“We talked to each other about my first crush and going to prom,” she said. “So many big occasions have been discussed sitting in the salon chair.”
Young Black millennial and Gen Z women have their own memories of getting their curly hair chemically straightened with a perm or relaxer as a child. A lot of the inspiration for the silky smooth hair Black girls dreamed of came from the kids who graced the covers of perm kit packaging sold at beauty supply stores and salons.
More than a decade after the boxes were designed, nostalgia prompted León to ask on Twitter about the young models so many Black girls aspired to be. Thanks to León’s question, a multitude of former perm box girls shared their hair journeys, and fans were surprised to learn that their own hair stories weren’t much different.
Alexis Davis, 22, said her parents still have the perm boxes and magazines she was on as a child. Davis was playing with her sister at Chuck E. Cheese in 2008 when they were invited to model for Africa’s Best Kids products. The week after, they were photographed: Davis was featured on the front of the package, and her sister’s face was on the back and on the gel container.
“When I got home, I was freaking out. I was like, ‘Mom, I’m going to be a superstar,’” Davis said. “Growing up and now knowing that my little 8-year-old dreams did come true, … it’s so cool to know that people remember it, and people saw it.”
Davis loved her relaxed hair as a kid because it allowed her otherwise curly hair to be straight like her White mom’s. Some former perm box models revealed that they never used the products they posed for, but Davis and her sister used the product they modeled for regularly.
Jaelyn Evans, 22, also used the product she promoted, the ORS Olive Oil Girls No-Lye Conditioning Hair Relaxer System Kit. The box had photographs of Evans as relaxer was applied to her hair.
Her glamour shots were taken when she was 8 and 9 years old, she said, and she recalls telling her classmates after her photo shoot. But since then, Evans’ claim to fame only came up when she needed a fun fact to share during school icebreakers or whenever someone suggested she’d have a promising career as a model.
But because of the viral thread, college friends and cousins texted her, and Evans’ teacher boyfriend saw her perm box photos from his students.
“It’s weird, because I never realized how big of a deal it was really, until all of this happened,” Evans said. “The outpour of love is nice. It’s really made me take a step back, like ‘Wow, I guess I was in a lot of people’s homes.’”
When Panee Newby, 29, saw the boxed products as a little girl, she saw the possibilities for her hair. She was so enamored by girls’ perm photos like Evans’ in Chicago beauty supply stores that she begged her mom to let her have her hair straightened because of them.
Although Newby doesn’t perm her hair anymore, she appreciated being reflected in perm products. Seeing Black girls on the box helped her cement the vision that it would work for her, because it gave her the sense that the makers had her in mind. It’s an unspoken rule she continues to rely on as she looks for products to buy.
As for the perm box girls, they coincidentally still serve as hair inspiration for Newby. Most ended up sporting natural hair styles as adults.
“I love the fact that almost all of them are natural,” she said. “That’s the progression of Black hair. We started with perming … Now, the girls on the perm boxes still look like me, because here I am, natural.”
As a high school senior, Davis decided she was done with relaxers. Around that time, more people were embracing natural Black hair, she said, so she wanted to nurture her hair’s tendency for volume over length.
Evans also started wearing out her natural hair her senior year because she didn’t want to find a new hairdresser as she went to college. The increase in Pinterest inspiration for Black women’s hair helped too, she said.
And León constantly experiments with different hairstyles. She’s had highlights, wigs, braids and straight hair.
“Our glamour, Black beauty and everything, is so transcendental. It doesn’t have to stay in one lane or realm,” she said. “We can play around in different avenues.”
The versatility of Black hair has León excited for how her daughter, who was born last year, will choose to wear her hair as she grows up. The perm boxes, and the girls that appeared on them, provided a wholesome reminder of a universal experience for young Black women, León said, and how they increasingly chose to love their hair, no matter its shape or style.
“I don’t feel like any other race or ethnic group can relate,” she said. “We get to kiki about it together and laugh, and we all know what we’re talking about.”