SAO PAULO, Brazil — Bruna Aparecida smiled cautiously at her reflection as a hairdresser snipped the last strands of her straight hair. Her head was crowned with curls.
“I didn’t know myself without straight hair,” said Aparecida, 27, who used chemical relaxers for nearly a decade before deciding to go natural. She used to be the only black woman at the bank where she works who had kinky hair. Today, she is one of six.
“It’s all the rage this year,” she said. “Many of my friends are doing it.”
Black and brown Brazilians make up more than half of the country’s population, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the beauty industry. Brazil’s innovative hair-straightening treatments, sold around the world, have long chased white standards of beauty. Ten years ago, it was not unusual to find robed women packed into a room at a salon, covering their mouths with rags to avoid inhaling fumes, while hairdressers doused their locks in formaldehyde for a pin-straight look. Now, a growing number of black Brazilians are ditching the hair straighteners and embracing their curls.
The resurgence of natural hair has mirrored a rise in black empowerment in Brazil. The number of Brazilians identifying as black grew 15 percent in four years, according to the 2016 census. Meanwhile, inspired
by the movie “Black Panther,” Afrofuturism — a movement that explores a futuristic vision of Africa and the African diaspora — has taken off, with movies, plays and music featuring black protagonists.
Yet racial inequality here remains stark. The average salary for a white citizen is nearly 50 percent higher than for a black citizen. Black and brown Brazilians made up 70 percent of the country’s murder victims in 2016, according to the most recent government data made public. Earlier this year, the assassination of black Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco sparked a debate about racism and police brutality.
In this context, the Afro has emerged as a symbol of resistance.
The black beauty market has been growing an estimated 20 percent a year in Brazil, helped by products geared toward women transitioning to more-natural looks, according to the Kline market research group. Online searches for “Afro hair” have tripled here in the past two years, according to Google Labs. #CabeloCrespo, a “kinky hair” hashtag once used on photos of straightening makeovers, now generates thousands of images of billowy Afros.
“I had no idea of the size of the market when I opened my salon,” said Almiro Nunes, 44, owner of Curls Clinic, a beauty parlor in Sao Paulo that specializes in naturally curly hair. Nunes, who started with 10 clients eight years ago, sees an average of 60 clients a day and plans to expand to a second salon.
It’s not just the salons that seem to have gotten the memo. Pharmacies and department stores that used to primarily stock shampoos for white clients now have whole sections dedicated to natural black hair. This has opened up options for black women and girls who felt they had no choice but to straighten their hair.
That was the case for Aline Bibiano, 27. Bullied by her white classmates for her “bad” hair, she started relaxing it at 8 years old. “I’d rather be in a wheelchair than have bad hair,” she once told her mom.
When she decided to grow out her hair six years ago, she turned to the Internet for support. “I said, ‘Is anyone else out there doing this?’ ” There, she discovered tips on how to go about the process, which can take three years.
Today, Bibiano writes a column on curly and kinky hair for All Things Hair, a website run by the beauty product company Unilever. “Women now have the references I didn’t have,” she said. “On Instagram and Facebook, girls are coming to terms with curly hair.”
But the deep well of prejudice against black hair is just beginning to be drained. In a 2017 Google study, 1 in 3 Brazilian women said they had faced prejudice because of their hair. Bibiano routinely deals with harassment.
For the millions of slaves trafficked into Brazil from West Africa, hairstyle conveyed marital status, religion, social position and ethnic identity. When they arrived in Brazil, their hair was promptly shaved.
“In order to distance the black slaves from their cultural origin, this shaving, done under the pretense of hygiene, had the intention of undermining any sense of ethnic belonging that those people could have carried in their relationship with their hair,” said Amanda Braga, who wrote a book about the history of black beauty in Brazil.
“It was a way to make these black slaves anonymous in the new world,” Braga said, “presenting them to a new continent without the references they had carried in their hairstyles.”
For many black Brazilians, a return to natural hair is a way to reconnect to their heritage.
“It is a political act,” said Andressa Maciel, a 26-year-old filmmaker. “My hair is the first thing people see. It says: ‘This is Andressa. This is her ancestry.’ ” She sees her hair as a way to reclaim her African roots. “Racism makes you not want to be who you are,” Maciel said. “I want kids to see my hair. It needs to be in the mirror, so they know black hair is natural and beautiful, that they came from kings and queens.”
Women such as Maciel have found their muse in Taís Araújo, one of the first actresses to portray a wealthy woman with kinky hair, on a Brazilian television show a decade ago.
Today, Araújo stars in “Mister Brau,” a comedy about the misadventures of a well-to-do black couple who move into an elite all-white neighborhood in Rio. The show combines slapstick comedy with quotes from South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, civil rights history and story lines about racism. When it came time to choose her hairstyle for the show, Araújo said, it was a political decision.
“When we talk about the role of television, especially in Brazil, of open-access television, we see that some sense of social responsibility can change a country,” she said in an interview.
“Brazil has discovered its own identity,” Araújo said. “Cultural changes don’t happen overnight. We are in that process, and it is very beautiful to see.”
In recent weeks, she stood out from the other glossy-haired models and celebrities gracing magazine covers on newsstands. Arms crossed, she looked defiantly at the camera from the cover of the women’s magazine Claudia, sporting a massive mane.
Watching Araújo on television inspired Aparecida Jesus, 34, to free her straightened locks four years ago. Today, her 10-year-old daughter, Ana Luiza, is the same age as Jesus was when she first started using chemical relaxers. Ana Luiza gets bullied at school for her big hair, just as her mom did.
“I tell her,” Jesus said, “her hair is beautiful the way it is. I want to change the norm.” On a recent afternoon, Ana Luiza watched as stylists expertly twisted and combed her mom’s curls. “It was just supposed to be me today,” Jesus said. “But now she wants her hair done, too.”