Atlanta, Georgia -- There were plenty of Crayola-colored wigs and long, silky extensions displayed at the 64th annual Bronner Bros. International Hair Show, which drew more than 60,000 stylists, hair enthusiasts and exhibitors who work with black hair this past weekend.
Yet against the backdrop of energetic hip-hop music and among the booths stocked with glossy tubs of chemical relaxers, some black women went back to basics: They wore their own natural hair.
That might be seem like an unexpected trend, with music artists such as Beyonce and Nicki Minaj sporting bright wigs and extensions. Wigs, weaves and relaxers are indeed big business. In 2006, black hair care products including relaxers, shampoos and hair accessories for weaves totaled $1.8 billion, according to The Hunter-Miller Group Inc., a market research group specializing in African-American issues.
But going natural, say several stylists and experts, is making a comeback.
There were education sessions for women who were curious about styling their natural curls in courses titled "Innovative Styling for Natural and Locked Hair" and "The Art of Natural Hair."
Several booths featured organic shampoos and styling tools for customers, many of whom stopped using chemical products after experiencing negative side effects such as hair loss or burns. Bronner Bros. is a family-owned black hair care product empire based in Marietta, Georgia.
It's not just at the Bronner Bros. hair show where discussions on natural hair are bubbling. Websites explaining the pros of going chemical-free and how to wear natural styles have become go-to destinations over the last few years. One of the sites, Nappturality.com, which features forums, tips and advice, has become a place of community support for women who want more natural styles.
Last year, young music star Willow Smith, daughter of musician-actor Will Smith and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, debuted with the colorful, hair-tossing song "Whip My Hair," which encourages young girls to embrace who they are -- and their manes.
"Women are more educated now and conscious about what it means to be chemical free," says Taliah Waajid, who taught a course on natural hairstyles at the Bronner Bros. event and has her own line of natural hair care products. "We can be healthy and have a pretty style that is presentable."
Waajid, who has worn her natural hair her whole life, says more stylists are trained to work with black hair that is curly or coarse in texture. She says there are new styling, straightening and curling techniques to achieve a certain look without harsh chemicals.
Each year, she runs the World Natural Hair Health & Beauty Show, which brings together stylists and beauticians interested in working with natural hair. A year ago, there were 35,000 attendees, compared with 8,000 attendees in 2006. This year's show will be in Atlanta in April.
Patrice Green, a 53-year-old who works for the Veterans Health Administration in Georgia, knows beauty is pain, especially when it comes to her hair.
With extensions, weaves, wigs, relaxers and perms, she has experienced the unpleasant consequences of trying to undo her curly hair texture: A burned scalp. Hair turning brittle. Mysterious breakouts on her neck.
So last year, instead of paying what she estimates to be $6,000 a year to maintain her fake locks, she went natural. She wore her own hair, something she hadn't done in decades.
"I feel a sense of pride just being able to wear what's mine," she says. "I'm not apologetic that my hair is now what the norm says it shouldn't be."
The topic of manufactured wigs and weaves became a talking point across the country in comedian Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" in 2009.
There have always been black women who wear natural hairstyles, but the practice is definitely becoming more popular, says Jocelyn Amador, editor-in-chief at Sophisticate's Black Hair Styles and Care Guide, a nearly 3-decade-old hair magazine. The magazine features a special section devoted to natural styles each month and a page called "Natural Sisters" where everyday women and celebrities share their natural hairstyles.
"Some women are fascinated with that, and they want to bring out the beauty in their hair," Amador says. "They want to wear it and show it off."
Defining what is considered "natural hair" can be tricky. Some say going natural is going relaxer-free. Some say it's not wearing any chemical hair products, even hair dyes. Others are more lenient with the definition of natural and include hairstyles that use some hair products as well as rollers or straightening irons.
Wigs, weaves and going natural have been a touchy subject for many black women. For decades, hair that was -- and some argue still is -- considered "acceptable" by society and in the workplace involved hair that was relaxed or permed, says Tasha Turner, beauty editor at Essence magazine.
"Natural hair is something we always have dealt with in mainstream society," she says.
The natural trend isn't new. For example, Turner says in the 1960s and '70s, the afro became a popular look for women. By the 1980s, braids were "in," as seen in rap videos and on hip-hop artists.
It was the 1980s when Alicia Garmon, a hairstylist in Georgia, studied hair at cosmetology school.
She noticed there weren't many options for women who wanted to wear their hair natural other than the typical afro or braids. She recalls there were only two pages in her textbooks that explored natural hairstyles for black women.
Since then, she has experimented as a stylist by working with natural hair, transforming locks -- both long and short, curly or wavy -- into dozens of creative styles.
Now, black women have natural hairstyle options that weren't available before, she says.
"The first thing they say is that they don't believe I can do something with their hair in their natural state, and they don't believe I can make their hair look attractive," Garmon says. "I definitely surprise them. In the end, I have pleased a lot of people."