Wash Day: Black Women Are Passing Down Natural Hair Pride to the Next Generation
I didn't know my "naps" were tiny curls until my late 20s. Since I didn't have the loose curl pattern historically referred to as "good hair," I don't recall ever hearing the word "curly" being used to describe my tightly coiled hair texture. It was just referred to as being nappy, which definitely wasn't a compliment in the 90s.
I learned early in life that my "bad hair" required a remedy. One remedy came in the form of heat. I have vivid memories of Saturday night hot-comb presses and the way I held on to my ears to shield them from burns. I remember the smell, the anxiety, and the result: straight hair that was deemed presentable for church on Sunday.
The more permanent solution for my "undesirable" texture involved chemicals. I don't remember the first time I received a hair relaxer, but I know it was applied early in life—so early, that I recall very little about the head full of kinky hair that existed prior to it. After the cycle of regular relaxers began, my only interaction with my textured hair occurred when the troublesome "new growth" appeared and needed to be "touched up" with more relaxer. Needless to say, this routine conditioned me to dislike my hair in its natural state.
At 9 years old, I remember looking into the mirror after a full day of swimming at the community pool in my apartment complex. My skin had darkened from hours in the California sun and the edges of my hair shriveled from exposure to the chlorinated water. While my reflection should have been nothing more than an indication of the fun I'd had that day, the messages I had been absorbing about dark skin and nappy hair led me to hate it so much that I swore I'd never swim again.
I had been the recipient of generation upon generation of indoctrination about how my hair should look. During childhood, my grandmother had to get her hair pressed regularly because she was told she didn't have "good hair" like her sister. My mother has, more recently, expressed the desire to embrace her natural hair, but still feels societal pressure to keep it straight.
This same pressure led my mother to relax my hair before I was old enough to know the difference. Growing up, I was surrounded by television shows, advertisements, and music videos that reinforced the idea that only light skin and long, straight hair was considered beautiful. Women who looked like me, with dark skin and kinky hair, were not included. They were not typically presented as love interests or professionals at work. Years of anti-nappy programming opened the door to subconscious self-hate in the form of relying on heat and chemicals to keep my hair straight and "beautiful."
I saw my natural hair in a different light when I was inspired by the modern-day natural hair movement. Reminiscent of the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s, the natural hair movement of the last decade inspired me to question what I had grown up believing about my hair. Is my natural hair really undesirable? Unprofessional? Unacceptable?
Prevailing beauty standards never included me. I started to see that nappy has always been beautiful, and so I began my natural hair journey. At the age of 28, I cut off all of my relaxed hair.
My natural hair journey didn't end with my "big chop." I've learned to embrace my hair, and I am passing the baton to my daughters. Even though my daughters have only ever seen me with natural hair and have had many Black "aunties" with natural hair to look up to, the good hair myth still managed to reach my 11-year-old daughter, Josie, when she was in kindergarten. I vividly remember the day she told me she wanted hair that "hangs down and swings around."
At that moment, I knew I had to be more intentional about ensuring that my girls learned about the value and beauty of each of their unique hair textures. Today, both of my girls proudly show off their afros.
The natural hair movement and the continued normalization of natural hair textures have affected many Black mothers. So many of us have learned to accept ourselves fully and, in turn, are able to teach our children to do the same. When I look in the mirror, I no longer see my dark skin and kinky hair as defects. Rather, I see melanated glory and hair that defies gravity. I no longer feel the need or desire to relax or press my hair. I prefer my natural texture to straight hair. While our children will likely continue to contend with restrictive beauty standards, I believe we are putting them in a better position to eradicate them.
Through images of mothers carefully washing, detangling, conditioning, and styling their children's natural hair, I hope to create art that confirms its inherent beauty and the beauty in caring for it. I want my daughters, and other Black children like them, to feel the kind of empowerment and affirmation that was missing from my childhood. It has been my greatest joy as a photographer to capture and share this "Wash Day" series—perhaps because it's not just my story. It's our story. I am humbled to have captured images that so many of us can speak through. Each mom in this series has opened her home to me, allowed me to photograph her wash day routine, and shared her own natural hair journey. Each mother's process is different, but each is unifying.
Nadia Faucette stopped relaxing her hair in 2007 after her hairstylist, who was diagnosed with cancer in her hand, told her that she believed the chemicals in hair relaxers contributed to the diagnosis. She continued to flat iron her hair because she felt societal pressure to have straight hair in professional environments. While sheltering in place during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nadia found renewed freedom and began wearing her hair in its curly state on a regular basis.
When asked what she hopes to teach her daughter Kinsley, 7, about her natural hair texture, Nadia says, "I'd like her to see the beauty in her texture, but I'd also like her to know that it's just hair and it compliments her; it doesn't define her."
