Rochelle Ritchie, an African-American TV reporter in West Palm Beach, Fla., who, out of frustration, decided to let her hair go natural, recently shared her transition story with her local TV audience — explaining how wigs, weaves and perms had severely damaged her hair over the years. In the segment, Ritchie didn't just tell her own story; she also interviewed a woman who went natural for her 6-year-old daughter, and spoke to a dermatologist about traction alopecia, which is hair loss caused by damaging weaves, wigs and relaxers.
Ritchie's bold on-air move has inspired admiration among her peers. Television journalist and former network anchor René Syler told Journal-isms that she heard Ritchie's story and celebrated. "I hope times are changing," she said. Syler wore her hair permed while anchoring the CBS Early Show but went natural some years after leaving the show. She said she'll be natural for her next TV job.
I spent years in the TV news industry, and early in my career, veteran black female reporters, anchors and executives would let us know that natural hair was not acceptable if you wanted to be successful. Just think about how many local or national TV reporters or anchors you've seen with natural hair. There are a few, such as Atlanta's Monica Kaufman Pearson, but not many.
It's unfortunate, but dealing with damaged hair has become a typical part of the black female experience in America. I've had a perm since childhood. And I've shed my share of tears about my hair being overprocessed or stressed in some other way, forcing me to cut off all of my hair or seek dermatology treatments. But I never actually even thought about going natural until I interviewed Ritchie this week for my "Inside Her Story" radio segment on The Tom Joyner Morning Show.
During the interview, Ritchie mentioned traction alopecia again. It's seen mostly in black women, with the hair loss occurring around the front hairline and over the ears (think Naomi Campbell). After the Joyner interview, several listeners e-mailed me about this condition. One was Dr. Monte Harris, a hair-restoration expert. He considers traction alopecia an epidemic among women of African descent.
Harris would like to see all black women transition to natural hair. That's remarkable, because a major part of the business at his Chevy Chase, Md., clinic, Center for Aesthetic Modernism, is repairing damage from styling techniques that are anything but natural. But he says that he's had no choice but to encourage his clients to embrace natural hair, given the damage he's seen: "I'm going to be real and do what's best, and let the chips fall where they may. I can say I did what was most appropriate at the time to uplift black women. On one level we are peers. This is our fight."
Harris is optimistic that what he's seeing in the entertainment industry could create a bit of a movement among everyday women. Stars like Chrisette Michele and Solange Knowles have gone totally natural, he points out, and other black celebs are taking out their weaves and wearing their own, shorter hair, natural or not — a tremendous step toward healthier hair.
For many black women, straight hair is all we know. Our mothers, grandmothers and all of the women we grew up around had perms, weaves or wigs. Natural hair, quite frankly, seems foreign. But Harris says that thinking of straight hair as better is just wrong. He suggests that black women redefine and broaden what it means to have natural hair.
For those who are not ready to go natural, consider an experience that Harris had. Some folks from Italy were visiting his office and asked him if many black women have cancer, since so many of us wear wigs and false hair. Harris suggests that this is how many around the world see black women.
How can you not want to be part of changing that perception? I can't say I'm going natural anytime in the near future, but after talking to Harris, I'm ready to seriously explore other options for my hair.