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Around the late 2000s a movement began, rooted in a renaissance of black pride and fostered by chat rooms, film, YouTube, and eventually social media. This movement encouraged women of color to transition from processed to natural hair. It was about embracing the texture and curl of what organically grew out of one’s scalp. It was also about shedding colonial standards of beauty and embracing one’s true self. Soon twists-outs, the big chop, TWAs (teeny-weeny afros), and co-washing (cleansing hair solely with conditioner) became standard vernacular in this realm.
Almost ten years later, the movement has developed into the status quo, with billions of dollars invested into products, video channels, beauty personalities, stylists, and salons devoted to taking care of natural hair. In numbers, according to a 2013 Mintel report, “natural may be the new normal in black haircare, as relaxers account for just 21 percent of black haircare sales and the sector declined by 26 percent since 2008, and 15 percent since 2011, when sales reached $179 million — the only category not to see growth.”
But what’s been unexpected is that many women within this realm have evolved from wearing their curls long and loose to short and tapered — cutting it all off for super short cuts. Cuts, also know as “low cuts,” are traditionally mastered in barbershops.
You see it on social media with Instagram accounts like The Cut Life, Voice of Hair, Mrs_Tahirah, and Step The Barber, and YouTube channels like Alissa Ashley and Gigi Beauty. But there’s nothing better than seeing women rock these cuts in person.
“I’ve been seeing more [women with low cuts] — it’s great, I think natural is beautiful,” said Juan Spruill, a Clinton Hill, Brooklyn-based barber at Respect for Life barbershop, who’s been cutting for more than 20 years. “The numbers are not the same in my neighborhood anymore, because of gentrification. But when it was predominantly a black neighborhood, a lot of women would come in with natural hair. Everyone is getting away from the perm and going back to their roots. It’s a good thing.”
Spruill, like so many other master-trained barbers, learned the technique from years of observation and was able to apply traditional men’s cuts to women’s heads. “I was fortunate to work in a lot of shops that had beauticians. I paid attention on both sides — I observed. Watching and learning, taking in what I see. My first female client was 24 years ago and she comes to me now. I moved away and came back, and she came right back to me. I was the first person to give her the cut, and she’s been wearing it since naturally.”
Spruill will admit that most of his women clients prefer a low fade haircut; that’s the most popular because of how versatile the cut can be. No one fade is ever alike.
While a typical short natural hair style can be twisted or even braided (akin to a straight pixie cut), a low fade style is cut down into the scalp, which can be done in different levels. Gradients are created with blades that come in different lengths dependent upon how deep the hair shaft is that you want cut. Blades designate levels, and levels translate into an overall style. And here’s where the terms Caesar, Wave Fade, Curly Top Fade, Natural Fauxhawk, Line-Up, Taper, and much more come into play.
“When you’re cutting a woman’s hair, the lineup [trimming of thin area of hair starting at forehead] should not be the same as cutting a man’s in the front,” Spruill said. “And you cut the hair the way it lays, preferably in the front, you cut to the back. It gives it a more feminine look.”
Speaking of: “Feminine” is a word you’ll constantly hear in this space as a woman, because while all these cuts are stylish and functional, they are derived from traditional men’s styles. In layman’s terms: It’s considered edgy for women to rock a short cut because it’s usually done by the opposite sex. But instead of acquiescing to the fear of looking masculine, a good amount of women are taking on the challenge.
“I think many assume they simply don't have the confidence to pull off such a bold look, especially when you consider all of the powerful women throughout pop culture history who were known for rocking little to no hair,” said Nikki Brown, Essence’s digital hair and beauty editor.
“Grace Jones, Halle Berry, Danai Guirra, Demi Moore, Rihanna; and the list goes on. All of these celebs have played powerful characters or exude a type of fearlessness that seems unreachable. For black women specifically, I think some of us are still trying reject the assumption that the longer, straighter, lighter our hair is, the better it looks. [But] by the way... the assumption is complete BS!”
Brown notes that women go short for a variety of image-positive reasons, in addition to practicality.
“For black women, a lot of inspiration is coming from Instagram and social media. I personally follow a nice mix of bloggers and stylists for styling inspo because I love to switch things up. [And] for a lot of women, a haircut signifies a much needed change, regardless of whether the decision is thought-out or impulsive. The experience can be cathartic; like your problems are being clipped away with each strand. From a more vain perspective, chopping off a significant amount of hair gives you the chance to grow and care for your hair in a healthier way. By starting fresh, you don't have to navigate through common issues like split ends or color damage.”
So is short the new wave within the natural hair community?
From the hairstylists and hair aficionados we asked, it’s very much an individual choice. Not every hairstyle looks good on every women. But the fact that it’s more accepted in society is one large step in a gender-neutral beauty world. And the ability to cut one’s hair has been made easier with social media inspiration and technology that gives access to a new haircut in one click.
Jihan Thompson and her business partner, Jennifer Lambert, decided to address this growing need with their website and phone application, Swivel. The user-friendly technology holds a curated database of salons and hairstylists that can work with one’s specific hair type and texture. For women going natural, and particularly with super short hair, it’s a convenient find.
“I've talked to users who have no problems with barbershops because they've been doing it for years,” said Thompson. “But for those new to the style, they may feel more comfortable in a salon setting they're used to. That said, many full-service salons, including some on our app, employ barbers. So it could be as easy as hopping a few chairs over.”
She notes that finding a good barber will become easier and easier as the need grows. “There are a ton of talented stylists who specialize in natural hair. Until now, it's been hard to find them, but we're here to make it easier. Whether you're transitioning or just want to get a better handle on maintaining your natural hair — short cut or long curls, I think there's going to be a great push to seek out professionals to help you do that.”
With unavoidable access to inspiration and talented hairstylists, here’s hoping to women embracing whatever style they want— short, long, wavy, or no hair at all.