"The ebbs and flows of my natural hair journey have been both gratifying and challenging," says Jerolyn Kight.
Since receiving her first painful lye relaxer in junior high school, Jerolyn has gone back and forth between natural and relaxed hairstyles over the years. While she has enjoyed easier maintenance with relaxed hair, she has "come to enjoy and appreciate the beauty, body, health, and versatility of natural tresses more."
Jerolyn hopes to teach her 11-year-old daughter Drew techniques that will allow her to both maintain and embrace her natural texture. "I love that she loves her 'big hair' and I hope to help foster its growth and her love of it for many years to come," says Jerolyn.
"It dawned on me that I didn't know the feel, texture, or the way my real hair behaved. I determined that it was time I discovered it," LaTroya Hester says. Inspired by the natural hair movement, LaTroya decided to stop relaxing her hair in 2011.
Though she admits that she was disappointed when her hair texture wasn't "slick and shiny 'Q's that hung long and stretched," she eventually learned to accept that her hair was "its own unique individual with its own temperament and preferences." LaTroya says, "I also learned that I don't have to rely on the security blanket of a straight [texture] to know that my hair and I are beautiful."
LaTroya's goal is to help her daughters, Eliah, 8, and Deja, 4, to recognize that they have "magic hair that is capable of doing wondrous things." She often tells her girls, "Some hair is meant to grow downward and flow like a river. That's nice. But some hair is meant to grow upward toward the sky like the proud branches of a blossoming tree — big and showy. That's also nice."
Kameron Sheats considers herself "an undercover natural hair pioneer." At a young age, she had monthly press and curl appointments. Since her hair wasn't relaxed, she wasn't able to wear the trendy hairstyles that ruled the 80s and 90s. Even though her styling options were limited, initially, Kameron wasn't interested in permanently changing her texture. But pressure from her family and hairstylists who were unwilling to spend time detangling her natural hair moved her to relax it in ninth grade. After two years of relaxing, she noticed that her hair had become thinner and weaker and decided to stop relaxing it. Kameron's hair has been natural ever since.
Kameron says that she hopes to teach her daughters, Kaylee, 11, and Nia Grace, 9, that "being 'fearfully and wonderfully made' also includes their unique hair textures." She hopes they will fall in love with the versatility of their hair.
She believes that by investing the time in properly caring for their hair and by being intentional about the products and processes she uses, she will model a healthy hair care regimen that her children will eventually make their own.
Leslie Quigless' natural hair journey began out of necessity. "I finally cut my hair after it broke off yet again from a relaxer," she says. This was in 1999, a few years before the natural hair movement, so the T.W.A., or teeny weeny afro, her barber gave her was not in style for women yet. She stayed in her dorm room for two days trying to come to terms with her new, short head of hair. Once it was shaped and styled, though, Leslie says she felt beautiful and free.
Her natural hair goal for her daughter is simple: She wants Arden, 8, to know that her hair texture is "gorgeous."
Though mainstream beauty standards are changing, undoing centuries of anti-Blackness and natural hair discrimination takes time.
When asked to describe her natural hair journey, Coretta Mills responded, "I'm still on my natural hair journey. It's so hard to get away from societal imagery about what looks 'kept.'" Still, her daughter, Rhiley, 11, loves her natural hair. "The bigger her hair is, the better for her," says Coretta. This is a natural-hair momma win.
Full disclosure: I started the "Wash Day" series with my daughters in mind. I had no intention of photographing mothers and sons, but I couldn't help but notice that they were participating in wash day, too.
The growing trend of long hair for Black boys, along with changing gender roles and the increased normalization of natural hair textures means that they require hair care beyond barbershop visits. For some Black boys, wash day has replaced the barbershop altogether.
Wash day routines and relationships with hair may be different for boys, but a common theme remains: Natural hair is celebrated.
Like many Black women during the modern-day natural hair movement, Darnita Henry decided she wanted to live a more natural lifestyle. For Darnita, the driving force behind this urge was the birth of her first child. Because she wanted to move away from chemicals in general, she stopped relaxing her hair and began growing out her natural texture.
When her son, Maison, 9, expressed a desire to grow his hair longer, she supported it. He now styles his hair in beautiful locs. Darnita wants Maison to be confident in who he is, regardless of what hairstyle he decides to wear.
For Emily Rutledge, "it's just hair!" She's not afraid to experiment and has worn styles that range from shaved to braided. "At the end of the day, I always come back to my natural [texture]," she says. "I love its thickness, the curls and coils, and the freedom that comes along with my hair."
Emily hopes to pass this feeling of freedom on to her youngest son, 3-year-old Coleman. She wants to show him that he can be free to express himself and tell a story with his hair. Emily doesn't want Coleman to feel like he has to conform to racial or gender stereotypes to be considered professional or acceptable.