Natural vs. Relaxed Hair: Which Is Better?

Updated on June 25, 2017

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.

I can remember being a little girl with very long, course hair. On Sunday afternoon, my mom would start the daunting process of “doing my hair.” 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. Once the conditioner was rinsed out, my hair reverted to the course, curly texture, which meant more detangling. 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. 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. 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 watching 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. 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.

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.

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. From my own experience, relaxed hair is a bit easier to manage. Some would say it’s even easier to style. 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. The advantage to wearing natural hair though, is that it is less prone to damage. 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. 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.

Spike Lee's School Daze, Good and Bad Hair scene

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.

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