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Natural vs. Relaxed Hair: Which Is Better?

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I've worn my hair both ways—natural and relaxed—and I'm interested in discussing the pros and cons of each.

Natural hair on the left, and relaxed hair on the right.

Natural hair on the left, and relaxed hair on the right.

There is an ever-growing debate in the African-American community regarding hair texture. Unfortunately, this ongoing debate has many women feeling they must choose a side. Natural or relaxed hair? This is the question.

As an African-American woman who has worn my hair in both ways, I can confirm that there are pros and cons to both. But, before we get into that, we really need to understand some important elements that contribute to this debate. You may hear people say that black people have been conditioned to think and feel a certain way about themselves. Self-image is a very important factor to consider here.

The smoking hot comb.

The smoking hot comb.

The Process of Getting My Hair Done as a Child

I can remember being a little girl with very long, coarse hair. On Sunday afternoon, my mom would start the daunting process of “doing my hair.”

  1. Washing was the first step. Then, my hair was drenched in conditioner, detangled, and left to sit covered with a plastic cap for about 30 minutes.
  2. Once the conditioner was rinsed out, my hair reverted to the coarse, curly texture, which meant more detangling.
  3. After this second detangling, which was even more dreadful than the first without the softening conditioner, she would section my hair and make small plaits.
  4. We had this old-fashioned, hooded salon dryer in my mom’s room. Her hairdresser friend had given it to her once she no longer had a use for it. I was too short to sit under it and have my head reach the hood. So my mom would stack telephone books in the seat for me to sit on.
  5. Once my hair was dry, which took about an hour, we would go to the kitchen. A hot comb was placed on the stove, and we would commence with the final step in the process, “the straightening.” She would take out one plait at a time, grease the section, comb through it with a regular comb, then comb through it with the smoking hot comb. This resulted in a shiny, silky, straight section of hair. This was repeated until all the plaits were straightened.

I endured this process every other weekend until I was about 10 years old. This is when mom decided she was tired of that whole process. She also later admitted to me that she felt sorry for me as she watched me go through it. It literally took up the entire Sunday. So she decided to chemically relax my hair. Relaxing my hair was a much easier process, and the outcome was the same. Shiny, straight, silky hair.

Straight Hair Was the Goal

I said all that to say that whatever the method, my mom’s goal was to get me silky, straight hair. My story is not unique. At an early age, most little black girls in my generation were held to a certain standard of beauty. And that standard stated that long, straight hair was beautiful. I can’t remember when I started thinking that way. I just remember always wanting my hair to be straight and long.

Good and Bad Hair

Fast forward to present day. A lot of black women still hold themselves and others to this standard of beauty without even realizing it. This is where the debate gets tricky. It’s one thing to have an opinion, but quite another to impose certain ideals upon others.

  • For instance, a woman who wears relaxed hair shouldn’t make a woman who wears natural hair feel her hair is unappealing or unprofessional.
  • And natural hair wearers shouldn’t exhibit self-righteous behavior making relaxed hair wearers feel they are further removed from their own culture.

But this is exactly what’s happening in our community. In Spike Lee's movie, School Daze, the infamous "Good and Bad Hair" scene was very entertaining for our generation. And although it was a bit exaggerated, it made some very relevant points. The light skin women in the scene had long, straight hair. They were team Good Hair. And the dark skin women had shorter, course hair. Team Bad Hair.

And although we cheered and giggled making fun of the scene, in the black community, this was a very real thing. You were categorized as having either good or bad hair. And back then, we referred to natural hair as bad. The older I got, I realized how silly it was to have been so psychologically affected by this as a child. Some people would say there's no such thing as good or bad hair. And I would have to agree.

