October 6, 2022

Photo of Byrdie writer Janiah McKelton

As a newly natural-haired teen in the 2010s, I often slathered elongating hair products onto my 4b-textured curls. I expected these puddings and creams to lengthen and define my coils. However, my hair would always shrink back into its original TWA (teeny-weeny afro) form. The way my hair hid its true length used to baffle me more than it amazed me. Frustratingly “bad” hair days became what I expected for my hair.

After years of wearing my natural hair, I’ve recently taken the time to unpack my feelings surrounding those “bad” hair days. I recognize I did not appreciate my natural hair back then. I’ve also learned my textured hair won’t always behave the way I want it to–and that’s okay. However, the most eye-opening realization I’ve had is that learning to accept shrinkage is a journey for many people with coily hair. But why is that the case? Understanding why shrinkage is often scrutinized requires looking closely at history and the beauty industry.

Black Hair and Beauty Standards

Beauty standards have been historically saturated with Eurocentric ideals. The idolization of long, straight hair has perpetuated the idea that Black women’s textured hair is undesirable and unkempt. For decades, this has caused some Black women to feel the need to chemically alter or straighten their curls to somewhat control how others perceive their hair. The International Journal of Women’s Dermatology stated, “Black women’s hair is policed: Looser curls and straightened hair are celebrated, whereas Afros and traditionally Black hairstyles have resulted in academic and professional dismissals.”1

Natural hair has persistently been placed under a microscope with little societal understanding that it is autonomous. Societal control over Black hair dates back centuries, with the Tignon Law of 1786 serving as a prime example. The law demanded Black women in Louisiana wear a scarf to cover their hair.2 Historically, people with textured hair have not been given the space and freedom to wear their hair as it is, which makes way for the generational difficulty of enjoying it as it is.

Natural hair has persistently been placed under a microscope with little societal understanding that it is autonomous.

Shifting our Hair Vocabulary  

There is nothing “bad” about Black hair, but the way it is often associated with “otherness” can strongly influence how we view ourselves. Being conditioned to view long, straight hair as desirable makes it easy to adopt unfavorable viewpoints on shrinkage. I began to vocalize negative thoughts about my coily hair at a young age. In casual conversations with friends and family, I would say phrases like, “My shrinkage is so bad.” This language is often thrown around light-heartedly but is destructive to self-esteem. Reshaping our day-to-day vocabulary is one of the first steps to fully embracing the beauty of natural hair’s elasticity.

In the beauty industry, marketing terminology is also problematic. Phrases like “anti-shrinkage” are often used to sell natural hair products, sending the message that shrinkage is an issue that must be solved. Thankfully, there’s been an increase in Black-owned hair brands that have chosen to eliminate language like this from their branding. Adwoa Beauty, for example, focuses on caring for the hair as it is and has publicly discussed its stance on shrinkage. “It’s not just the hair,” founder and CEO Julian Addo says. “It’s the language we use to speak about ourselves in the community, period. Hair is just a very micro piece of the puzzle.”

There is nothing ‘bad’ about Black hair, but the way it is often associated with ‘otherness’ can strongly influence how we view ourselves.

Learning to Love My Shrinkage

In 2021, I big chopped my hair. I expected to regret taking that step. But moments after examining my new look, I saw myself in a different light. The beauty I saw within myself suddenly had less to do with what others thought of my hair and more to do with my own liberation.

My short cut revealed tighter curls. My shrinkage became even more apparent–and I loved it. Of course, not every day was an easy hair day, but I learned to speak positively about my hair even when I didn’t feel positive about it. This experience holds true for many Black women who have big chopped—including Addo. “When I big-chopped, there were days I didn’t think I looked cute,” she notes. “Now I look at those pictures and realize how ridiculous I sounded.”

The beauty I saw within myself suddenly had less to do with what others thought of my hair and more to do with my own liberation.

The Bottom Line 

It’s not wrong for Black people to use elongating hair products for curl definition and minimizing shrinkage. The versatility of natural hair creates space for exploration–and finding fun ways to manipulate your hair is a form of liberation. However, Black people should not feel obligated to eliminate shrinkage to feel beautiful.

Black women deserve to engage in their hair care routines without the pressures of achieving looser and longer curl patterns. The way our hair naturally grows is beautiful. “Curly hair curls,” Addo says. “We want Black women to see that there’s beauty in caring for their hair. Hair is meant to be enjoyed.”