Ebony: Natural in Brazil

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Who are you and from where do you hail?
My name is Ebony and I am 32 years old. Although I currently live in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I am originally from the Bahamas. My hair experiences at home are very similar to those expressed by Claudine in her post about Bermuda, so I’ll focus on my recent experiences as a natural in Brazil and previously, in Cairo.

I moved to Brazil last summer, after living in Cairo, Egypt for two years. Cairo, while full of culture and revolution, was not the easiest place for a single, Black woman to live. At first, when I was too preoccupied with not getting lost, I didn’t notice a lot else; I figured out local grocery stores, how to get to work and back and made a few friends. And then, I started paying attention to other things. Like, the way the sub-Saharan African woman were leered at, the way I was sometimes followed (and propositioned) by men on the street, the ex-pat men who fawned over all shades of brown as something exotic.

Please don’t get me wrong; as a general rule, Egyptians are great … but, as we all know, it only takes a few incidents to taint an experience. Because I am “light-skinned,” when my hair was straight, I could “pass” for Egyptian and I got less flack/more positive attention. But one of my best girlfriends, who wore her hair in braids, was often mistaken for being up for anything and had to frequently defend herself from physical harassment. It was as though the more “African” you looked, the bigger a target of derision and harassment you became. It was incredibly disappointing and demoralizing.

It’s with this experience that I moved, with relief, to Brazil; I reasoned that such a purportedly open culture would provide me with a much needed 180 to what I’d experienced. And I was right!

What has your natural hair journey been like? If you relaxed your hair at some point, why did you (or your guardian) make that decision?
I have been natural for over 10 years now, after having a relaxer for the 10 or so years prior to that (transitioned). A relaxer was the norm in the Bahamas and I thought it was a great treat when my mom finally allowed me to get my first ‘perm’ when I was 12. I do regret it; I should have listened to my parents who told me it was a bad idea. My little sister, by contrast, never got a perm and can now sport a beautifully full head of locs that will never be mine. Sigh.

My hair has always been fine, but I’m convinced that it was thicker back in the day. This is my biggest peeve about my hair, I think, that there’s so little of it … but we always want what we don’t have!  I don’t actually remember why I decided to grow out my relaxer, but it was probably either because I was tired of sitting in a salon. I like to be in and out.

What do you like most about your homeland?
What I enjoy most about being here is that women of all shapes, ages and races take pride in their appearances and wear what makes them feel comfortable (even if it may provoke others to look at them goggle eyed). I find this confidence and celebration of femininity so refreshing and healthy.

What do you see as the challenges of being natural in Brazil? Are there any things that you think are unique to where you live? If so, what and why? How do you think they can be overcome?
I haven’t found that the same sense of self-confidence that I talked about above translates to hair. Brazil is famous for the Brazilian Blowout, which combines keratin and formaldehyde in some crazy mixture so that you can wash and go or blow your own hair out more easily. When I was growing up, there was a saying, “If it can blow, you can go” and that is the sentiment here as well. Straight hair, the longer the better, is everywhere. The few exceptions to this are the women who have more of a natural wave and have lots of length; this seems acceptable.

But we all know that this hair-hateration isn’t anything new or unique to Brazil. But maybe the tide is turning? Just this month, Sony Music was ordered to pay over half a million dollars in compensation after releasing a “hair-ist” song in 1997; the song is all about a black woman who smells bad and has hair like a scouring pad (Google “Veja os Cabelos Dela [Look at Her Hair] for the full story).

Shelli: And/or you can check out the article on CurlyNikki here.

What is the hair norm for Black/Brown women where you live? If natural hair is not the norm, is it becoming more prevalent?
To be honest, there are not very many “visibly Black” women where I live, although almost everyone here has some brown in them. When I do see Black women out and about, I feel the urge to give them “the nod” as we pass each other (like Black folks do in US cities where they’re not in great numbers). These women are usually travelling to work as domestic help in affluent homes – but that’s another story – and tend to have relaxers, whether WnG or straight. I have seen only a handful of other naturals on the street and usually in an artsy context (street/artisan fair, music concert, etc.).

I should clarify that I live in São Paulo, which is the most formal/professional city in the country; people here tend to be more conservative than, let’s say, people from Rio. When I visited that city, I did see more naturals out and about, but still not as many as I would have expected. I’ve been told that I have to visit the north to get a better sense of the Afro-Brazilian community.

