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Talking hair and black identity in France in a hair salon

By Sarah Elzas

For black women a hairstyle choice can be a fraught decision: Often it becomes more than a style choice, especially in France where black hair gets into questions of identity, history and politics. These questions are the focus of the Boucles d'ébène hair salon that specialises in Afros, dreadlocks and other styles of natural black hair.

"It's more than a hair salon," says Aline Tacite, who founded the beauty salon in 2013, after starting an organisation with the same name, Boucles d'ébène (Ebony locks) with her sister in 2005 to promote natural black hair in France.

"We listen a lot to peoples' experiences - at work, in life - relating to their hair," Tacite says in the salon in Bagneux, south of Paris, while twisting a dreadlock with a crochet needle.

She is an expert on dreadlocks, matted coils of hair that form naturally from tangles, but which can fall as evenly as braids if made deliberately.

Black women (and men) face the daily question of what to do with their hair: leave it natural, curly and frizzy, or straighten it. But Tacite says hair is more than a style choice: "Hair is not just something on your head, especially black hair," she says.

"It's really charged with history, culture, identity, politics. Historically, black people have been taught that the way they should wear their hair is to have it straightened."

In the 1960s, the Black Power movement in the United States turned the Afro into a political statement.

In the last few years there has been the emergence in France and elsewhere of the "nappy" (natural and happy) movement, which celebrates natural black hair: Afros, dreadlocks and other styles that do not use chemical relaxers.

But it is not mainstream, and Tacite says most hair salons pressure black women to use relaxers, whose chemicals - strong alkalis or lye - can burn the skin and damage hair.

At her hair salon, Tacite talks about how she herself pushed back against the pressure to use relaxers, and hopes to help others do the same.

"Some would say, hair is an accessory," she says. But she questions women's choices.

"Why do you always change your hair to straight hair? What message do you send to the world, and first of all to yourself? I believe that some women accept their black identity - African, Caribbean, French, whatever - and still weave or straighten their hair. But I also believe that loads of women deeply do not accept who they are."

>> Listen to the report for more on natural black hair and what Aline Tacite and her clients have to say about it.

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