In Western culture, long, straight hair has traditionally epitomized both feminine beauty and sexual desirability. This aesthetic continues to shape how women of other cultures process and style their hair. Although concerns related to self-worth, success, and attractiveness affect both genders, women of all backgrounds have felt greater pressure to maintain a socially acceptable appearance. This was especially the case for African American women, whose femininity and sexual identity were often measured by the length and texture of their hair.
Unable to straighten their hair during slavery, black women covered it with scarves, kerchiefs, and straw hats to protect their scalp from the scorching sun. Inside plantation homes, domestic workers wore tight braids and cornrows inspired by traditional African hairdos. Since hair was considered the most telling feature of African ancestry, mixed-race African Americans relied on straight hair and fair skin to find jobs and protect them from harassment. In response to racially and culturally biased assumptions about black hair, white-owned companies during the antebellum years marketed hair straightening products to free black women in the North. These products advised black women to wash their hair and apply a hair straightening solution before using a garment type iron to flatten it out. Such techniques only damaged the hair, further leaving behind burned scalps and often permanent hair loss. Slave or free, African Americans recognized the impact straight hair had in signifying freedom, economic opportunity, and social status.
These concerns influenced the styling decisions of black women into the 20th century. With the rise of new beauty standards and commercial hair care products, black women used a host of styling techniques, including wrapping, waving, straightening, and hair pieces. While each allowed black women greater styling versatility, hair straightening had the most controversial appeal. At a time when many black women had trouble growing thick healthy hair due to scalp diseases, stress, and harsh chemical treatments, hair straightening with the use of the hot comb and later lye-based relaxers placed additional strains on fragile tresses.
The best-known styling tool for straightening black hair, the hot comb, was sold by department stores as early as the 1870s. A reconfiguration of earlier metal combs made by the French, black hairdressers perfected its use by sectioning the hair, applying heated oils, and moving the heated comb often from a stovetop or other heated chamber from the base of the scalp to the ends of the hair before reversing the process. While not the original inventor of the straightening comb, beauty culture pioneer Madam C. J. Walker popularized its use with her introduction of the shampoo-press-and-curl method of straightening hair, which later became the foundation of black hairdressing. She and other beauty experts such as Annie Turnbo Malone were among the first to use heated pressing irons and metal hair rollers; however, they insisted that such techniques were not an attempt to imitate white beauty standards, but rather to offer black women a chance to create and meet their own beauty ideals.
At a time when millions migrated to urban areas seeking social and economic opportunity, African Americans straightened their hair as a sign of upward mobility and acclimation into modern America. This included black men who were no less influenced by prevailing notions of beauty. With the use of tonics, pomades, and homemade kits, black men also experimented with hair straightening. In an attempt to look hip and stay in touch with urban trends, some applied large amounts of hair pomade and water to hair before going to bed wearing a wave cap, while others tried the cold soap wave, a process in which shampoo was left in the hair and later tied down with a cloth, or do-rag, to produce sleek waves. Others sought more permanent solutions with the congolene, or conk for short. Made of potatoes, eggs, and lye, the conk was designed to straighten the hair for longer periods of time, the effects of which were no less damaging. Burning the scalp and often permanently damaging the hair follicles, the conk was made popular by entertainers of the early 20th century, including Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, and Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X.
By the mid 20th century, both white and black-owned companies introduced the first permanent relaxers. These chemical-based products, almost all of which contained lye, promised straightened tresses for longer periods in place of heated combs. Despite their growing popularity, relaxers required additional maintenance, with touch-ups done every four to eight weeks plus the cost of professional application or supplies. By the late 1960s, many African American women favored natural styles over straightened hair. With the natural style, such as the Afro, they embraced their African heritage and growing identification with the politics of Black Power.
Whether temporary or permanent, the practice of hair straightening elicited widespread debate and public discussion across the black community. In some circles, straightened hair symbolized modernity and middle-class status, while others equated it with self-hatred and shame. Black civic leaders often took sides on the issue, castigating women who opted to straighten their hair in favor of Caricature showing African trying to look white. Such feelings of inadequacy were often rooted in negative messages given to black women about their hair in the media and popular culture. Print advertisements often urged black women to straighten their hair to gain social acceptance in an attempt to adopt a standard of beauty that was difficult if not impossible to achieve. This was especially the case for poor rural women who with less access to hair salons or the money for their services, continued to rely on the time-honored practices of wrapping, braiding or tying down the hair with colorful scarves for a more polished look.
In the midst of ever-changing images of beauty in the 21st century, hair straightening remains a popular styling option for women of all backgrounds continuing to define mainstream ideals of beauty and success.