Earlier this month, Twitter user Ash Leon tweeted a collage of the infamous hair relaxer boxes we all grabbed as kids at CVS and our local hair stores, sending Black Twitter into a nostalgic frenzy. She then asked, “Where are these girls today? Show yourselves.” For the next few days, women posted their raised hand emojis letting us know what they look like now and provided hair updates.
Something that has surprised many people was that quite a few of the models never actually had relaxers, causing a domino effect of meltdowns for the girls like me who sat in salon chairs or at kitchen tables with tears streaming down our faces from being burned by the products, trying our best to look like them.
Kyla Upshaw Croal was a hair model in the 90s and gave some insight into the hair modeling scene at that time. She was on the displays for the Soft Sheen hair relaxers, the funny part is she never had a relaxer saying, “I was only 16 at the time, and I was glad that I didn’t have to get the relaxer.” The model pointed out that many times at those hair shoots girls did not have to use the treatment kits, they were given extensions or used specific curling irons and rollers to manipulate the hair emphasizing, “There were no lawsuits at the time for false advertising.”
The companies didn’t care that they were selling false hope. I remember anticipating that I was about to have the silkiest and shinest hair, which the style only lasted for 3 good days before it was oily, grown out, and ready for another round of touch-ups.
After being in the modeling game posing for fitness, fashion, and even some music videos, Croal went on to casting girls for the perm boxes. Her goal was to put more darker-skinned girls on the boxes, given that many brands wanted the light-skinned, biracial, loose-curl girls at the forefront, girls that never would’ve needed to use the relaxer kits. Sometimes she would have to not only cast the shoots but also model, simply to have a darker face in the ad.
When asked about the current state of the hair community compared to the relaxer days Croal brought up what it’s like being a mother to a young Black girl today. Her daughter has a coarser hair texture than she had growing up, but unlike many Black mothers in the 90s, she found it unnecessary to give her daughter a relaxer, “There are so many healthy natural hair products today. I remember on sets when people’s hair was falling out from the chemical treatments.” It wasn’t as easy in the 90s and early 2000s to find products for tight hair textures. Some of the mothers gave their daughters relaxers because it was easier to manage.
The 90s and early 2000s relaxer era was a space of togetherness for the Black community. Although we can look back on the products now and trigger our fight or flight for those scalp burns, it was a beautiful time. It was a time when Black hair companies were still Black-owned, had our faces on their products, and we all sported the same hairdos. Many of the perm box girls are natural today, but some still use the treatments to get the look that fits them and makes them feel beautiful, and that’s something to celebrate.