When Maria Campbell was a child she didn’t love her hair. She envied the sleek, straight hair of some of her friends at school, and by the time she reached high school she began to chemically relax her hair every two months. This left burns on some parts of her scalp, and in the last year of college when her scalp and hair were extremely damaged, she decided it was time to stop using relaxers and to let her natural hair grow.
Today, her 6-year-old daughter happily sits while her natural hair is being braided at Destiny Kids Hair Salon and Spa, a Brooklyn salon that specializes in braiding natural hair for children. And Campbell smiles to herself with the thought that maybe her daughter won’t go through the same experience as her.
“It’s just so satisfying to see her happy with that natural hair she got, like I never want her going through that same painful process as me,” Campbell said.
Products like hair relaxers and chemical straighteners, used by Black women to flatten their hair, aren’t only linked to painful scalp burns, but as a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology states, the chemicals used are also linked to cancer, fertility problems, fibroids in the uterus and premature menstruation. So, parents like Campbell are introducing their children to the endless styling possibilities of natural hair, such as braiding patterns, Afro puffs, twists, cornrows and others , to make them enjoy and embrace their natural hair from an early age, just like The Natural Hair Movement encourages.
“It took me so long to finally stop getting relaxer kits and to let my natural hair show,” Campbell said. “And now I never want my daughter to even try using a relaxer, so before she starts saying I want my hair to look like this friend or that friend, I’m going to make sure she knows how cool her own hair is.”
In addition to other complications, the use of chemical relaxers has also been linked to hair loss and alopecia, as cited in a study by Gathers and Mahan et al.
“Afro-textured hair or type 4 hair is already very delicate and fragile, and if you put all these chemicals on it, it’s going to create a disaster,” Zoey Pfeifer, the stylist at Destiny Kids Hair Salon said. “And honestly, type 4 hair is literally the most versatile type of hair, it can hold so many styles that other hair textures can’t. So where’s the need to use chemicals and straighteners when you can show your child all this pretty stuff that her natural hair can do?”
According to a study in the Archives of Dermatology, the traction and tension caused by braiding, twists and cornrows can also lead to central scalp alopecia and hair loss. Stylists like Pfeifer aim to change this direction of thought by focusing on how natural hair can be braided without hair loss problems.
“If we pull too much at the hair, literally any hairstyle can cause hair loss, even a simple ponytail or a bun. So it’s all about a balance, like if you aren’t braiding or doing cornrows all the time, there’s no harm,” Pfeifer said. “And when we style a child’s hair, we’re extra careful to not tug too hard. We recommend that parents don’t leave the braids for longer than a week, and if a child ever cries while braiding we take the hint and don’t proceed.”
Pfeifer also said that braiding can be good for hair health rather than damaging, if it is done correctly.
“Honestly, some of the braiding styles like twists and braids have some protective functions. Like they help to lock in the moisture, they prevent tangling, they prevent the hair from shedding too fast,” Pfeifer said. “And regardless, braids do way less harm than a relaxer.”
In addition to health related reasons, opting for natural hair over relaxed hair also has other benefits for Black children.
“Taking your child to braid her natural hair at a salon can be seen as a form of positive reinforcement,” Stephanie J. Rowley, a professor of Developmental Child Psychology at Columbia University said. “It creates this huge shift where instead of feeling that their hair is unmanageable or needs to be tamed, these children will feel like their hair is exciting and unique. And this shift can be excellent for a boost of confidence.”
Natural hair also has implications of African heritage and can play a major role in building the child’s pride in their origin and to foster a sense of belonging.
“This stuff had a lot to do with identity politics too, like if your child is donning her natural Afro-hair and is doing all these fun things to her natural hair, she’s going to feel more connected to her African roots as she grows up,” Rowley said.
Wanda Smith, another mother who got her daughter to Destiny Kids Hair Salon for braiding, said that she brings her daughter here to celebrate her hair and make her feel confident about who she is.
“My mother and I always wore our natural hair with pride, this is who we are and this is where we come from, you know, and we love it,” Smith said. “I love my skin, I love my hair, and now I want the same for my daughter. I want her to do these fun styles with her hair and enjoy it.”
As a tool to make the children excited about their hair, hair salons that specialize in braiding for children, like Destiny Kids Hair Salon, focus on unique braiding styles like floral or spiral patterns as opposed to regular braids.
“I mean, it’s supposed to be fun right, like that’s the whole point. Your kid should find the pattern exciting because it’s a celebration of her Afro hair,” Smith said. “And I’m not sure if this is true, but there’s a superstition that the height of your Afro hair is related to its divine power, and I keep telling my daughter about this. At the end of the day, it’s all about showing my daughter that there are so many reasons to celebrate her hair the way it is.”