TAMPA — Nadia Darius listened.
People are going to give you looks, the workshop leader said. If you can't handle the scrutiny, the stares, the criticism, the questions, don't bother.
Darius, 27, a promotions and marketing employee from Lutz, came to the seminar at the John F. Germany Public Library to learn more about how to transition from wearing a chemically straightened hairstyle to managing her own natural hair.
She listened as the lecturer encouraged the nearly 20 attendees of a Meetup group, Tampa Area Naturally You, to have confidence in the tight curls that jut out of their scalps in every direction.
She listened as other attendees traded tips on their favorite hairstyles for black women and how to achieve them without chemical relaxers, also known as "creamy crack" because it must be reapplied every six to eight weeks or the hair reverts to its natural state.
She heard it all. And she had a decision to make.
Should she do the big chop, cutting off her shoulder-length brown locks and starting over? Should she gradually let her natural hair grow out and get the straightened hair trimmed? Or should she stay on the relaxers?
"I'm not sure," Darius said, as the meeting ended. "I'm still thinking about it."
As is an entire culture.
• • •
Across the United States, an increasing number of black women are choosing to bare their natural hair, full of kinks and curls, in places where such hairstyles were once almost culturally taboo.
You see it in corporate offices and in Hollywood, where Viola Davis drew criticism at the Academy Awards last year when she shunned her usually perfectly coiffed wig for her own short auburn Afro. Oprah Winfrey twice appeared on the cover of O magazine with natural hair last summer. And Essence, the nation's leading black women's magazine, started a blog called Natural Hair Revolution.
You also see it in the marketplace.
Several companies in the $684 million black hair care business have introduced products designed specifically for women with natural hair or for those making the transition. And sales of at-home hair relaxers have plummeted, dropping 30 percent in the last two years, according to a black hair care industry report by Mintel, a market research company.
But commercial success does not equal full acceptance, and black women's hairstyle is as hot a topic in 2013 as it was in the 1960s, when Cicely Tyson sported an Afro on the television show East Side/West Side, prompting a flurry of criticism from black women who felt her hairstyle misrepresented them.
While the angst over something as malleable as hair can seem silly to outsiders, experts say there is nothing trivial about it.
"Hair is a major cultural component of black women's lives. It defines us. It has a lot to do with how we see ourselves," said Cheryl Rodriguez, director of the University of South Florida's Institute on Black Life. "Making a decision on how we're going to wear our hair — that really is a momentous decision for us and it's influenced by a lot of factors."
In the early 1900s, black women used hot combs — super-heated metal combs used to straighten or press hair — to gain entree into society at large. The practice has endured, and with the invention of chemical relaxers it's even easier for women to get silky straight hair.
Women of the 1960s rebelled in many ways, but it was the Afro, popularized by activist Angela Davis, that made the biggest political statement for black women.
"It was really bold at the time," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, 60, now wears her hair in long "sister locks" that look like meticulously manicured dreadlocks. She said her grandmother used to press her hair in her kitchen when she was a child. As was the custom in many black households, her grandmother heated the hot comb on the stove and pulled it through her hair.
"I was told, 'You never go out in public with your hair nappy,' " Rodriguez recalled.
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Tampa Area Naturally You or TANY, the support group Nadia Darius visited last year, meets quarterly for educational and social functions. It grew out of the renewed interest in the natural hair care movement.
In December 2010, Andrea Simmons founded the group as a selfish endeavor.
Simmons, 54, had just left her corporate job and spent months on YouTube trying to learn how to transition to a natural hair style. But it was hard to teach herself to style her hair using the Internet. So she founded a group on meetup.com. Two people showed up at the first meeting.
Eventually membership swelled, filling the tiny rooms in libraries she booked. By November 2012, TANY had 341 online members and had hosted 36 meetups. Now the group brings in guest speakers to coach women through their transition periods and give them skills they can use once they've reached their hair destination.
Jasmine Stephens, a hairstylist who specializes in natural hair, spoke to the group in July.
As the women sat in a semicircle on a Saturday morning, Stephens' hands twisted quickly through a few manes, pulling and pinning to create sculptured hairstyles that would be acceptable in any setting.
Her own hair, a tiny Afro dyed auburn, reflects her own hair story.
She'd gone natural once before, but reverted to relaxing her hair. Now she was back at the beginning — trying to exude confidence about her choices.
"First of all, you have to be comfortable with your face, because when you cut it off, it's just you and your face," Stephens told the group.
Wide noses, thick lips and heavy lidded eyes — common among black women — aren't standards of American beauty, Stephens said.
The women nodded as her words sunk in.
Simmons said the hair issue transcends race, because Western culture in general doesn't embrace curly hair.
Elfreda LaBlue could relate. LaBlue, 39, an Army officer from Riverview, cut off all her processed hair in March, leaving a "teeny-weeny Afro."
"I had a guy I worked with on base come to me and say 'Why did you do that? You were so much prettier,' " LaBlue recalled of her experience.
She got mad. In her eyes and her husband's she was still pretty.
"It speaks volumes about how far we have to go," LaBlue said.
• • •
In the middle of this exchange sat Nadia Darius.
She left the meeting that day unsure if she would proceed with a natural hair journey. Then something clicked. She wanted healthier hair and decided going natural was the way to get it. She tried buying products, watching Internet tutorials and seeking counsel from other women.
But the styles took too long to create, and managing a head with a mix of natural and straight hair was too time-consuming.
After four months, Darius gave in to the creamy crack.
"I don't want to take my hair too seriously," she said. "I want my hair to be easy. For me, it's just an accessory."
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3373.