Downtime

Curly Hair on Dial-Up

Mainstream society was not friendly to curly hair in the 1990s, particularly if it grew from a black woman’s head. But my modem led me to the natural hair underground.

Collage of a black woman touching her hair surrounded by a comb, moisturizer, and hair straightener.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by master1305/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

It was once considered a rite of passage for black girls, that moment sometime during the tween or early teen years when you received your first perm. This “perm” was really a chemical relaxer—one designed to remove the curl from your hair, leaving you with sleek, bone-straight tresses that projected an image of respectability and maturity.

For many of us, the initial excitement that came with the prospect of silky flowing hair faded into complaints about chemical burns, constant breakage, and shedding. But we went back to the salon or to our sinks faithfully every six-to-eight weeks to apply more perm to the kinks and coils growing from our scalps, lest the contrast between the two textures reveal the truth about how our hair looked in its untouched state.

Call it youthful rebellion or just a lack of funds, but when I reached my junior year of college, I’d had enough. The whole process controlled too much of my time, energy, and finances for an aesthetic result that felt less than satisfying.

As one of the few students at my Midwestern university who possessed a laptop in 1998, I could retreat to the privacy of my dorm room to begin my quest. Late one night, I pulled up the ol’ AltaVista search engine, typed “black hair” into the search bar, and thanks to a mega-fast 14.4 baud modem, AltaVista responded two minutes later with a list of results.

The first was a site with a simple name—BlackHairCare.com. Click. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but the site offered a discussion forum, ushering me into the black hair underground. Hundreds of women from around the United States—and sometimes the U.K. and the Caribbean—congregated to share styling tips, product recommendations, and advice on “going natural.”

I gasped. “Going natural” felt like the final frontier. We discussed our fears of what might happen if we dared to walk outside with our naturally kinky, coily, and curly hair revealed to the world. We’d be called ungroomed, unprofessional, and worst of all—nappy.

This wasn’t the 1960s or 1970s after all. The days of the Angela Davis–style Afro were a distant memory, a blip of hair history fueled by the Black Is Beautiful movement of the post–civil rights, Black Power era. In the social-climbing, aspirational 1980s and 1990s, it was understood that if you were a black woman, you were going to straighten your hair after reaching a certain age.

These strangers on the internet, however, were starting to denounce the “creamy crack,” as they called the chemical relaxers. And the forums were multiplying in conjunction with the growth of the World Wide Web. Someone on BlackHairCare.com linked to a newer site, NaturallyCurly.com, that had a mostly white audience—yet these women too were sharing their struggles with styling their curly hair without straightening. I was the 98th member of the NaturallyCurly.com forum, initially using my first name as my handle before changing it to Bunny77—a moniker devised by combining a childhood nickname with my year of birth.

Within a year, I had at least five hair forums I checked regularly to ensure I didn’t miss any breaking curly hair news. I was obsessed, reading sites for hours and e-chatting with hundreds of women who read and analyzed conditioner bottle labels. We debated the merits and detriments of silicone-laden products on our hair and gave passionate dissertations about their drying effects, saying they were the reason so-called frizz-reducing products didn’t actually work. We knew about one another’s boyfriends, husbands, kids, and reactions to jojoba oil over shea butter—along with our respective curl patterns. (Yes, there is a curl typing system, and I’m a 3C-4A.)

Hair forum members from New York City shared firsthand, insider knowledge about small artisan product lines such as Carol’s Daughter, often made by black female entrepreneurs in their kitchens and sold in small storefronts or open-air markets. More small businesses emerged, as members felt empowered to craft and sell butters, lotions, puddings, and potions to a neglected market segment, with little more than word-of-mouth recommendations in the forums as their marketing strategies. Those of us outside the Big Apple begged the New Yorkers to buy said products and ship them to us, and my Midwestern mailbox overflowed with sweet-smelling curly concoctions. We didn’t know we were practicing an early version of e-commerce.

Yes, we’d absolutely shell out $25 for a 16-ounce jar of purple goop called Curly Pudding because Kurlee1999 said it was her holy grail. Kurlee1999 might have been a bot for all we knew, but darn it, we trusted Kurlee1999 and her beautiful 4B ’fro inherently more than any television ad. We all spent too much on hair products and relished in our status as “product junkies.”

As the online curly hair space expanded in the new millennium, many forum members began sticking to the ones that best fit their personal demographics. In a place called Nappturality.com, created in 2001 as a Yahoo group before becoming its own entity, we found a haven to embrace the beauty of natural black hair without any talk of straightening. Even the site name challenged the derogatory perceptions of being called “nappy” and turned the term on its head. There, we encouraged each other to do the “big chop” and cut off all our relaxed, straightened hair at once to reveal a cute TWA—teeny-weeny Afro. We had our own text-style lingo before texting was a thing. A TWA could grow into a BAA—badass Afro—or we could take our new napps and experiment with twist-outs, Bantu knots, wash-and-gos, and other styles.

Social media changed the game a few years later. By the end of the first decade of the 2000s, natural hair bloggers, vloggers, influencers, and YouTubers styling their hair for the camera brought greater visibility to natural hair. Younger millennials began touting themselves as part of a natural hair vanguard, christening their efforts as the “natural hair movement.”

Meanwhile, “historic” sites like NaturallyCurly.com morphed into lucrative businesses and thought leaders in a now-defined textured hair market. Nappturality.com is also still alive and kicking, although BlackHairCare.com is no longer with us. Carol’s Daughter had net sales of $27 million in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2014, a month before its acquisition by L’Oréal. I can now buy my favorite natural hair products off the shelves of Target and Walmart.

I’m happy that younger women can embrace their natural hair much earlier in their lifetimes and can choose straight hair as a styling option instead of an expectation. But we hair forum veterans—now in our late 30s to early 50s and using our real names on Facebook and Instagram—know the first online natural hair “movement” happened in an era when finding like-minded and like-haired women was much harder. Especially when your modem kicked you off the network in the middle of typing an ode to an amazing concoction called Healthy Hair Butter.