COLUMBIA — Bridget Hollis, 33, grew up in Columbia getting chemical straighteners at the hair salon, just like all of her friends.
Her first relaxer treatment at age 9 gave her the silky, straight hair she saw in magazines.
Bridget Hollis will be sponsoring the first mid-Missouri natural hair care conference series "Beauty Unveiled." It will be held from 1 until 4 p.m. Sept. 29 at the National Guard Armory on 701 E. Ash St. Admission is $10. The event will feature praise dance, spoken word, food, networking and classes on natural haircare.
She wore straight hair throughout junior high and high school, styling it into braids or press and curls. When she was older, Hollis gloried in hair long enough to pull into a ponytail.
Then, 18 months ago she realized how fragile and damaged her hair had become, after using chemicals that are capable of dissolving an aluminum can.
Hollis arranged "the big chop." She cut off her processed hair as the first step toward recovering its natural state.
“I embraced moisturizers, and my texture went from straight to curly,” Hollis said.
She is not the only one. Going natural is a developing movement among black women who want to abandon products with harsh chemicals. The trend has inspired support groups across the country, including one Hollis joined in Columbia.
As the owner of Peace of Mind Salon and Spa, she hopes to be a resource for women looking for advice and information about going natural.
“My ultimate goal is to be the face of the natural movement in Columbia,” she said.
Natural hair has cycled in and out of fashion, peaking in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. Hollis remembers her grandmother adopting the "black is beautiful" image, along with actress Pam Grier and political activist Angela Davis.
“When I saw the precise, greatly shaped Afro, I loved it,” Hollis said.
The style had a brief resurgence about 10 years ago among musicians Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu who wore Afro wigs during concerts. When Beyoncé played Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers film "Goldmember", she had a huge disco wig.
This month, Oprah Winfrey has a big head of curly hair on the cover of the O magazine.
Hollis believes natural hair will emerge as part of the "green" movement encouraging energy conservation and sustainable products.
"The green phenomenon includes our hair," she said.
The movement in Columbia
Two Saturdays ago, a group of more than 20 women met at a Kinky 'n Curly in CoMo hair party in Columbia to share ideas, frustrations and hair products. Pam Ingram, founder of the nonprofit Granny’s House on Trinity Place, organized the meeting.
Ingram showed the group a YouTube video that parodied the struggles of women with natural hair.
“I have a Ph.D. from YouTube,” she said about the countless videos she watches to learn how to style and maintain her own hair.
Others shared her exasperation about the longing to go natural without knowing how to go about it.
"My scalp was saying 'enough,'" said Columbia resident CortneyJo Sandidge. She even resorted to mascara to cover spots on her scalp from relaxer burns.
Sandidge decided to go natural and noticed her hair was growing better than ever. Then she began to wonder if her new look would be accepted in the professional workplace.
Sandidge was relieved when she received a number of compliments and said her husband also encouraged her natural look.
"It's the coolest thing to see me as I was created to be," she said.
The fear of looking unprofessional is common.
"The whole thing we're trying to do is change the perception," Hollis said. "We are still the same smart, powerful, professional women no matter how we wear our hair."
Closing a generation gap is another struggle. Most of these women have mothers who insisted on relaxers and cannot accept a different version of their daughters.
“My mother was very disappointed when I cut my hair off and went natural,” said Kim Scott, another member of Kinky 'n Curly in CoMo.
“But I had to come up with something else because my hair was literally falling out.”
Scott, who was getting relaxers almost every two weeks, had her last treatment in January 2011.
The perils of chemical straighteners
Among black women, straight hair does not come without costs, both financial and physical.
Black hair care is a lucrative business nationwide. According to a study by Mintel, the market is estimated to top about $684 million in 2012.
But the risks of chemical products have been researched and confirmed.
According to a different study from a team led by Lauren Wise of the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University, strong evidence indicates the use of hair relaxers may increase risk for uterine fibroids.
Harsh chemicals such as sodium hydroxide can cause severe burns to the scalp and hair, as demonstrated with an experiment in comedian Chris Rock's HBO documentary "Good Hair."
To some women, the transition to natural means fewer visits to the salon and less money spent on hair products.
"Unless you become a product junkie, it's easier to maintain," Hollis said. "Some women get frustrated and go back. Some seek knowledge and go forward."
The next generation of natural beauty
Ingram and Hollis hope the next generation will have an easier time.
At 13, Ingram’s granddaughter Mahogany Bell was one of the youngest members at the natural hair meeting last month.
Inspired by her mother, Gredia Bell, Mahogany plans to go natural in the near future.
“It’s good to get information before you go in. It feels better having all these women around me,” she said.
Hollis' daughter BreAnna is just 5, but her mother said that she will never give her a relaxer.
“BreAnna is all natural, and I let her rock it,” Hollis said.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.