Byline: TRACY JONES
Onlookers eagerly awaited the main event at this year's recent Black Expo at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
Soon the cutting, curling and combing began.
The "Take it to the Max" Quick Weave Hair competition had a stage full of professional stylists competing to the sounds of rap music and cheers from hundreds of hair enthusiasts in the crowd.
Shows like this, along with dozens of Jacksonville multicultural salons and beauty suppliers, are feeding and being fed by a recession-proof industry: Whether women wear their hair natural, relaxed, with extensions or in braids, black hair is big business.
"I have a saying: Three things that will always live - hair, doctors and fast food," said Pebbles Stowers, a judge at many Jacksonville hair shows and owner of Shears Over Komb salon. "Hair will always be in demand."
A 2009 study by Essence magazine's Smart Beauty series showed that African-American women spend 80 percent more on cosmetics, including hair care products, than other ethnicities. Another 2009 survey, by Design Essentials hair-care company, found that African-Americans spend an average of $55 per visit at the salon and are willing to pay nearly double for a hair treatment or service than other ethnic groups.
Aside from its economic impact, the roots of African-American hair and its styles have deep cultural significance, said Althea Prince, author of "The Politics of Black Women's Hair," released in April.
"Black people's hair is so judged," she said. "You can't just decide to wear your hair how you were born and walk down the street, because that's an Afro, and it's judged."
Prince said certain styles carry societal misconceptions - for example, some people associate Afros with militant behavior or dreadlocks with drug use.
There's also a desire for black women to want long, straight hair because of the "mainstream beauty yardstick," Prince said, and choose to wear extensions or have their hair relaxed.
"I see what are the paradigms of beauty, and they do not include unstraightened, African women's hair," she said. "You're born with a certain type of hair that is automatically considered not beautiful."
However, there's a new wave of women choosing to embrace their natural, curly hair, despite what they see on magazine covers, some local hair stylists say.
No matter how African-Americans choose to wear their hair or how much money they've invested in it, every black person has a hair story, Prince said, and it's rich with choices, politics and hours in a styling chair.
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NATURAL VS. EXTENSIONS
Local stylists say two trends have cropped up in multicultural hair: extensions and choosing to wear natural hair.
Pekela "PK" Riley, owner of Salon PK, wears her hair natural and has seen an increase in clients opting to go chemical-free. She's been using a Brazilian keratin treatment to ease the transition from relaxers to natural hair for her clients so the hair won't swell so quickly in Jacksonville's muggy heat.
Opting to grow natural hair is more than a cost-saving choice, it can be symbolic of a woman embracing her heritage, said Pebbles Stowers, hair show judge and owner of Shear Over Comb salon.
"We're in a time now, especially our ethnic women, when they feel more comfortable with having a certain look or image," she said. "A lot of them are wearing the natural look and still feeling comfortable."
Stowers said many of the trends in black hair, such as bold colors and long lengths, are often achieved through extensions.
Women who opt for extensions should be prepared for a significant investment, said Pat Williams, organizer of the "Beauty to the Max" hair show. She said a full weave averages about $150. It has to be tightened, washed and styled …