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Black hair is big business: Consumerism in the natural hair movement

The natural hair movement started as a cause for the liberation of African women and women of colour. It was a bold statement to be unashamedly yourself. But a growing consumer-led effort to move towards Afro-textured hair has shifted the economics of the hair-care industry.



Hair is an important aspect of black female culture. Due to its texture, it is the most versatile hair type, making it the most lucrative. You can relax it, straighten it, braid it, weave it and manipulate it in a seemingly infinite number of ways.

In the last decade, the advent of the natural hair movement signalled a golden age of self-love and self-discovery for African women. For millions of women who had been systematically taught to hate their natural curls and kinks, it was a journey of self-fulfilment. Although the movement started off slowly, it finally caught on and spread like wild fire.

While black women continue to spend considerable amounts of money on their hair, even as ‘naturalistas’, there has been a significant shift in product categories, which, until recently, were mainly supplied by small and mostly black-owned businesses. Between 2006 and 2011, relaxer kit sales dropped by 17%. Afros were taking the world by storm and the million-dollar hair corporations whose cash flow depend on black women had to scramble to stay afloat. Now more “mainstream” brands and retailers are making the shift.

According to Huffington Post, big brands have taken to either adding ingredients that black women look for to their existing products, they are releasing new dedicated product lines for black hair, or they are purchasing companies that already cater for black hair. For instance, hair-care giant L’Oréal has launched a specifically formulated “Dark and Lovely Au Naturale” range. This is quite ironic, coming from a company that profited from generations of institutionalised self-hatred.


“Our research shows that black consumer choices have a ‘cool factor’ that has created a halo effect, influencing not just consumers of colour but the mainstream as well,” said Cheryl Grace, senior vice president of US Strategic Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement at Nielsen.

Read: Hair Politics: The US Navy’s new policy on natural hair references an illogical racial bias

Natural hair bloggers

In the course of this empowering decade, the natural hair movement has grown with the help of bloggers who took to the Internet to document and share their natural journey and to help guide those who wanted to make the change or just to bolster morale. Soon they began to influence product usage and dictate trends – and this brought in the corporations in droves.

Popular brands began to witness the power of Black Twitter and the brand impact of socially conscious black consumers. For many of these brands, the strategy became to engage black consumers by using influencers and bloggers who had established themselves as natural hair gurus. By using these trusted knowledge sources, corporations bluffed their way into a brand perception that seems authentic, culturally relevant, socially conscious and responsible without having to actually be any of these things.


Natural hair bloggers begun endorsing products for pay and slowly turned the community into product junkies. They went from preaching minimalism and consistency to pushing “new favourites” and “must-haves” every week. All of a sudden, products like curling crèmes and soufflés, edge control and anti-frizz lotions are a necessity. These are products that could easily range from 800 to 3 000 Kenyan shilling (US$8 to US$30) per bottle or tub that you do not actually need.

Read: The natural hair movement spurs business opportunities for Kenyan women

The hard truth

Consumerism is driven by creating the need to buy. If you feel like you need a product, you will even save up to buy it. Successful natural hair bloggers have luscious long and full tresses that are the envy of all their subscribers. They create the illusion that if you do what they do and use what they use, then you too can achieve that same glorious crown. However, fact is that once a natural hair blogger has reviewed a product, it very likely does not make it into their everyday staples. Genetics, diet and other factors aside, you are buying into a dream that apparently could be found in the next tub of glorified ‘natural’ goo (because, realistically, if you cannot pronounce an ingredient, how can it be natural?)

So instead of spending thousands annually on things you really do not need, rather consider doing as they say, not as they do. Why? Because natural hair gurus maintain the same mantra, regardless of what they are endorsing: “Find what works for you and stick to it.”