What is your regimen? Do you use/prefer commercial or natural products? Are the products that you like and want to try readily accessible and affordable? Where do you purchase them?
I tend to wear my hair in its curly form, but pulled back. Since people constantly comment on how young I look – which never sounds like a compliment in a professional setting – I tend not to wear my curls down. I did once and it sparked a huge reaction; people sought me out to tell me how much they loved my hair and that I should wear it out more often …the irony of it being that the majority of the women here straighten their own hair.

I’ve become more determined to get serious about maintaining my hair recently because, when I got to Brazil, my hair was falling out in clumps. At first, I wasn’t bothered. Then, when my husband started to agree that it was unusual, I went to see a dermatologist. A hormone imbalance meant that I was experiencing – wait for it – male pattern baldness.  She prescribed something to balance me out, super duper hair vitamins (containing keratin as a main ingredient) and a topical solution. Five months on, I’m beginning to see some of the hair grow back.

I wish that I could say I have a standard regimen, but I don’t. I try to use, as much as possible, organic hair care products, even if that means stocking up for the year when I travel to the US or UK. I sometimes pre-poo with EVOO and try to co-wash until I can’t take it anymore. I use some sort of leave-in regularly and sometimes use this old-school Alberta VO5 hairdressing crème that my aunt used to use back in the day. After reading Shelli’s posts on protein treatments, I’ve been looking up recipes for treatments I can whip up myself.

 Do you go to a salon?
When my hair needs a trim, I tend to take to it myself and then get my husband to even it out; he hates doing it for fear of messing up, but I’d rather take the chance than try to convince a Brazilian hair stylist that “yes, I really DO want you to cut off more than that.  t’s okay.  It’ll grow back.”

Who do you follow online? Anything else that you’d like to share?
Without having girlfriends to talk to face-to-face about hair, it’s been invaluable being a part of these online hair communities. In addition to Hairscapades, I also follow Black Women of Brazil, Black Girl with Long Hair, and have recently come across Gisella Francisca, a blog by a curly in Rio.

Thanks to Shelli and others for being so devoted to “the cause” and to you all for sharing so freely.

Tchau,
Ebony

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14 responses »

  1. Awesome post, my mom lives in sao paolo now and I got her to BC and she swears she can’t find products….but I hink its because she’s no fluent in portugese. Are there any particular stores to get products? She lives in campos grandes?

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    • I’ve been having a really hard time finding products, at least natural ones. I’ve run into lots of lines that have natural ingredients, but then alcohol is the second ingredient or they’re loaded with sulphates. I keep trying though! 🙂 Recently found out about Surya Brasil, and emailed them about shops in my neighborhood and will be going to check out their henna selection this weekend (fingers crossed!). They have other products with no salt or parabens…but lots of sulphates. Your mom might want to look into their products; it’s a start. Does she have a Mundo Verde nearby? It’s a health food/supplement store that has some items that she can likely cobble together for some diy hair care. If I have any luck in my search, I’ll reply to you again with the info.

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    • I just tried to message you through your blog re: the Surya products that I told you I was looking for. Hope all is well.

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  2. Awesome post. I plan on studying abroad in Sao Paulo next spring. I haven’t had a relaxer in nearly 3 years and I wasn’t really sure how natural hair would be perceived over there.

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    • Really think it depends on where you are in the country and city. I actually just had a conversation with another gringo last week who was flummoxed by his wife’s need to get a regular Brazilian blowout. I didn’t have enough time to break it down. LOL. I don’t notice any pushback out and about, but I’ve had more conversations that I wish about what makes my hair do that and why “it’s so long today” (stretched vs. protective style). Bring products with you!

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      • Thanks so much for sharing your story. I will be moving to SP within the next two years. I’ve decided I will stock up on my favorites before I relocate and order online once I run out. Loved the photos!

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  3. Thanks for the shout out! I wanted to let you know that recently the domain of the Black Women of BRAZIL blog changed. If someone clicks on the link above to it will appear that you are hosting a dead link on your site. The domain of the blog is now http://www.blackwomenofbrazil.co without the “m”. If you simply remove the “m” from .com and leave the rest of the link intact it will go directly to the site.

    Please do the same if there are any others articles from the blog on your site…
    Thanks again!

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  4. I have a guy friend that is Brazilian and he moved here when he was 19. He said he would sport his fro often in Brazil and that people loved it! Rarely did people make comments about how he should cut it, unlike here he tells me… same thing happens to me though. When people make comments it honestly goes in one ear and out the other…

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