For some, the close-cropped haircut is liberating
And when every strand of her shoulder-length, straight hair was on the floor, Coleman stood from her seat and fell into the arms of the women circled around her. The room was filled with strangers who had come to witness the new hair ritual, show support and find courage to do the same, Coleman said.
“All the women just embraced me and were very encouraging,” she said as she recalled the event. “Everyone was complimenting me: ‘I like the way you look. I love your hair.'”
Pictured: Hairstylist Emon Fowler has launched the Chicago-based “Harriet Experiment,” in which she is asking black women to abandon weaves, wigs and chemical relaxers and spend a new year with new hair.
For African-American women, hair is often a battle ground for how beauty is defined. For one group of black women, shaving their hair to a close-cropped, boyish style has become a way of empowering themselves, rejecting mainstream standards of beauty and shedding their obsession with extensive, daily hair rituals.
“This is all about breaking free from that hair bondage,” said Fowler, a hairstylist. She says her project isn’t about building a clientele but changing mind-sets. “When a woman decides to cut all her hair, she discovers something underneath that is liberating. It can be therapeutic because you have to let go of the idea that you need these superficial extras to feel beautiful. It says, ‘I’ve accepted me.'”
Fowler said she was inspired to start her movement after reflecting on the life of Harriet Tubman, the iconic hero who risked her life to free hundreds of slaves. She sees her mission as helping free African-American women from the emotional and psychological baggage associated with their hair.
There are varying opinions in the black community about the meaning of straight hair, but some think it’s an attempt to imitate the white standard of beauty. Fowler said she wants to reinforce to African-American women that they don’t have to change their hair to feel pretty or accepted.
For African-American women, shaving off all their hair is nothing new. In the 1970s, thousands of black women wore their hair short and close-cropped as a symbol of racial pride and consciousness, said Lanita Jacobs, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California.
But in Fowler’s project, the women who decide to undergo the big chop do it publicly and with a built-in support system of cheerleaders, Jacobs said.
That support can help ease what can be a shock to black women’s psyche, one expert said.
“Black women have been conditioned to believe that our hair, in its natural state, is not beautiful, not professional and not manageable,” said Chris-Tia Donaldson, a Chicago-based author who wrote a book about the topic. “When you go to hair that is short, it can take a toll on your self-esteem. You have to learn how to work it and own it.”
There is a growing trend toward wearing hair more naturally, which some believe means a change in the definition of what beauty is for the next generation of African-Americans, Jacobs said.
“There has been a radical shift in black people’s minds on what can be beautiful,” she said. “Increasingly, black men are making room for non-straightened and non-long hair as a qualifier for beauty. More African-American celebrities are experimenting with natural hair.
“What black women do with their hair has always created questions: Who are you? Who are you trying to be? What does this mean?”
When a woman shaves her hair close to the scalp, it can unearth feelings of vulnerability, Jacobs said. For those African-American women who have straightened their hair for much of their lives, it can be particularly jarring.
“You are in some cases stepping away from something that you know and into new, unknown territory,” Jacobs said. “When you do the big chop, people come up and ask questions. It can complicate your appeal to the opposite sex, it can complicate your job searching endeavors, it can complicate your family relationships. Your family may ask, who are you?”
Because her hero, Tubman, freed an estimated 700 slaves, Fowler has an ambitious mission to find 700 black women willing to undergo the big chop this year, she said. So far, she’s only gotten a couple of dozen to join her on the journey. But her project isn’t just about numbers, she said. It’s about making a statement.
The project actually comes at a time when more African-American women are abandoning the mainstream weaves and relaxers and making peace with their natural textures, statistics show.
The number of black women who said they do not use chemicals to straighten their hair jumped to 36 percent in 2011 from 25 percent in 2010, according to a report by Mintel, a consumer spending and market research firm. Sales of hair relaxer boxed kits dropped 17 percent between 2006 and 2011, Mintel’s report showed.
In addition, there has been a recent flood of blogs, websites, meet-up groups and YouTube video postings devoted to demonstrating to women how to transition to natural textures and how to style their new hair, Donaldson said.
Antinique Bearden-Nunes said she had been thinking about leaving her straight hair behind for a year, but she was afraid of how she would look. When she saw other women at Fowler’s launch celebrating the cut, she stepped up to do the same.
“I feel like I can do anything now,” said Bearden-Nunes, 24, who was still giddy about her haircut days after it was done. “I finally can care less about what others think. I have three young children, and I can’t let them see any shadow of low self-esteem.”
Bearden-Nunes said she has been so pleased with her decision that she has been oblivious to the reaction of her friends and strangers on the street. Her fiance wasn’t at all thrilled when she came home with less than an inch of hair.
“I told him, ‘I’m still me, I’m still beautiful,'” she said.
After years of contemplating the bold step, Coleman, 55, decided that she would cut all of her processed hair off. For Coleman, it was a break from what she called an unhealthy obsession and lifestyle.
“I’ve had chemicals in my hair since I was 14 or 15 years old,” she said. “It was like a vicious cycle. I was using chemicals monthly to get a touch-up or a perm. I had to blow my hair out, use the curling iron. I’ve gone through so much over the last three years with hairpieces and wigs and such. I’m done with it.”
The day she arrived at work with her short cropped cut, Coleman said she noticed some of her colleagues paused and looked at her. Her manager, in particular, smiled and celebrated her new look.
But some of her friends have been less enthused when they see her hair, Coleman said. Some shake their heads and say they would never have done it.
“When you make a drastic change of this nature, you have to own it, and that’s what I’m doing. I walk with confidence,” she said. “This is the new me.”