After decades of using straightening relaxers and texturizers, more black women are ditching the lye, embracing their hair's natural curl and bend, and wearing their hair in a variety of natural styles.

While going from processed to natural isn't a quick change, those who have done it are loving it for myriad reasons, from the way their natural hair feels to the way their hair makes them feel about themselves.

"I began to know who I am as an African American woman, seeing the beauty of not wanting my hair straight anymore," said teacher Tamarla Adams, 39. She began growing out her hair in 1996 after years of perming, gradually trimming the straighter relaxed ends as her curlier natural hair grew in, moving from braids to her current long dreadlocks.

After about three years she was totally natural, with a head of hair that was stronger and healthier than it had been with the perm.

Adams' daughter, Paris, 16, recently decided she wanted to relax her hair, but her mother talked her out of it. "It's different from everybody else's," Paris said, adding that most of her friends have permed hair.

A lupus diagnosis coupled with a desire to simplify her hair routine drove Kelly Campbell, 30, a sales representative for an architectural firm, to go natural in 2001.

Campbell's tight, curly hair required perming touch-ups every three weeks instead of the normal six weeks. She kept the perm, though, because she thought it more socially acceptable to have straighter hair, even though she revered singer Chaka Khan's big, wavy mass of hair.

"I got tired of fighting. If [my hair] is going to be curly, she's going to be curly," Campbell said. "I felt like continuing to perm my hair was attacking my hair.

"I would see these women with beautiful locks, and I'd follow them, asking them where they had their locks done," she said. "It was all theirs, no weave, no extensions. I thought 'Why? Why can't we wear our natural curl?' It's a curl that's unfamiliar to other cultures, only because we've been pressing it for so long."

Now she is delighted with her long locks. She says all the doubting comments she's heard have come from other African-Americans.

"I think it has a lot to do with us not appreciating our hair," Campbell says. "I believe there are ways your hair can be natural and can be neat and clean, maintained and professional."

Tough transition

But the transformation from the relaxer to natural can be daunting, and can take anywhere from a year to two years, depending on how long your hair is, how fast it grows, and how much you trim at a time.

Stylist Lisa Fuller, owner of Styles by Lisa of Beverly Hills in Charlotte, N.C., says that despite an increase in natural hair business, some stylists are not comfortable with natural styles because beauty schools focus more on chemical processing. Three years ago, most of her clients sought perms; now, she says, the numbers are reversed, and she applies only three or four perms a week out of 30 styles.

Texture plays a big part in how women grow out their hair, but lifestyle should also be considered. Do you work out? What is your budget? (Going natural isn't necessarily less expensive than having a relaxer, especially in the early stages.)

Fuller said the health of the scalp is a factor as well. "I see more and more clients who had chemical scalp burns and hair loss from relaxers," she said. "For women, our hair is our glory, and when it's unhealthy and breaking, that messes with our self-esteem."