April 22, 2012 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek

Naturally Flyy: Detroit sisters celebrate 'rocking hair natural'

Naturally Flyy
Naturally Flyy: Two Detroit sisters started Naturally Flyy hair meetups where African American women can find support for their decisions to can the chemicals and "rock their hair" natural.

Charise and Jennifer Thomas believe African-American hair isn't something to be tamed, weaved, or ironed into submission.

The Detroit sisters want black women to embrace their hair's natural texture — and their aim is to offer the practical and social support needed for them to step out with confidence.

Enter Naturally Flyy Detroit's natural hair meetup — a group hug for hair dreamed up by the Thomas sisters, who are co-owners, with their parents, of the west-side bakery Sweet Potato Sensations.

"We try to promote African-American women to wear their hair the way it naturally grows out of their head and give them tips, resources, tools, fun times, sisterhood, and all that good kind of stuff," says Charise, 31.

When their family moved the bakery into larger quarters on Lahser just round the corner from Grand River in 2010, the two sibs realized they had room to host events.

"It was my idea to start the hair meetup because when I started to wear my hair like this (natural) I wanted to make sure I had all the information I needed," says Jennifer, 29, who wore her hair relaxed — chemically straightened — from fifth grade through her sophomore year in college. "I wanted to know all the styles, all my options."

"All our friends have natural hair," says Charise, whose alter ego is T-shirt and purse designer Ettaflyy Espy.

They expected about 20-30 women at their first meetup. But their Facebook post quickly saw more than 100 women RSVP.

They didn't know where to put them all. "But we have a huge kitchen," she says. So they had their first meet-up amid the mixers and ovens.

The location was appropriate since so many women have done their hair in the kitchen using the stove to heat up the metal pressing comb for ironing their hair straight.

They started holding the meetups every couple months and eventually moved across Lahser to Artist Village as the crowd grew to more than 400 people gathering for support, camaraderie, vendors and styling demonstrations. Each event includes a panel discussion like last month's "Black Men Speak."

'Fried, dyed and laid to the side'

Black men and women have long fought the stereotype that long, straight, shiny European (and Asian) hair is the ideal. Even among white women, a lot of kinky tresses get the straightening treatment: "What we call fried, dyed and laid to the side in the African-American community," Charise laughs.

Acceptance of natural styles is growing, but anyone who was raised by parents warning that employers favor applicants with straight hair got the message that nappiness was a non-starter. And they got it early on. In his film "Good Hair," comedian Chris Rock says he was devastated when 6-year-old daughter asked him "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?"

And it's not just an American thing. "When I saw women in Africa in 2001 having their hair relaxed and with weaves and not accepting themselves for who they were, I was shocked," says Charise.

"Our hair doesn't want to lay down," says Charise. "It wants to stand up. It doesn't want to be slicked and laid. It wants to do just what it's doing."

She recalled the moment she stood on a beach in Africa and made peace with her own hair, pulled out the strands of sewn-in hair that comprised her weave and said: "I can do this." Soon after, her sister and mother followed suit. Her mother Cassandra did the BC, the Big Chop, to cut the relaxed hair off till she had a very short afro. "My dad was like whoa... you really started something."

"I'm an advocate," says Charise. "I want everyone to be who they are and embrace that."

'Rocking your hair natural'

The variety of natural styles is seemingly endless. Locks, braids, afros, corn rows, twists, and twist-outs all have myriad adaptations. At the last meetup, hundreds of women — and men — showed off their dos, and no two looked identical.

Naturally Flyy is like a great big natural hair support group—although Charise rejects that moniker, preferring to call it a "movement." She sees it as a place for women to get information on going relaxer-free and support from other women for their choice. OK, so "it is kind of a support group," she says, "but it's like a support group times 55."

Straightening has numerous ill effects. African-American hair is prone to breakage if it gets too dry and relaxing chemicals can cause hair to fall out. And tight weaves have been known to damage hair follicles and cause a woman's hairline to recede. Then there's the scalp. Beside the obvious burns and scabbing, many women worry about consequences from harsh relaxers being absorbed through the skin.

Going natural avoids those problems and the meetups present advice on ways to keep hair healthy.

"African hair does really well with water, keeping it moist and supple" said Natural (accent on the "al") Hunter, a "loctician" at Textures by Neferititi salon in Midtown. Hunter gave locking demonstrations at the last meetup and sprayed hair liberally with water while twisting and rolling tresses between her hands to produce what used to be called dreads.

"We don't call them 'dreads,' " says LaDonna Sims, also of Textures, "because it's not dreadful. It's a beautiful thing. It's "locs.'"

"It's about liberation," says Hunter. Relaxed hair and weaves don't mix well with moisture, causing many women to forgo swimming, saunas and strenuous (read sweat-producing) exercise to preserve coifs that can cost hundreds of dollars in purchased human hair and five-hour sessions of styling.

"If you're wearing your hair straight, you're wearing it to conform to a standard of beauty...that's more European," Hunter says. "Wearing hair natural gives African-American women a feeling of beauty within their own scheme, within their own natural being."

The natural-hair movement got a national boost recently at the Academy Awards, where a glamorous Viola Davis, star of the movie "The Help," caused a buzz by sporting a short-cropped natural Afro on the red carpet.

The Thomas sisters say women decide to go natural for many different reasons.

"Some people want to go natural for spiritual reasons," Jennifer says. "Some people go natural because they want to get back in touch with their African roots. Others go natural because of health reasons...or because it's the trend right now; it's popular."

"It starts off being a black thing," Charise says, fingers hooked like quotation marks. "But it doesn't end there because we have to think of our children. There's a set of Caucasians who come through with their biracial daughters and they want to bring them for support.

"It's just nice to see everybody coming together. It's not just a black thing; it's a woman's thing," she says.

For some women, the meetups hit an emotional nerve.

Jennifer tells the story of one older woman who started to cry because she said, "I never thought, in my lifetime, I'd have a chance to be amongst all of you with your hair like this. I never thought I would see it."

Charise Thomas, 31, left, and her sister Jennifer Thomas, 29, founded Naturally Flyy Detroit to encourage African American women to ditch their straighteners and weaves and "rock their hair natural." / Donna Terek/The Detroit News
Loctician Natural Hunter of Textures by Nefertiti salon gives LaDonna Sims, ... (Donna Terek/The Detroit News)
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