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Parents divided on using hair relaxers on young black girls

Alice Hooper knew the day would come. She just didn’t expect it so soon. She was in the car running errands when her 5-year-old daughter, Cynina Simone, strapped in the car seat behind her, asked the question Hooper had been dreading.

“She said, ‘Mommy, can I have a relaxer?’” said Hooper, a 33-year-old African-American lab assistant from Greensboro, N.C. “It caught me off guard. I said, ‘What?’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, when you turn 18!’”

Hair straightening--believed to make tightly curled hair more manageable and flexible--has been a common practice among black women and girls for more than a century. For much of the 1900s it was done primarily, and temporarily, by using a hot comb. By the 1970s permanent chemical relaxing kits became the straightening procedure of choice. But it was generally thought that the chemicals were too harsh for children. In recent years a slew of “kiddie” hair relaxers have promised a milder treatment. Now permanent straightening is being done to hair on younger and younger heads.

“I’d already seen a few little girls at school with relaxers, and I knew that it would be a conversation one day,” Hooper said.

Despite the claims of manufacturers, experts warn that any type of relaxer can damage the hair and scalp. But of more concern to some social commentators and parents is the damage that hair straightening could have on a child’s self-image.

“I want her to find the beauty in her hair as it is now,” said Hooper, who does not treat her own hair. “I don’t want her to think that she has to look a certain way to be accepted or to be beautiful. It might not be straight, but we can do so much with our hair.”

How hair style relates to self-perception has been debated since black women started straightening their hair. Neal Lester, an English professor at Arizona State University who presents talks and exhibitions about black girls and their hair, argues that for adults there’s no clear line between confidence in their racial identity and the decision to alter their hair texture. He points out that many black women who straighten their hair don’t try to conform to other prevailing American ideas of beauty, like thinness for instance.

But children, Lester feels, are a different matter. Often they aren’t given the choice to straighten or not.

“My concern,” Lester said, “is that when children are subjected to these types of things, they don’t have the tools to critically think through them.”

But even for children, the psychic effect of straightening isn’t straightforward, said Lanita Jacobs-Huey, an anthropology professor at the University of Southern California and author of the book "From the Kitchen to the Parlor: Language and African-American Women’s Hair Care." Straightening is seen by some as giving black girls other hairstyle options, not as an indictment of their natural hair.

“I wouldn't deny that subtle messages about beauty and desirability do get conveyed to young black girls during early childhood hair care rituals, on television, the playground, etc,” said Jacobs-Huey. “But these experiences are not unilaterally negative nor unilaterally positive.”

For many parents of black children straightening is a practical matter: It eases the stress of hair grooming not only for the parents but for the children. It’s an act of good parenting.

Author Lonnae O’Neal Parker sympathizes. Her book, "I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work," examines the challenges of working black women, including caring for their children’s hair.

“It’s time-consuming; it can be painful to comb out,” O’Neal Parker said of kinky hair.

She doesn’t relax the tightly curled hair of her daughters, Sydney, 13, and Savannah, 8. But for special occasions she straightens their hair with a hot comb.

“It’s stunning how much time that takes off our process in the morning,” O’Neal Parker said. “Kinky takes longer than non-kinky. It’s a physical fact of life.”

But O’Neal Parker believes that regularly straightening children’s hair may rob them of the ability or the inclination to care for their natural hair later on.

“I want to foster in my children an appreciation of natural black hair,” she said, “and then if they decide to get a chemical later, it will be an informed decision, and it won’t be because they’ve never known anything different.”

Many women straighten their children’s hair partly because it’s the only way they’ve been taught to deal with their hair.

“To be honest, I don’t remember,” Antoinette Jones, a 38-year-old Web designer who lives in Chicago, said with a laugh when asked to describe her natural hair texture. She’s been relaxing her hair since her early teens. Before that, her mother would treat it with a hot comb every week.

