In the Politics of Hair, Going Curly Is the New Statement

Loretta Rucker walked into Miss Jessie’s hair salon in SoHo, her honey caramel curls bouncing as she proceeded to the washing station for a wash and go — a shampoo, some product, a quick blast under the dryer and a blow dry with a diffuser to fluff out the volume of her ringlets.

There were no harmful chemicals used, no taut blow drying, no suppressing her mass of corkscrew curls.

“I came up during the black is beautiful era and immediately wanted to be in my natural hair and did that for years,” said Ms. Rucker, who lives in Brooklyn and is the executive director of the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Her natural styles have included, she said, Afros, cornrows and braids.

Celebrities like the singer Solange Knowles and the actress Tracee Ellis Ross also rock their curls. So do many ordinary New Yorkers, whose curls can be seen swaying along with the motion of subway cars.

A number of bloggers promote the look as a way of self-acceptance and personal comfort.

For black women in particular, wearing their natural hair has become a way to shed long-held conventions of what is acceptable for them in a society in which their hair has often been seen as unattractive and interpreted in a harsh political light.

“For young black girls, hair is not just something to play with, it is something that is laden with messages, and it has the power to dictate how others treat you, and in turn, how you feel about yourself,” wrote Cheryl Thompson in “Black Women and Identity: What’s Hair Got to Do With It?,” published in 2008 by the University of Michigan.

It can also carry social and political weight, she said, citing the book “Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women” by Noliwe Rooks.

“Hair in 1976 spoke to racial identity politics as well as bonding between African American women. Its style could lead to acceptance or rejection from certain groups and social classes, and its styling could provide the possibility of a career,” Ms. Rooks wrote.

Hair remains a subject of tension between black girls and white authorities. In May, twin sisters at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Mass., were suspended for having braids with extensions, which school officials had deemed a distraction from learning. The dress code also banned hair coloring but was not enforced for white students, critics pointed out. The school district eventually reversed itself, according to The Associated Press.

“Culturally we need to wake up,” Ms. Rucker said. “Is that so much different from judging people by their skin tone?”

The natural trend is both a reaction to those perceived restrictions and part of a movement toward a more natural treatment of hair known as protective styles. Women are avoiding the damaging chemicals frequently used in salons to “control” black hair.

In early April, Michelle Obama gave a boost to supporters of protective styles when she was photographed with her natural hair — a departure after eight years as first lady in which her hair was almost always straightened or artificially curled.

Bloggers like Tyla Gilmore applauded Mrs. Obama, using the moment to encourage their followers to embrace the look.

Curly was not common at the predominantly white elementary and middle schools she attended, said Ms. Gilmore, whose heritage is mixed. “I was super insecure,” she said. “I just never thought I was going to put the straightener down.”

But in 2014 she went natural. She said her curly hair gives her a sense of who she is as a person. “It’s my individuality, my strength.”

Ashly Rodriguez, a blogger, said she relaxed her hair for 10 years until going natural at 23.

“Make sure you’re doing it for you; don’t do it because it’s popular, don’t do it because all your friends are doing it,” she said. “It’s not a trend but a lifestyle.”

Another blogger, Veronica Bonilla, said others have not always reacted well to her look. “I was working in a doctor’s office and sometimes they would ask me to tie my hair up because according to them it was too much,” she said.

“I’m not going to tie my hair up; my hair is who I am.”

The popularity of the style has prompted many companies to come out with new products and salons to offer services to curly-haired customers.

Miss Jessie’s is doing both. Miko and Titi Branch, sisters, started out by founding a salon in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn in 1997. In 2004, they came out with the first of their curly hair products, and now have a line with names like Pillow Soft Curls and Curly Pudding.

“I would be mistaken if I thought it was a trend,” Miko Branch said of the curly look. “But it is fun and it is very fashionable. And is it trendy then? Absolutely.”