Today, a growing number of black Brazilians are ditching hair straighteners and embracing their natural curls.

“I didn’t know myself without straight hair,” said Bruna Aparecida, 27, who used chemical relaxers for nearly a decade before deciding to go natural.

Aparecida used to be the only black woman at the bank where she works with kinky hair. Today, she is one of six.

“It’s all the rage this year,” she said. “Many of my friends are doing it.”

Photos at the Curls Clinic in Sao Paulo show women who decided to embrace their natural hair. (Pétala Lopes for The Washington Post)
Photos at the Curls Clinic in Sao Paulo show women who decided to embrace their natural hair. (Pétala Lopes for The Washington Post)

This resurgence of natural hair has mirrored a rise in black empowerment in Brazil. According to the 2016 census, the number of Brazilians identifying as black grew 15 percent in four years. Afrofuturism — a movement inspired by “Black Panther” — explores a futuristic vision of Africa and the African diaspora and has taken off with movies, plays and music featuring black protagonists.

Still, racial inequality there remains stark. The average salary for a white citizen is nearly 50 percent higher than for a black citizen. In 2016, black and brown Brazilians made up 70 percent of the country’s murder victims, 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.

The Afro has emerged as a symbol of resistance.

With products geared toward women transitioning to more natural looks, the black beauty market has grown an estimated 20 percent a year in Brazil, according to the Kline market research group. In the past two years, online searches for “Afro hair” tripled there, according to Google Labs, and the kinky hair hashtag #CabeloCrespo, 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, now sees an average of 60 clients a day.

Pharmacies and department stores that used to primarily stock shampoos for white clients now have whole sections dedicated to natural black hair, which has provided options for black women and girls who felt they had no choice but to straighten their hair.

Aline Bibiano. (Pétala Lopes for The Washington Post)
Aline Bibiano. (Pétala Lopes for The Washington Post)

That was the case for Aline Bibiano, 27. After being 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.

She decided to grow out her hair six years ago and turned to the Internet for support. “I said, ‘Is anyone else out there doing this?’”

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.”

Bibiano routinely deals with harassment.

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.

For the millions of slaves trafficked into Brazil from West Africa, hair 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.

Andressa Maciel. (Pétala Lopes for The Washington Post)
Andressa Maciel. (Pétala Lopes for The Washington Post)

“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.”

A decade ago, Taís Araújo, was one of the first actresses to portray a wealthy woman with kinky hair on a Brazilian television show.

Today, she 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. 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.”

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