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Seeing You: Black women across the country embrace the natural hair movement

Studies suggest more than 70% of all women and girls, in the United States, struggle to have a healthy self-image. For most, body weight is the major concern. But, in the African American Community, there is something else that has historically created more anxiety - hair. The Natural Hair movement is changing that.

They are questions thousands of women ask of themselves daily.

“Am I too thin?”

“Am I overweight?”

“Do people think I’m attractive?”

They are questions that reflect the pressures women and girls face when it comes to body and self image.

For women of color, particularly African American women, there is something else creating more anxiety -- hair.

“I remember, my earliest memories of my hair," says Marley Ariyahu, a natural hair stylist and founder of Natural Hair GR. "My mother worked at GM and she was busy every morning and didn't always have the time to style my hair. So, I would go to school and my hair wouldn't be the best, as far as styling.

“I remember being teased for not having the cute hairstyle or the long hair, or the silky black hair other classmates of mine had.”

Theresa Mosley, a successful entrepreneur and the CEO of the Mosley School of Cosmetology shared a similar experience during a roundtable they participated in with WZZM 13 News.

►Related: Doors open to only Black-owned cosmetology school in Grand Rapids

Watch the video below to see the full discussion with six West Michigan women and how they embrace their natural hair.

“My mom put a relaxer in my hair when i was seven. If you wore your natural hair, you would get shamed. Hair when I was in school was such a big thing,” recalled Mosley. “I remember not having cute enough hair and getting talked about. They would dog you out an just hurt your feelings to the core. Hair is so important to me today because of those experiences.”

And, for most people “good hair” meant straight hair. That pressure to be straight extends beyond childhood years and is often a prevalent issue in the workplace.

Less than 50 years ago, Melba Tolliver, the first African American to anchor a network news program, was fired from WABC for wearing her short afro while covering the White House wedding of President Richard Nixon’s daughter.

Black women, for decades, have felt the pressure to conform to traditional standards of beauty or suffer the consequences.

"I had twists and braids and after hearing about women at work being criticized for their hair or young girls at school being criticized for braids, I was concerned coming into work that would happen to me," said Rhonda Spencer, a news producer at WZZM. "In fact, I was ready to defend my hair. The second I came in with those twists."

Related: Hair care professionals share tips to care for natural hair

"I can recall several of my friends, as we're going through this journey of getting our degrees, and entering the professional world. We would have interviews, and were like 'okay should we wear a bun for the interview? And, after the interview, we can wear our twist outs and then we can wear our hair out," said Alisha Lauchie, a behavioral health therapist. "When I got into the professional world, all of a sudden, I got so conscious about what my hair looked like. I felt so self-conscious about my appearance. Do I look professional? Do I look too ethnic? This is a real conversation I had? Do I stand out too much?"

For generations images on television, magazines and in the movies have reinforced the notion that Black women should straighten their hair, either with chemical relaxers or with heat.

"There is a standard, I believe when you go to certain professional standards that you have to wear your hair, or you are expected to wear your hair a certain way," said Cindy Glasper, a natural hair stylist, who has been natural for most of her adult life.

But, times are changing. And, this time Hollywood is not setting the standard but embracing those that are. From scenes from the ABC drama How To Get Away With Murder to Marvel's Black Panther, where no wigs, weaves, blow-outs or press and curls were on set, natural hair is being celebrated in a way that is empowering generations of Black women.

"For a lot of people who embrace that naturalness, it elevates that self love that you have," said Kayon Tompkins a natural stylist and owner of owner of "Nourish Your Curls."

"I think that hair is so closely tied to identity and, although there are people who say, 'oh it just hair', that is not true. It is such a big part of who you are," says Lauchie. "I think that's why it affects us so much when someone says your hair is not this, your hair is not that. In essence you are rejecting who I am.

"When you embrace your natural hair, you do have more confidence because you're embracing yourself. I think it's an opportunity for empowerment and for self love."

Somewhat paradoxically, the women recognize the power of hair while at the same time calling it an accessory.

"I feel like its really important for us to model to our younger girls that this is how god made our hair and we have so many options. We can wear it curly, kinky straight, even relaxing and colors," said Glasper. "I wouldn't knock someone for having a relaxer if that's how they prefer to wear it because of their lifestyle. Natural hair can be a lot of work."

Latricia Trice, a West Michigan marketing & communications professional agrees.

"Wear what makes you feel good and what is going to make you feel confident when you walk into a room. Don't be held to other people's standards of beauty. Own your own standard of beauty and be confident in it and rock that," she said.

That is the message they hope to pass down to young girls as the world begins to embrace and accept natural hair.

"I pray that one day natural hair is so normalized to the point that nobody looks at it twice. Normalizing natural hair to the point where its no longer looked at as something that's unacceptable," said Mosley.

"To see my daughters being able to walk around with their natural hair, no matter how poofy it looks and they are happy. They feel like they are looking good and I can see their confidence. It makes me feel good, like man, we can love ourselves today."

WZZM has partnered with Grand Rapids Christian Radio station WCSG as part of the Seeing You project. There will be a body image panel discussion this Thursday at the Pinnacle Center in Hudsonville, featuring Women’s health writer and body image expert, Leslie Goldman.

Anyone in attendance is invited to ask questions of the panel.

Seeing You will help being a crucial conversation about the significant issues surrounding body image with our children, family and friends. For more information on how to get tickets, click here.

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