After her daughter Emily was born, Jones had to teach herself to cornrow and plait, two hair-styling techniques widely used on kinky hair. Eighteen months ago, on the advice of her hairdresser, she began relaxing 13-year-old Emily’s hair and the hair of her second daughter, Ayana, 9.

Now Ayana’s hair has begun showing signs of serious breakage and Emily’s of more subtle damage. The hairdresser advised Jones to bring the girls in more often for conditioning treatments. At about $50 a head for an average visit for her and her two daughters, it is not something Jones can afford or is inclined to do. She’s having the girls grow out their relaxer.

Hair specialists agree that hair relaxers can do serious damage. A relaxer, which has to be applied to new growth every six to eight weeks, can burn the hair and scalp if handled improperly. It breaks down the internal structure of the hair strands and drains them of moisture, leaving them vulnerable to breakage.

What experts disagree on is whether to advise women outright not to relax their own or their children’s hair.

“The majority of relaxers are done without any major problems,” said Dr. Jeffrey Miller, a dermatologist with Pennsylvania State University's Milton S. Hershey’s Medical Center. For best results, he recommends that consumers eschew home relaxers and seek out a professional to perform the procedure and that relaxed hair be regularly moisturized and conditioned.

Michael Bernstein, a Beverly Hills trichologist, is unequivocal in his opposition to relaxers, particularly on children. He points to the risk not only of permanent hair loss but allergic reactions and visual impairment if the chemical trickles into the eyes. “I don’t discourage people from doing anything . . . except straightening,” Bernstein said.

The Illinois-based Alberto-Culver Company produces Just For Me, the top selling kid relaxer brand. In an e-mailed response to questions, company representatives said the product is safe for kids as young as six. “If applied and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations,” they said of the relaxer, “a child's hair can flourish.”

A new movement supporting natural hair is working to discourage blacks from straightening. Members believe it is a myth that kinky hair is more challenging to groom.

“Too many of us believe that our hair is ‘bad’ because mainstream grooming methods don't work for us,” said Mireille Liong-A-Kong, author of the popular hair care guide "Going Natural: How to Fall in Love with Nappy Hair." “That would be like calling my blonde friend's hair bad because it doesn't hold a braid.”

She recommends that kinky hair be kept moisturized and groomed with a wide-toothed comb.

Instead of shunning it, parents should find ways to make grooming kinky hair fun. “Do crazy things. Try styles out,” Liong-A-Kong said. “Give them room to be creative with their hair.”

Alice Hooper puts plastic or wooden beads at the end of her daughter’s plaits. Every fortnight Hooper shampoos, conditions and braids Cynina Simone’s hair in a process that takes three hours, including breaks. But her daughter is usually pleased with the result.

“She loves it, especially if she helps to pick out the hairstyle,” Hooper said. “She’ll show her dad how it looks. She’ll shake her head, make noise with the beads. She’ll get the handheld mirror from the bathroom and look at her hair.”

In support groups, which meet online and in homes across North America, parents of black children are coming together to discuss how to best care for their children's hair. Shared knowledge is making more of them decide to put off relaxing.

Latanya Walker, a 31-year-old homemaker, has been visiting the forum of blackhairmedia.com, a beauty Web site, every day since discovering it last October. She had been planning to relax the hair of her 3-year-old daughter, Khia, when the girl turned 5. The tips, advice and cautionary tales she’s received from other mothers on the site have changed her mind.

“The most important lesson that I think I learned,” said Walker, who relaxes her own hair, “was having patience when dealing with natural hair.”

O’Neal Parker thinks there’s another important aspect of grooming kinky hair that parents may be missing out on if they straighten.

“I’ll wash the girls’ hair and I’ll twist it up in different styles,” she said. “That’s hours where we’re just bonding. Now, some of it is tearful. But a lot of it is just very intimate, and that’s a space I can’t recreate in any other part of my life.”

E-mail: epa2106@columbia.edu