Nationwide, the natural hair community is growing. Between 2011 and 2016, sales of hair straighteners -- also known as relaxers -- fell 31 percent. Relaxers are made up of chemicals that flatten the natural kinks in many African-Americans’ hair, and Pittsburgh’s natural hair community is seeing an increase in new membership too.
Sister’s Beauty Supply in downtown Pittsburgh is owned by Rannita White and her family. The store carries wigs, weaves, braiding hair and a wide array of natural hair products. White says that there has been a change in attitude surrounding natural hair.
“Over the last three years, the industry has definitely changed on natural hair and people coming out with different products.”
She’s not the only one who’s noticed the trend. Eight years ago, Tamiah Bridgett started the natural hair meetup group "It’s a Natural Thang."
“I just wanted to bring a small group of women together and see how many were interested in learning more about natural hair care and by the time we got together, it just worked,” says Bridgett. “I think everyone was so excited to just have a space to feel free to discuss, you know, everything.”
Beyond the online community and Facebook group, members of "It’s a Natural Thang" attend quarterly meetups, where they discuss natural hair and the day-to-day challenges faced by many black women. There are also workshops on ways to style hair, hair product demonstrations, and even fashion shows. Bridgett says she wanted to create a space for natural hair because it is still viewed as taboo, even in the black community.
“It’s the mindset of just – your hair is ugly, your hair is bad, your hair is not good enough, and the more you feel that way about your hair, you’ll never see it as what it is," she said. "You’ll always just see it as the other N-word."
That other "N-word" Bridgett mentioned is nappy; a derogatory term for afro-textured hair.
Five years ago, Bridgett opened the group to men and multiracial families. She admits there was some push back from members who felt opening up the group would invade the sacred space reserved for black women. But Bridgett said it was important for her to invite the new members, especially white parents with black children.
“These children are going to grow up with afro textured hair or you know coily textured hair, their parents need to know how to do their hair,” she said. “Instead of starting a separate group, I just made it where they can feel free to join and where they have a place to reach out and feel included.”
June Wulff of Beaver County is a member of the group. Wulff is white and her 4-and-a-half year-old adopted daughter Leokadia, who goes by Kadie, is black.
“I joined it for Kadie and more about Kadie and letting her have that community, and the learning for me is awesome too, but her being able to celebrate her black girl magic and everything else is really important,” said Wulff.
She wants her daughter to embrace her natural hair. She said she gets a lot of good information from the group, like which hair products to use.
“I just want her be able to feel confident and beautiful. There’s so many white and Eurocentric beauty standards that society tries to push on people, and I don’t want it having her feel like she’s not enough,” said Wulff.
In the black community, hair is a complicated issue. Bridgett says historically the idea of “good hair” or European textured hair was considered more beautiful and acceptable than African-American hair. But that may be changing, according to research firm Mintel, 71 percent of black adults in the U.S. wore their hair natural in 2016.
“There are so many things you can do with it, from a twist out, to a braid out, to bantu knots to just wearing a fro, it’s super versatile,” said Bridgett.
Wulff said she is grateful she connected with Pittsburgh’s natural hair community and she is continuing to learn new styles and techniques for her daughter’s hair, including Kadie’s favorite afro-puff hairstyle, which she calls her “princess hair.”
"It’s a Natural Thang" now has more than 7,000 members from across the country. Founder Tamiah Bridgett is getting ready for the group’s next big event, a meetup at Alphalab gear in East Liberty this summer.