aaliyah, Monica, Beyonce, Raven Symone, Tia and Tamara Mowry in the later episodes of Sister Sister." These celebrities were great examples of the popularity of straight hair in mainstream media.

"Some of the only places you could find curls, kinks, and coils during the Y2K era was on neo-soul artists such as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Lauryn Hill," Donaldson says. "Relaxer companies made a lot of money in the 90s. But ever since the social media era took off around 2008, relaxer sales have plummeted. Black women everywhere were ditching the creamy concoction to build communities around more natural approaches to wellness."

This shift from chemical relaxers, combined with the rise of social platforms like YouTube and Instagram, birthed a generation of influencers who documented their natural hair journeys, transforming the industry, market, and lives. Women like Whitney White, Rochelle Graham-Campbell, and more posted their go-to hairstyles, product cocktails, and review on social media, opening the pandora's box for sponsored content, brand collaborations, and—ultimately—their very own beauty brands on shelves at Ulta Beauty and other mass retailers. "These women and their product guidance became the script for influencer culture," Donaldson says. "I know that when I started transitioning, I leaned on my newly natural friends, but YouTube was truly my guide."

During this time, we also saw a rise in salons and professional hairstylists who specifically worked with natural textures and styles." With the help of natural hair influencers, the increased popularity of natural salons, and more accessible products, learning and loving our hair became easier than ever," Donaldson explains. "Many natural hair influencers began making products in their kitchens and took their talents to beauty labs and boardrooms to create successful Black-woman-owned businesses."

Still, it wasn't without a learning curve for many of us, who only knew our hair in a heat-styled or chemically-straightened state. It's why transitioning, a term for the process of going natural by growing out heat damage or a relaxer, became a popular option for many people. Transitioning allowed people to go natural without chopping off their strands short, though big chops are still a viable option if waiting it out isn't.

The Future of The Movement

According to Donaldson, the early aughts of the natural hair movement were more about escaping heat damage and chemicals and becoming reacquainted with your hair texture. "The majority of Black women had only a few choices of how to style their hair because of product accessibility and societal standards," Donaldson explains. "Not to mention, that much of the natural hair movement idolized loose curl textures and twist outs or braid outs to turn tighter textures into looser ones due to texturism."

However, recently on TikTok, we've seen a shift of people returning to relaxers and straight hairstyles. "The super straight Y2K look is coming back, and to seamlessly achieve it without a wig, you have to straighten or relax your hair," says Donaldson. Still, the most important thing to note about the tone of the future of natural hair is that ultimately—your hair is your choice. "It’s important to acknowledge that we have more options than before when it comes to natural versus relaxed hair, and that’s something to celebrate."

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