African-American women who are embracing their natural hair got a boost from the media mogul this week, when Oprah appeared rocking a fierce, full afro on the cover of O magazine for the first time.
It's how she looks when she's not in front of the cameras, she says, and she swears that it makes her feel "unencumbered."
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"When a public figure of that stature embraces textured hair, it tells the world what we already know: natural is beautiful," the writers at Clutch, an online magazine aimed at Black women, point out.
In her makeover-themed September issue, which comes out August 7, Oprah admits that she has been so frustrated with her hair that she was once tempted to cut it all off.
"I wanted to wear it close-cropped, a la Camille Cosby, but her husband Bill convinced me otherwise," she writes. "'Don't do it,' he said. 'You've got the wrong head shape and you'll disappoint yourself.' I took his advice."
Curly girls of color are quick to point out that Oprah's "natural" style could easily be a braid-out or air-dried chemically relaxed or texturized hair -- it's far more "styled" than "wild." There are entire threads devoted to which kind of relaxer she uses -- Dr. Miracle's No Lye relaxer, according to one senior member of the Black Hair Media forum, though other members insist that Oprah swears by an expensive, all-natural phytospecific relaxer -- and even more where people wonder whether the star is secretly sporting a weave. (She has repeatedly said that she isn't.)
African American hair comes in all sorts of textures, can be grown out long (depending on the curl type), can be fine or coarse, and is surprisingly delicate and brittle. Weaves, braids, and other "traction" styles can pull hair out at the roots over time and frequent heat styling can damage the hair that's left, prompting many modern women of color to adopt a more natural look.
Oprah has gone natural before, wearing her hair in a high, tight halo early in her TV career after a bad perm caused much of it to fall out. "I was bald for a period of time, as an anchor woman in Baltimore," she told her audience last year. "I was 23 years old, and I had thick hair, and it messed up the chroma key, which is that blue wall they put behind you. And the news director came to me one day and said, 'Your hair's too thick, and you need a complete makeover'."
Since then, her long-time stylist, Andre Walker, has admitted that Oprah does relax her hair but works hard to keep the chemicals to a minimum.
"I don't believe you can do two chemical treatments at once and still have healthy hair," he said in an interview with O Magazine. "If I'm putting a relaxer in her hair, I don't do color. And if I'm doing color, no relaxer. Because heat is also very damaging, I try not to use blow-dryers or irons on Oprah's hair more than three times a week."
Her natural hair may make a powerful cultural statement, inspiring women of color to accept and celebrate the type of hair they were born with. But the bottom line, Oprah says, is that real makeovers are more than skin deep.
"The only real way to transformation," she writes, "is through the mind."
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