Spike Lee's "School Daze"

Pros and Cons

What it boils down to is a matter of preference. As I mentioned before, there are pros and cons to both natural and relaxed hair:

Relaxed Hair

  • Pro: From my own experience, relaxed hair is a bit easier to manage. Some would say it’s even easier to style.
  • Con: However, the disadvantage to applying a chemical to your hair every 4-6 weeks is that your hair becomes more prone to damage. And that’s not to say that everyone who has relaxed hair has damaged hair. I’ve seen women with gorgeous, healthy relaxed hair. On the other side of the coin, I’ve also seen women with very damaged natural hair. It’s really all in how you take care of your hair.

Natural Hair

  • Pro: The advantage to wearing natural hair, though, is that it is less prone to damage.
  • Pro: Another obvious advantage is being chemical-free. There have been implications that the chemicals in hair relaxers can be very dangerous if used improperly. Whether this is true or not, it’s one less thing natural hair wearers have to fret about. I would consider that a pro.
  • Con: A con, on the other hand, is that natural hair can be harder to maintain and style for some. When I decided to start wearing my hair natural, I had the hardest time figuring out what to do with it. But after watching dozens of YouTube videos and practicing different styling techniques, every day maintenance became much easier.

Hair Style Is a Matter of Preference

Although I’ve been wearing my hair natural for 10 years now, I still view this debate objectively. Having said that, it bothers me when I see African American women contending with each other over a hair style preference. And that’s really all it is people. A matter of preference.

There’s no right or wrong way to wear your hair. And it doesn’t make you superior or inferior to wear your hair one way or the other. We’re not 10-year-old girls being held to a preconceived standard of beauty anymore. We can develop our own standards and preferences. There’s no objective way to judge what makes something beautiful. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do I manage my natural hair?

Answer: This is a very broad question. It really depends on your hairstyle and your preference as far as products. I would have to know your specific hairstyle to give detailed advice. But generally speaking, just make sure your hair stays healthy and moistured. Also there are tons of youtube videos to help with styling and managing advice.

Question: How long should you weight to transition from relaxed hair to natural?

Answer: There is no specific time limit. It depends on the individual and how you decide to approach it. A lot of women do what's called a "big chop" in the natural hair community. This means you will let your roots/hair grow out to a certain length, and then cut off the relaxed portion. Others would rather let their roots grow out a little at a time trimming the relaxed portions a little at a time. Protective styles help if you go this route. It all depends on your preference and how fast your hair grows. Whatever you choose, just make sure your hair remains healthy.

Question: How many conditioners and shampoos should I use and the day I don't use the shampoo what should I use?

Answer: You can use as many as you want. My suggestion would be to try some out and find the ones that work best for you. Some women with natural hair find benefits to co-washing. This is when you skip the shampoo and only use a conditioning product in your hair sometimes.

Comments

SJ on June 25, 2020:

I tried to go natural in college, I don't think I made it even a few months before I had my hair relaxed. Then I went natural again in 2013 and I'm obsessed with it now. I can't imagine going back to relaxing my hair for so many reasons. I feel now that relaxing my hair was physically, psychologically and emotionally toxic and it's just not for me. I went natural kind of by accident, I had a long overseas trip to go on and the only stylist I trusted to relax my hair was in a car accident, so no relaxer for me. My best friend decided then it was a great time to transition from relaxers and with YouTube's help I did. I even manage now to only occasionally heat style my hair which is a miracle for me. I have a lot of hair and it's a lot of work to be honest, but I'm so much faster than I used to be.

Makayla LaShore on October 03, 2018:

I just did an assignment in my college English class about natural hair vs relaxed hair. Here's the link https://jointhenaturalwave.weebly.com/

Mimi on August 22, 2018:

I've been natural three times, and this third time it finally stuck, sort of. My health was a factor, but not the health of my hair. I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, so that made my hair come out in clumps. Finally, after losing almost two heads of hair,I Iet my hair grow out natural and keep a long natural weave in it.

Since the weave is a bit silkier than my texture I leave the relaxer on the hair I leave out for a few minutes just to silk out the curl a bit. My real hair is almost at my bra strap again, and the maintenance of the weave and my little bit of left out hair is far easier than anything I've had before, relaxed or natural.

when I do wear my real hair I always wear it straight since my curl pattern is so dry.