ATLANTA -- All month, Sharee Bryant had been hearing women talk about hair.
She'd overheard two women in a grocery store checkout line talking about a $62 shampoo and conditioner combo designed for black women who had decided to forgo chemically straightening their hair. She'd heard a woman at her church questioning why so many of the young women in the pews had the temerity to show up with their hair in its natural state -- curly, kinky or somewhere in between. And she had read online about the black women driving from places as far away as Arkansas and Chicago to the Spring World Natural Hair Show in Atlanta.
So by the time Bryant -- an Atlanta-area insurance agent who's taken to wearing her natural hair coiled into Bantu Knots since cutting off her chemically relaxed bob last year -- stood in a 35-minute line outside the late April hair show, she had a list of the products she wanted to touch, sample and smell.
Still, what Bryant, 34, heard next took her by surprise.
"Go to the beach. Go to the club. Wherever you want to go this summer. Ladies, what you need is a Prota Organic Weave," a rail-thin woman equipped with a Janet Jackson-style headset microphone announced from a booth near the front of the sprawling exhibit space. "Let it blow in the wind. That's right, shake it."
"You can have the man you want, the life you want, ladies," the woman continued. "Change your look up today for $15. I can change your life for $15. Right here, we've got what you need, organic weave."
The pitch wasn't just persistent, it had deeper resonance. For black women, how they wear their hair is complicated by a deep well of personal, social and commercial interests. Despite a record one-year decline in the sales of chemical hair relaxer anda boom in beauty products, websites, blogs and YouTube channels aimed at black women with natural hair, the conversation around black hair is anything but closed. In 2011, the question of when and why so many black women chemically relax their hair or go natural remains fraught and very much open.
"I really feel like this may be the year that the natural finally went mainstream," said Bryant, before pursing her lips and taking one of those deep, stay-calm breaths. Prota's pitchwoman was doing her thing just a few feet away from a table where Bryant had stopped to inspect a 6 oz., $27 jar of curl cream. "I'm really kind of surprised -- maybe even a little offended -- that weave woman is here. As far as I'm concerned, she's like a money changer in the temple."
In early part of the 20th century, a black beauty-products operation created by Madam C.J. Walker made her the nation's first black millionaire. Today, black hair care products make up a nearly $10-billion industry, according to industry data. But in the last two years, chemical hair relaxer sales -- marketed mostly to black women -- have dropped by 12 percent, according to Mintel, a consumer spending and market research firm.
"In this business, that's a big dip, a very, very big dip," said Kat Fay, a senior beauty personal care analyst at Mintel. "Of course, those years do coincide with the recession. And we know that it can be expensive to maintain a relaxer or a weave. But there are some real indicators that something else, something related to the growing popularity of natural hair and a paradigm shift away chemicals may be taking hold here."
The sight of black women with curly, kinky and Esperanza Spalding-sized hair has grown so common that in July, CNN published a sort of natural black hair etiquette guide on its website. The story explored white curiosity about black women's natural hair and the historical and cultural reasons why touching a black woman's hair without invitation is rude.
But black hair -- the hefty price tag of a single weave (sometimes more than $1,000), the harsh chemical makeup of hair relaxers and the reasons why millions of black women spend time and money to get and maintain them -- might have remained almost exclusively a conversation between black women if it were not for Chris Rock, Fay said.
In 2006, Rock and HBO films produced the documentary "Good Hair." In it, Rock used his characteristically comical approach to explore a serious set of questions about black women and why straight, long hair remains the prevailing beauty ideal. The movie also put a new phrase in the national vernacular when several women interviewed for the documentary called chemical relaxers, and the devotion they inspire, "creamy crack." On screen, Rock explained that the movie had been inspired by his young daughter's question about her natural hair. Rock's daughter asked him why she didn't have "good hair."
The cultural weight and social value of straight hair is very strong, and Fay is not aware of a single company that has stopped producing relaxers, despite the sales declines.
But some of the world's largest and best-known black hair companies, such as Bronner Brothers and L'Oreal-owned Mizani, which built their reputations on relaxers, have also started producing natural hair product lines, said Michelle Breyer, one of the owners and founders of NaturallyCurly.com, an offline beauty industry market research company and online discussion and retail space that caters to women (of all races) with curly or kinky hair.
Both Bronner and Mizani were at the Atlanta hair show with staff in place not just to hand out samples, but apply them to would-be customer's hair, discuss the results and advise the displeased.
Today, there are stores that have entire sections of products dedicated to curly hair, Breyer said. And the practice of planting black hair care products on one aisle and everything else aimed at everyone else on another is disappearing even in a lot of chain stores. All sorts of companies are even adopting in their packaging some of the styling language -- "wash and go," "twist set" and "braid out," to name a few -- that is common to the online discussion spaces and blogs where black women review how to care for natural hair.
"Hair has incredible social significance," said Nowlie Rooks, author of the book, "Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women." Rooks is also the associate director of Princeton University's Center for African American Studies. "Think about the obsessive level of attention men losing their hair give that process. In some cultures people shave their hair as an act of mourning. For African-American women, wearing one's natural hair was just not socially acceptable for the longest time."
Perhaps no one knows this better than Alicia Nicole Walton, the writer and psychotherapist behind CurlyNikki.com, a natural hair care blog. Curly Nikki's blog stands out in the sea of online voices talking about the decision to "go natural" and the care and maintenance of natural hair. Walton does more than just evaluate products, she pays attention to the emotional and social issues that surround black women's hair in a regular series of posts written by Walton and guest writers called On the Couch.
