Maeling Tapp remembers the moment three years ago when she saw her mother and sisters wearing their coil-prone hair in its natural state and decided that she, too, would stop slathering caustic paste onto her scalp to burn her own similarly textured locks into straight submission.
"Unfortunately, after four months I relaxed my hair again because I just didn't know what I was doing," said Tapp, 25, a Ph.D. candidate in materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech.
"Going natural" is the term used by many African-American women who decide to stop chemically processing, or relaxing, their hair. It's a move that can be fraught with confusion, missteps and sometimes pain, as the 2009 Chris Rock documentary Good Hair attested.
Many women with Afro-textured hair have not seen it in its unadulterated state since childhood. And even some who are acquainted with the texture of their untreated tresses are not comfortable styling their hair in ways they believe are fashionable and appropriate for them. Figuring out which of the countless hair-care tools and products on the market might work can make the undertaking even more overwhelming.
Tired of expensive, time-consuming salon visits, many would-be "naturals" are searching YouTube for inspiration, instruction and other people who have made peace with their kinks and curls.
Tapp said that watching videos there inspired her to pick up the camera herself and create a YouTube channel, Natural Chica.
"I thought, 'Why don't I just document my own journey to help keep track of what's working for me?'" she said. She hoped others would learn from her. "I wanted to contribute to the wealth of information that's out there," Tapp said.
The project is also adding, modestly, to her personal wealth. The channel's corresponding blog, NaturalChica.com, attracts enough page views that she has sold advertising: more money, she said, than she would earn with a typical work-study program paying minimum wage.
There are hundreds of women like Tapp on YouTube, selling lotions, potions and notions for natural hair, or posting video tutorials about how to achieve the look.
Many of them link to CurlyNikki.com, a 3-year-old site founded by Alicia Nicole Walton, a psychotherapist who wanted to create a place for women to gather online and chat about their hair issues. Walton, 28, said she wanted to be an advocate for women who feel social pressure to have their hair straightened.
"My career as a therapist is very important to who I am, and what I do even with my persona as CurlyNikki," she said. "It's called hair therapy."
Walton added that she grossed as much in 2010 from advertising on her site as she did from her therapy work. She said that her goal is to open a practice "where I'd focus on self-esteem and body image, and I know that in my clientele, hair will come up often."
In the meantime, Walton created a free mobile-phone app, after members of her forums requested one so that when they were in the beauty aisle looking at products, they would have their most trusted resource in hand.
Becoming an expert
Another grande dame of the YouTube natural-hair scene is Kim Love, who lives near Washington, D.C., and goes by Kimmaytube. Love, 34, left a six-figure management consulting career to devote herself full time to making how-to videos on natural hair (she posts a weekly show that includes fashion tips) and selling tools and accessories through an online store, LuvNaturals.com. One video, about how to make hair conditioner with castor oil and aloe vera juice, got around a million hits.
Love's viewers deeply respect her advice, and a mention by her can be considered marching orders by her viewers. Some stores in the Washington area quickly sold out of a product called Kinky-Curly Knot Today after she endorsed it. Her favored aloe vera juice, shea butter, castor oil and pH-testing strips routinely rank in the top beauty products on Amazon, and following her recommendation, a self-published book called Grow It, by an author using the nom de plume Chicoro, entered the top 10 bestselling beauty books on Amazon.com.
Love said that entrepreneurship flowed naturally for her after spending hours making videos, often promoting brands like Kinky-Curly and Eco Styler. "I got sick of answering questions about other people's products," she said.
Then she found out that videos she had been making for free were being displayed on the website of a company without her permission.
"I decided that if I'm becoming a brand, I'm going to control my image," Love said. "And I'm going to earn money doing it."
Meeting a need
There are signs that the industry is trending sharply away from the hot combs and Jheri Curls of yore. The World Natural Hair Health and Beauty Show, which takes place annually in Atlanta, drew 8,000 visitors in 2006; this April, it drew nearly 50,000, according to organizers. And CurlyNikki.com meet-ups are thriving; a recent one near Washington drew nearly 200 women and a few curly cuties under 10 for hair discussion, product swapping and brunch.
Love said that such gatherings meet an essential need.
"How much of that multibillion-dollar industry for African-American hair care is education?" she wondered. "Very few people are talking about the science of our hair and how to handle this fiber that can grow long with the right treatment. People are debating about products, but I'm trying to show the tools and techniques that will work for our hair. Stylists, products, educators -- this is a big industry, and there's room for everyone."