It is a miracle I was never arrested. Surely there's some law against stopping strangers on the street and peppering them with personal questions. Still, that’s what I did for nearly a decade to figure out how to style my natural hair. This was back in 1992, after I stopped chemically relaxing it to save money as a broke college student (pictured here). It was curly and short—today it’s called a Teeny Weeny Afro.
"What products do you use? How often do you wash it? Is there a comb that is better? Should I just throw away my brush? Who cuts it?" Those were the questions I would ask complete strangers on New York City streets. And it wasn't just other black women. Because my hair has a spiral curl pattern, I stopped Jewish women, Brazilian women—anyone else who shared my texture.
All of these women were kind, and many were very helpful, but it was an extremely haphazard way to create a beauty regimen. What worked for someone might collect dust at my house (not cost effective!). It also did not stop me from feeling like a kinky-textured weirdo living in a world of mostly straight hair.
Were I to embark on the natural-hair journey today, I would have a very different experience. I would not have to stalk strangers. And I would not feel alone. All I would need to find a community of women who looked like me and loved their hair would be my laptop. The natural hair movement online celebrates all textures, reassuring women that they don’t need a relaxer in order to get a date, a job, or confidence.
This was exactly what I needed back in my early 20s. On days when I wasn’t feeling good about my hair choices, I could have checked out beauty sites like Curly Nikki and read essays, testimonials, and all-around encouragement from women who straight-up adored their hair. When I felt like getting creative, there would have been YouTube tutorials to guide me through updos, twist-outs, and countless other styles. When I wanted to find products, I could go to Shake Your Beauty and see what a former beauty editor recommended.
The online hair community is undoubtedly great for women like me who are natural or considering going natural. But it also gives everyone a chance to see what textured hair really looks like, beyond the weave-a-thon that Hollywood passes off as normal. It shows that there is beauty goes beyond straight and long.
And it’s spurring change: Relaxer sales are down to historically low numbers and there are whole shelves at Target dedicated to natural hair care products. The natural-hair movement has burst into the mainstream. Soon, hopefully, Lupita Nyong'o won’t be one of the only natural-haired women in magazines or on screen, and damaging phrases like "good" and "bad" hair will be a thing of the past. Until then, I'll be building up my confidence and marveling at the amazing styles from all of the beautiful natural-haired women I can find on my laptop.
Ayana Byrd is the author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America