Hair is more than hair for Starla Officer. It's a statement of who she is.
Ten years ago, Officer, now 33, decided to stop using relaxers on her hair and go natural.
After trying transitional styles for 10 months, she went for the Big Chop, often known as the B.C., and started sporting a T.W.A. -- a teeny weeny afro. She so adopted the natural hair movement that when her stylist moved, Officer bought the salon. The business eventually closed, but she remains a staunch advocate of natural hair for black women and wears hers in locs -- a style where the hair "locks" together as it grows.
"I consider hair to be not only personal grooming and maintenance, but personal self," she said. "It's also a statement of your identity."
More black women are opting to go natural, with styles ranging from afros of varying lengths to braids to locs to hair straightened with heat rather than sodium hydroxide and other chemicals.
For the previous generation of black professional women, relaxed hair was a version of the white soccer mom's blunt cut.
Braids, afros and other natural hair styles struck many as "too ethnic," a sense confirmed in 1981 when a federal district court upheld American Airlines' decision to fire Renee Rodgers because she wore her hair in braids. Women devoted hours and hundreds of dollars to relaxing their hair.
Slowly, attitudes shifted. Stars such as Erykah Badu modeled natural hairstyles. In 2009, Chris Rock released his docu-comedy "Good Hair," sparked by his young daughter's lament about her own head of hair. Two national hair shows focus on natural styles and products. Women began to realize the toll that years of chemicals on hair takes.
Relaxers, bleaches and dyes weaken hair, leaving it prone to breakage, says Vivian Randolph, president of Madame C.J. Walker Enterprises in Indianapolis. Even weaves can cause problems if they cover the scalp, making it impossible to keep the skin well-oiled and stimulated. By the time many black women are in their 50s, they start losing their hair.
"They're returning to natural almost by force, so they can have some hair," Randolph said. "Women are going back to natural in what I would say are droves."
Other factors may play into decisions to go natural. Having hair relaxed takes time and money -- and must be done every six to eight weeks. Many women opt to visit the salon frequently in between relaxer treatments as well. Relaxers cost upwards of $70, depending on the salon, and the process can take more than two hours.
Natural hair also received a shout-out recently from an unlikely source, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. She blamed black women's reluctance to exercise in part on their desire to preserve their hairstyles.
Many women say they don't like to sweat because the moisture will undo the chemicals in the relaxer, ruining the effect. In addition, many black women have hair that's too brittle to wash every day, which can also dissuade some from sweaty workouts. For some women, natural hair provides an easy-to-care-for option that solves these issues.
C.C. Boler, a stylist with St. Charles International, said she sees this in her clients, especially those who engage in high-energy workouts like Zumba.
"Sweating really does a number on chemically straightened hair," she said. "Your style will completely disappear and you have to redo your hair."
About a year ago, Boler went natural. "I enjoy the freedom of it. If it's raining, I'm not going to panic," she said. "I can go swimming. I can work out."
Going natural does not restrict one's options, stylists note. It may also take a fair amount of experimentation to find the right natural style for each person's individual curl pattern, says Stephanie Coney-Lee, owner of Purity Natural Hair Salon, who has been doing natural hair exclusively for about eight years.
"You can pretty much do anything to it," she said. "It's still hair."
Three years ago, Felicia Hooks, 28, had no idea what her hair looked like. She had been using relaxers since she was 9.
Hooks eased into the look, continuing to straighten her hair with a flat iron and getting weaves. But this spring she had the Big Chop. Now, she mostly wears her hair in a twist-out, garnering compliments left and right.
"I thought I would just give it a try and see how it went, but now I don't think I will ever get another relaxer," Hooks said. "It's just a fun journey, getting to know your hair."