TAMPA — Nadia Darius listened.
People are going to give you looks, the workshop leader said. If you can’t handle the scrutiny, the stares, the criticism, the questions, don’t bother.
Darius, 27, a promotions and marketing employee from Lutz, came to the seminar at the John F. Germany Public Library to learn more about how to transition from wearing a chemically straightened hairstyle to managing her own natural hair.
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Across the United States, an increasing number of black women are choosing to bare their natural hair, full of kinks and curls, in places where such hairstyles were once almost culturally taboo.
You see it in corporate offices and in Hollywood, where Viola Davis drew criticism at the Academy Awards last year when she shunned her usually perfectly coiffed wig for her own short auburn Afro. Oprah Winfrey twice appeared on the cover of O magazine with natural hair last summer. And Essence, the nation’s leading black women’s magazine, started a blog called Natural Hair Revolution.
You also see it in the marketplace.
Several companies in the $684 million black hair care business have introduced products designed specifically for women with natural hair or for those making the transition. And sales of at-home hair relaxers have plummeted, dropping 30 percent in the last two years, according to a black hair care industry report by Mintel, a market research company.
But commercial success does not equal full acceptance, and black women’s hairstyle is as hot a topic in 2013 as it was in the 1960s, when Cicely Tyson sported an Afro on the television show East Side/West Side, prompting a flurry of criticism from black women who felt her hairstyle misrepresented them.
While the angst over something as malleable as hair can seem silly to outsiders, experts say there is nothing trivial about it.
“Hair is a major cultural component of black women’s lives. It defines us. It has a lot to do with how we see ourselves,” said Cheryl Rodriguez, director of the University of South Florida’s Institute on Black Life. “Making a decision on how we’re going to wear our hair — that really is a momentous decision for us and it’s influenced by a lot of factors.”
In the early 1900s, black women used hot combs — super-heated metal combs used to straighten or press hair — to gain entree into society at large. The practice has endured, and with the invention of chemical relaxers it’s even easier for women to get silky straight hair.
Women of the 1960s rebelled in many ways, but it was the Afro, popularized by activist Angela Davis, that made the biggest political statement for black women.
“It was really bold at the time,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, 60, now wears her hair in long “sister locks” that look like meticulously manicured dreadlocks. She said her grandmother used to press her hair in her kitchen when she was a child. As was the custom in many black households, her grandmother heated the hot comb on the stove and pulled it through her hair.
“I was told, ‘You never go out in public with your hair nappy,’ ” Rodriguez recalled.
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