Walton grew up in a home where chemical hair treatments were banned because of an experience that her father had with "a bad Jehri Curl," she said. But in college, Walton had a harder time getting to a salon to have her hair temporarily straightened with a heated straightening comb. Then she damaged her hair when she used a flat iron, another temporary heat straightening method, too often at home. Her boyfriend -- now husband -- pointed out that Walton's moods, even her self-esteem seemed to rise and fall around the appearance of her hair. When it was straight, Walton was up. When it was not, Walton was down, he said. Walton decided this wasn't emotionally healthy and began experimenting with wearing her hair in curly and braided styles. Her father wasn't pleased.
"He said, 'Please don't sacrifice your career for this hair choice,'" Walton said. "'How will you get a job or get into graduate school with that hair?' But that was the thing: What I was doing wasn't really a choice, like dying your hair pink. This is what grows out of my head."
For older African Americans, natural hair or appearing in public with one's hair un-straightened can seem a lot like going somewhere without pants, Walton said.
In 2010, NaturallyCurly.com purchased Walton's blog for an undisclosed amount.
"Let's just say that my husband and I don't absolutely have to work," said Walton, a new mother who hopes to establish a therapy practice for women with body image and self-esteem issues. Choosing a natural hair style in the 1970s often conveyed a political message, Walton said, citing Angela Davis' afro.
But in the hair show, packed into 75,000 square feet in the Georgia International Convention Center, the politics of natural hair seemed to take a back seat to commercial interests. During the two-day event, thousands of black women approached sales staff -- black and white -- for advice about their hair. White-owned companies continue to dominate sales, but many of the small- to medium-sized black-owned companies are trying to infiltrate the market. And most of the black startup owners interviewed for this story view white women with curly hair as the next customer frontier that will help their businesses continue to grow.
But there are also plenty of signs that natural hair has yet to become completely socially acceptable. Each year, a number of workplace discrimination suits are filed related to African Americans wearing their hair in its natural state, dreads or braids, said Rooks.
In 2007, a Glamour Magazine editor told a group of female attorneys gathered for a session on corporate fashion do's and don'ts that natural hair -- more specifically afros, dreads and other "political" hair styles -- was an absolute don't. Glamour declined to identify the editor, but it wound up apologizing to its readers and the law firm. The unidentified editor in question has, according to a statement released by Glamour, resigned.
And then there is the way that some people have responded to 13-year-old Malia Obama's hair. When Malia Obama accompanied her mother, First Lady Michelle Obama, abroad in 2010, she wore her hair in a series of two-stand twists that were left coiled for most of the trip. The Free Republic, online message boards for political conservatives, temporarily disabled comments related to the trip because of statements made by readers describing Malia Obama and her hair in terms such as "typical ghetto trash." Several questioned whether her appearance was suitable to represent the United States abroad.
Natural black hair remains such a charged issue that late last year when Sesame Street's white head writer, Joey Mazzarino, wrote a short musical skit for his adopted Ethopian daughter, he created a sensation. Mazzarino's daughter had made it clear that she wanted long, blonde, bouncy hair, he said. The song Mazzarino wrote in celebration of natural black hair and then assigned to one of the show's puppets, "I Love My Hair," went viral. To date, it has drawn more than 2.5 million hits on YouTube and provoked mashups, innumerable blog entries and a call from an African-American woman who told Mazzarino that the song moved her to tears.
"Natural hair is not quite a stigma at this point, but there can be risks," said Rooks.
At the natural hair show, there were dozens of women in line at the Miss Jessie's mobile salon space and more watching product demonstrations at the foot of its stage. There was a line that stretched 42-women deep at the shop set up by Uncle Funky's Daughter, another well-known beauty product lines aimed at women with curly or kinky hair. While they waited, some posed for pictures with the company's logo -- a black woman with a shoulder-grazing Afro. And the scene around the Hair Rules booth looked something like a crowded bar. Dozens of women were trying to get the staff's attention, waving money, shouting questions and requests over other customers' heads.
But whether it was the product, the company's Beyonce-look-alike model or the pitch woman's ability to make the late infomercial star Billy Mays seem soft spoken, the Prota Organic weave booth also drew a small crowd.
One person who went nowhere near the Prota display was Yaisa Strickland. Strickland, an attorney in Washington, D.C., cut off her mid-back-length relaxed hair last year after her sister convinced her that they should both eliminate chemical straightening. When she did it, Strickland was unsure she would be able to live with the look or the amount of natural hair left on her head. So she did her "big chop" in Atlanta, the "weave capital of the world," as Strickland said. If she'd felt awkward after her big chop, she was sure that she could find a talented hair stylist somewhere nearby to attach a weave.
But when it was done, Strickland liked what she saw. She could really see her face. There would be no hiding behind a shroud of hair. And there was something else.
"I know that sounds dramatic, but I used to spend six to eight hours at least once a month in the salon," said Strickland, who wears a modern curly take on the afro that natural hair care enthusiasts often call a TWA -- the "teeny weeny afro." "I used to have to plan when and how I was going to exercise because, you know, you don't want that straight hair that you've invested in to get wet off-schedule. But since I cut my hair, I've told people, you could be living instead of spending half your life and your budget on your hair. I really cannot imagine going back."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of singer Esperanza Spalding.