When Merry Williams of Columbus went natural with her hair, she embarked on a spiritual journey. "It's actually a different way of life. It's a natural lifestyle rather than having a hairstyle."
After decades of expensive perms, chemical relaxers and quick weaves, attitudes are shifting among African-American women as they discover and embrace their natural hair. Whether coily, kinky, tight curls or loose curls, more women are learning to trust the hair they were born with.
This gravitation toward the natural look has changed the conversation in recent years about 'going natural.' In 2009, actor/comedian Chris Rock released the comedy documentary "Good Hair" in response to his 5-year old daughter Lola's question, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?" The U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who is African-American, discussed the issue of black women choosing to preserve their hairstyles over healthful exercise. Websites, videos and forums devoted to natural hair care and elegant styling are easily searched out online.
For Williams, 32, Katrina Hill, 36, and LaToya Nicole Webb, 31, transitioning from years of chemical perms to getting acquainted with their own hair has been rewarding.
Williams, who volunteers with Project Rebound, Inc., remembers having natural hair in kindergarden. "My grandmother started to relax my hair was I was 6 years old and starting the first grade. This is actually my fourth time going natural, but the first three times I didn't know anything about being natural. I was just cutting off my hair and wearing a cute little style."
After her grandmother died in 2006, Williams stopped going to the salon and simply wore a ponytail.
"It's called transitioning. The perm grew out, so I just cut if off. I had started getting into the hair forums and found out about natural hair as an actual thing. It's a whole new different world of hairstyles."
Katrina Hill wore her hair natural until she finished college. "When I graduated, I was told that I would be accepted better if I had permed hair. So I ended up getting a perm when I was 21 years old."
Two years ago, 13 years after that first perm, she discovered the range of hairstyles possible without chemical treatments. As a personal fitness trainer, this fit her lifestyle perfectly.
"Had I known then what I know now, I would have never gotten a perm. I love being natural because the versatility is just amazing for me."
LaToya Nicole Webb owns her own business, Integrity Tax Service, runs a publishing house with her mother.
"My decision for being natural came from several issues with relaxers. I had a quick weave, and it wasn't comfortable, and at the time I was thinking of going natural. So I said, 'let's just go ahead an cut it off.' In the natural world twhey call it the big chop, and what you have left is a TWA, or a teeny weeny afro. That was November 2010. It was probably 1/2 inch long."
Webb knew that she was not following a fad.
"I wanted to see what my natural texture looked like. I didn't know what my hair looked like because it was always straight. I wondered, 'do I have natural curly hair?'"
Years of chemical use can weaken and damage hair, and cause scalp problems. Going natural allows for versatility in styling and ease of care.
"It's a learning process. Every African-American woman's natural hair isn't the same," Hill said. "Everybody has their own unique style, their own unique likes and dislikes. I started embracing the fact that my hair is a part of me. I have a choice to change up whenever I want to. I can wear it twisted, or I can have it out like this, or I can have braids in my hair, or I can wear it pressed out, or I can get in the shower and just let it get poofed up and and still feel good about it," says Hill."
Standards of beauty are changing and societal expectations are loosening as women explore their options. In 1981, a federal district court upheld the American Airline's firing of African-American employee Renee Rodgers for wearing her hair in shoulder-length braids.
"When you go natural, your mind opens up. You understand a whole new way of life because you are so used to doing your hair one way," says Williams. "Everybody grows up thinking that you have to have straight hair to be pretty, and most of us don't get to make that decision because our mothers or our grandmothers are the ones who gave us the relaxer when we were little. So we never really got a chance to know our real hair."
That journey into self-expression led Williams to create her website, "A Nappy Mentality," http://nappymentality.webs.com. A group of local women have created a facebook page, Fro-lific - Columbus' Natural Hair Meetup Group, and meet regularly for conversation and support.
Playing with styles and the search for the right hair products are part of the challenge.
"It took me time to find the right natural hair products that defined my hair" says Webb. "When I started it was easier because it was a teeny weeny afro and I didn't have to do anything with it. As it grew out, I was having problems trying to find out what I wanted to do with it. Now that I've been learning my hair, I really do see it as being diverse. It's real expressive. I really, really love my hair."
William and Hill agreed that many women shy away from the natural look for fear of what their hair will or won't do.
"My sister and my mom are natural," says Williams, "and we have totally different hair, textures, curl patterns, everything. We can't use the same techniques or products."
Williams' younger sister Melody Williams, 19, has worn her hair natural since she was 14 years old, and visits the salon for a natural press without chemicals. It's a silky texture, and, says Melody, "I want to be able to brush my hair. It's just a mental thing."
"My mom wants to twist out so bad," Williams continues, "but hers doesn't twist out like mine. It twists nice, it looks nice, but she says 'I want my twist to look like yours.'"
"Some people go natural for years and then go back," says Webb. "It could be the texture of their hair and they don't like the look. This is my first decision of going natural, and I'm going to stay that way."