For Rio-based hairdresser Bruno Dantte, change is in the air in Brazil. Poker-straight hair was de rigueur for years, but an increasing number of women are now embracing their natural curls. Business is booming for Dantte, who specializes in curly and Afro hair. “The demand is ever increasing,” he tells Broadly. “Our salons now see over 100 clients per day.”
Not long ago, natural hair was almost unanimously seen in Brazil as an undesirable quality that needed to be attended to with intensive—and expensive—straightening procedures like the Brazilian blowout. According to 2018 research by Pantene, the average Brazilian woman spent 300 percent more on chemical hair straightening than her American counterpart. In a nation obsessed with Eurocentric white beauty standards, straight hair was the goal across all ethnicities and professions, whether you were supermodel Adriana Lima, singer Preta Gil or rapper MC Carol.
Then YouTube and Instagram happened. For the last five or so years, a growing community of Brazilian women on these platforms have begun celebrating their natural hair, sharing videos, posts, and tutorials that offer tips to other women and girls in the country.
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One such woman is 29-year-old Jacy July, who started her YouTube channel four years ago with a video about box braids. “I made it for friends and acquaintances who wanted to know how to do it,” she tells Broadly in Portuguese. “It was meant to be quite a personal thing; I even asked people not to share it because I was embarrassed.”
The video went on to amass 667,000 views, and she received hundreds of grateful comments. In Brazil, natural hair has been pushed to the margins of mainstream representation. July’s videos filled a gap in the media.
Over time, the YouTuber’s openness about her hair led her to create videos on race, prejudice, and self-confidence. Nowadays, July sports a full Afro. One of her most popular videos involves a shot of her bare face soundtracked by a Portuguese translation of a Malcolm X speech. “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?” July asks the viewer, her hands sliding over her own Afro.
July believes Brazil suffers from an institutional inability to deal with Black identity, even though just over half of the Brazilian population identifies as Black or mixed-race—the legacy of three centuries of slavery that brought several million African men and women to the country.
For July, the issue boils down to education. “We don’t learn anything about Afro-Brazilians or their history beyond slavery, even though there is so much more to our culture. So that’s what we get associated with, it’s the only thing we as Black Brazilians know about our identity.”
But, she adds, this is changing. “Social media is so democraticizing because everyone can share their own story… It’s not just the official white narrative now.”
July’s own journey towards self-discovery and empowerment mirrors those of other Brazilian YouTubers, including Gabi Oliveira (who has 4 million subscribers on the platform), Ana Lidia Lopes (with 1.6 million followers), Camilla de Lucas (who has 804,000), and Amanda Mendes (with 282,000 subscribers)—all young Black and brown women who are changing their country’s perceptions of beauty and Afro-Brazilian culture. “We’re a really close, strong community, and we all support each other,” says July.
There are also blogs like Cacheia! (“Curl it” in Portuguese). Set up in 2013 by marketing analyst Ana Catarina Cizilio, the blog is now run by four curly-haired women who variously identify as Black, mixed race, and white. Besides publishing articles on hair care, they deliver workshops in schools encouraging young girls to embrace their natural hair.
“We’ve delivered about ten to 12 workshops since 2016,” Cizilio says. “I’ve cried in all of them,” Why? “ Because these young girls are so much more empowered than we were at their age. They’re wearing Afros, they’re wearing turbans, they’re proud of who they are.”
Indeed, evidence suggests that more and more girls are embracing their natural hair. The Black beauty market has been growing at an estimated 20 percent a year in Brazil, according to Kline Market Research Group. Google searches for transição capilar (“transition to natural hair” in Portuguese) have gone up every year since 2014, and, according to Dantte, there is an increasing number of hairdressers specializing in natural hair.
Social media has undoubtedly had a part to play. According to a study by Google BrandLab, three in five curly-haired women in Brazil use YouTube to learn about their hair. “It’s nice that there are so many of us now, YouTubers and people online,” says Cizilio, who was badly bullied for her hair as a child. “Channels and blogs like this would have helped me to get through that—I would think ‘oh this is normal, my hair is pretty.’”
Cizilio identifies as parda, meaning "mixed race" in Brazil. She acknowledges that her lighter skin tone has made her experience easier than that of many others. “For my Black friends it’s a much harder experience, and channels like these [celebrating natural hair] are even more important.”
But while diverse representation now abounds on social media in Brazil, the same can’t be said for mainstream media. On novelas, the longstanding TV staples of Brazilian pop culture, Black and brown women make up less than 4 percent of roles. “Even when black women get represented, it’s always in the way of lessening their blackness,” says July. Instead of casting women with crespo hair like July (characterized by tight Afro curls), producers go for someone with cachos—looser curls that can imply a mixed heritage. “We can be black—but only on their terms.”
There clearly is some way to go in fighting prejudice in Brazil; July admits that current president Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right Trump admirer, has made her feel unwelcome in her own country. “Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the people at the top to create change in Brazil. It’ll only come if people like us continue fighting and educating,” she says.
It’s tiring work, and there have been times when July has been close to giving up. Still, she says, it’s worth it when she hears about the effect that she and other YouTubers have had on others. “I’ve had mothers come up [to me], saying that their three-year-old daughters wanted to straighten their hair, but that after being shown my pictures they decided to embrace their natural appearance. That kind of thing makes it all worthwhile.”