Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

It turns out the models for many relaxer brands in the '90s didn't use those products


It's a bit of a scandal in the world of Black hair care, which is, as we all well know, a very serious business. And it began, as scandals so often do, with a tweet. A Twitter user named @AshTheDonLeon asked the little girls who had been chosen as models for various hair relaxer brands that were popular in the 1990s to show themselves to show how they look today. And many of them did. And many of them also revealed - are you ready for this? - many of them were not actually relaxing their hair. Those silky, glossy ponytails and updos, those tight cornrows and curls were achieved with a hot comb and mousse. Really. Needless to say, Black Twitter has had quite a bit to say about this.

Adama Munu has been keeping track and wrote about this for Refinery29, and she is with us now to tell us more. Adama Munu, thanks so much for joining us and for writing about all this and bringing us up to date.

ADAMA MUNU: Thank you so much for reading it and inviting me on to speak.

MARTIN: So, Adama, you grew up in the U.K., but your experience was the same as that of many girls here in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. You wanted that box. I mean, somebody once - I can't remember who - called it the creamy crack. You wrote in your piece, like many other Black girls growing up in the '90s, there was only one box that I was excited to receive outside of Christmas or Eid - an at-home relaxer kit. As briefly as you can, can you explain to people who don't know why this was exciting?

MUNU: It was exciting primarily because I, like many other Black girls growing up in the U.K. and primarily in the Western world, we saw advertisements and hair commercials that featured young white women who often would say to us that they were worth it and - simply because they had straighter hair. And, I kid you not, I can still remember the pangs that I felt in my chest when I'd see advertisements like that as a 5-year-old. So what I'm saying is, I came into this world understanding that my beauty, my default was not considered beautiful or valuable by wider society. And so the poster girls for the relaxer kits were the closest thing, I think, for me and other girls my age group to what we saw on television. But that was something that gave us a sense of pride because we saw girls that looked like us that had value, which is why they were on those boxes.

MARTIN: So how did it come out that at least some of the girls weren't actually using relaxer? I mean, some of the responses, actually, I have to say, were quite hilarious to me. One of the girls who came forward said, look, here I am today, a successful artist wearing 40 bussdowns (ph) on national TV, still with no actual perm in my head. #ThemBoxesBeLying.

So how did it come out? Was it that they just sold - did they just kind of, I don't know, blow the whistle on themselves? Like, how did it happen?

MUNU: You know what it is with Black Twitter - it's just that there's this flow where anything can happen. I think there was so much momentum in the celebration of these girls. We got to humanize them. We got to know that they're still around, and they're doing very well for themselves. And, I mean, there wasn't too much mention about the fact that, at least initially, that they had straight hair. It's just that we marveled at the fact that they are still here and may have - or were part of our childhood.

But I think that it was something that they may have felt on their own part to put out, particularly because we are in the midst of a natural hair movement or even post-natural hair movement. So maybe they just felt compelled to say, look, by the by, this is something you didn't know. And we want you to be aware of that. We have social media now where we get to admit and to be - open up to some of the things in the past that were once obscure.

MARTIN: And as you pointed out in your piece, some people were a little upset to hear this. And you said this riled some of us online, perplexed us, even. Tell me a little bit about some of the responses to this.

MUNU: I mean, there was one tweet that comes to mind where somebody was like, I feel bamboozled. We need to get that reparations check back. We need to get that money back. And I'm thinking to myself, that's your mom's money. Let's start with that. And there were all sorts of memes where people were like, oh, oop (ph) or ouch. So, I mean, people were able to make light of the fact that this was something they did not know.

There were other responses where people had this suspicion that some of these girls weren't relaxing their hair. That was also very interesting, I found. And yet there were others who were really, really mad. And so what initially started thoroughly as something very celebratory soon ended up becoming quite heavy as we realized the nuance of that memory of wanting to be like these girls. The memorialization was not as linear as we thought it was going to be.

MARTIN: There's a reminder that there was something kind of personal and painful about this. Tell me a little bit about the pain part. Like, what do you think this kind of opened up, in a way? Even though it was kind of funny, but this did open up something a little bit personal and painful. So could you just tell a little bit about, like, what is that pain piece that it opened up?

MUNU: So when I think about this thread, you know, in that moment when we saw these girls, there was this joy. But we quickly came to the realization that there were these emotions of insecurity and inadequacy that also accompany these memories. And so when these women revealed - or at least some of these women revealed that they didn't perm their hair, it kind of harked us back to those feelings of inadequacy and feelings of having to go through something to acquire something that wasn't even actualized in truth. So I think that's what the thread really spoke to.

MARTIN: Part of the reason this was sold to kids - used on kids is that it was said that it didn't have lye in it, which - lye is a very strong chemical, you know, used to straighten hair. But it's not - it wasn't fun. Like, it wasn't a fun experience. Do you remember it being, like, not so fun? Like, it was nerve-racking, right? The stuff smells bad, and, you know, you could really hurt yourself with that stuff. That - you went through all that and - I guess the question is, for what? Like, you have to change yourself to be acceptable. You think that's sort of part of it?

MUNU: That's a huge part of it. We all remember those burns. And just for the record, I'm not against women choosing to relax their hair. If that is something that women want to do, then they - I think we've earned the right to have that choice, as long as we're cognizant of the fact that the relationship between these relaxer kits and the idea of Eurocentricism (ph) as the default is never going to go away. These two ideals are very, very uniquely bound. But I do think that the idea of us going through a process like that, as young as we were, for the purpose of fitting in, for the purpose of feeling adequate and sufficient, it's a very huge thing to experience for someone who has not lived that long.

MARTIN: Adama, do you mind if I put you on the spot and ask, how do you wear your hair now? You don't have to tell me 'cause this is the radio, so I wouldn't know. You could tell me anything.

MUNU: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But do you mind if I ask?

MUNU: No, it's absolutely fine. I mean, I veil. I'm a Black Muslim woman. But I wear my hair naturally. I didn't always cover, so my perspective of this is quite interesting as it does have a private component. But I also understand the very public nature of hair as well.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for talking to us about this. Adama Munu is a writer and a producer. She wrote about the - well, the piece that we're talking about is "Wait, Were The '90s Hair Relaxer Girls Natural All Along?" And we found that piece in Refinery29, and we actually reached her in Istanbul. Adama Munu, thanks so much for talking to us.

MUNU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.