True to Their Roots: Many Black Brazilians Rejecting Hair Straighteners — And White Beauty Standards

Marina Lopes, Washington Post, June 23, 2018

Bruna Aparecida smiled cautiously at her reflection as a hairdresser snipped the last strands of her straight hair. Her head was crowned with curls.

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Black and brown Brazilians make up over half of the country’s population, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the beauty industry. Brazil’s innovative hair straightening treatments — sold around the world — have long chased white standards of beauty. Ten years ago, it was not unusual to find robed women packed into a room at a salon, covering their mouths with rags to avoid inhaling fumes while hairdressers doused their locks in formaldehyde for a pin-straight look. Now, a growing number of black Brazilians are ditching the hair straighteners and embracing their curls.

The resurgence of natural hair has mirrored a rise in black empowerment in Brazil. The number of Brazilians identifying as black grew 15 percent in four years, according to the 2016 census. Meanwhile, inspired by the movie “Black Panther,” Afrofuturism — a movement that explores a futuristic vision of Africa and the African diaspora — has taken off, with movies, plays and music featuring black protagonists.

Yet racial inequality here remains stark. The average salary for a white citizen is nearly 50 percent higher than for a black citizen. Black and brown Brazilians made up 70 percent of the country’s murder victims in 2016, according to the most recent government data made public. Earlier this year, the assassination of black Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco sparked a debate about racism and police brutality.

In this context, the Afro has emerged as a symbol of resistance.

The black beauty market has been growing an estimated 20 percent a year in Brazil, helped by products geared toward women transitioning to more natural looks, according to Kline Market Research Group. Online searches for “Afro hair” have tripled here in the past two years, according to Google Labs. #CabeloCrespo, a “kinky hair” hashtag once used on photos of straightening makeovers, now generates thousands of images of billowy Afros.

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It’s not just the salons that seem to have gotten the memo. Pharmacies and department stores that used to primarily stock shampoos for white clients now have whole sections dedicated to natural black hair. This has opened up options for black women and girls who felt they had no choice but to straighten their hair.

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But the deep well of prejudice against black hair is just beginning to be drained. One in every three Brazilian women said in a 2017 Google study that they have encountered prejudice because of their hair. {snip}

For the millions of slaves trafficked into Brazil from western Africa, hairstyle conveyed marital status, religion, social position and ethnic identity. When they arrived in Brazil, their hair was promptly shaved.

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For many black Brazilians, a return to natural hair is a way to reconnect to their heritage.

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