The natural hair movement in the US has been gaining steam for a while, but it was Carolina Contreras, aka Miss Rizos, who really launched it in her birthplace of the Dominican Republic. When she opened the first natural hair salon in Santo Domingo in 2014, she started a hair revolution. Her salon wasn’t just about styling hair—it’s also empowering women and giving them the tools they need to love their curls, beyond products and combs. Contreras has become quite a force in the natural hair community for fighting stereotypes and uplifting women, so it made perfect sense for her to partner with Unilever on their #QueTeMueve campaign, which aims to bring together Latinxs women and girls around the world to learn to love their natural beauty. Contreras tells us about the partnership and her natural hair journey.
Why is the #QueTeMueve campaign important to you? It was important to me for so many different reasons. I’m in constant movement in terms of my lifestyle, constantly doing physical activities from learning how to dance salsa and boxing to running from one meeting to the other, but the reason why I do all these things is I’m inspiring people because I’m doing work that changes lives. So when they came to me with the QueTeMueve campaign idea, I was like, oh my god, this is perfect. It goes right in line with what we’re doing, so it was such an easy yes for us.
What did opening the first natural hair salon in the Dominican Republic mean to you? Just from an entrepreneurial perspective and beyond being an activist, the fact that there is a business woman component to the things that I do allows me to be in a position of power, to run a company the way I always envisioned. I started a company with two people and now have 20 employees that I’m able to and promote into different positions, too. The woman who started as receptionist and is now my general manager. Just being able to do that is really powerful and important, to have women of color in these positions of creating companies that are diverse and really care about their employees and push them forward.
When did you start embracing your natural hair? It started about eight years ago, in 2011. After about six different times I tried to go natural, it finally happened, in the Dominican Republic, ironically enough. I was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Boston when I was 4, and then after not visiting the Dominican Republic for years, I finally went back on my own, for two months that turned in nine years. While I was there, I noticed that my hair wasn’t reacting well to the weather—it was always humid, I was sweating, I wanted to go to the beach and it just wasn’t practical to have straight salon relaxed blow-dried hair. But I think the most important thing to me, and what made me click, was the fact that I was working really hard on embracing my identity and who I was for years, but I could never let go of my hair being straight. I always felt I was more beautiful with my hair straight, so when I made that decision finally to embrace all of me, every single part of my body and every single part of who I was and where I came from, it was when I had to let go of this idea of straightening my hair to be more beautiful. Usually a lot of women transition, which means they stop relaxing or they stop blow-drying and they cut it little by little, but I decided to do the big chop, which is literally removing all of the relaxed hair, and I had maybe an inch of curls on my head and it was obviously a very dramatic and drastic change to go from very, very long hair to having it all gone and then a completely different texture that I didn’t even recall having before. It was a beautiful process of learning how to love and care for my hair, and in essence learning how to love and care for myself.
Did you have an aha moment of exactly when to make the change? In college I studied social change and I had this amazing professor who would always talk to us about black consciousness and black power and all these things. I always felt so proud of having dark skin and knowing that I had African heritage in me. But like I said before, the hair was the one thing that I couldn’t let go of. Finally, I when I was living in the Dominican Republic I went on a beach trip with a group. I was lying in the sun and I remember a professor came up to me and said “why are you sunbathing? Get out of the sun.” Another group came up and said you are going to turn dark, and that really impacted me. I got up and I said what if I do turn dark? What is the problem with that? And then the woman was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about defending dark skin when you relax your hair to look a certain way.” I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, she’s right. I wasn’t straightening my hair because it was a choice or because I wanted to. I was doing it because I did feel like it was a necessity; I needed to look a certain way to feel more beautiful. So literally that next day I cut my hair. I was like, she’s right, I do need to check how consistent I am with my messaging and how I feel about this.
How can other women transition to wearing their hair naturally? I always say the first step is an internal step—there has to be an internal switch, where you’re like, I’m important I’m worthy, I’m beautiful and remind yourself constantly of those facts. Because I think everything else will follow once you feel that way. You have to understand that you have two textures: the heat damaged hair, and the curly haired texture that’s coming in, and they are going to have different needs and it’s not going to be an easy process to maintain. Also understanding from the very beginning that you need to have a lot of patience and it’s not going to be this easy peasy process. But you will look in the mirror and think what the heck am I doing, why does my hair look like this? Know that there are tricks and tools and there are different things you can do to your hair so that the hair that is relaxed and the hair that is coming out can look the same. There are things like twist-outs, there are perm rods, there’s all these different styles that you can do to have the natural curls and relaxed hair look the same. It’s important to take care of the hair with fortifying masks, protein-based masks and moisture-based masks so the hair can grow healthy. There will be a lot of breakage because where the curly and straight hair unites, that is a very weak part of the hair so a lot of it tends to fall or break more when you’re transitioning. It’s super important to schedule trims every two to three months, that way every time you’re trimming your hair you are getting closer to your curls, so do not be afraid of the scissors. Even if it’s not a drastic change, it’s important to actually remove some of the hair every so often.
What is your natural hair care routine? I have created a very simple routine that is kind of wash and go because of my schedule and being a busy entrepreneur. It includes a pre-poo the night before. A pre-poo is like a pre-shampoo. I normally use oils in my scalp and hair and it prepares my hair for the shampoo process. Whether you use sulfate or non-sulfate shampoo, the shampoo process is the harshest process of all the processes of hair. And then I do tend to shampoo with a non-sulfate shampoo. I use conditioners or a hydrating mask for the next step, and then finally one of the most important things to do is to make sure that whatever you’re putting in your hair to hydrate it, like a leave-in or whatever conditioner that you use, that you seal in that moisture with either a cream or a gel. I think this is something a lot of people do, they just put in a leave-in and then they go, and the hair becomes dry much faster than if you seal in the moisture with gel or cream. Normally I wash my hair every six to eight days. I do love to use the Dove Dry Shampoo in between washes just to feel like I have a clean scalp and have my hair smelling good. At nighttime I put my hair up in a pineapple, which is basically just putting your hair all the way to the front and tying it with a satin tie or a scrunchie, and then sleeping with a satin pillowcase because cotton pillowcases tend to absorb all of the oils and all of the products you have in your hair, so that’s why a lot of women wake up with dry hair. In the morning I remove my pineapple and I literally shake and go.
Do you have any favorite products that are your go-tos? I have favorite ingredients that I love sharing that any woman can find no matter where she is in the world. I love coconut oil—it’s one of those oils that penetrates the hair strands, unlike other oils that just sit on top of the hair. It fortifies it, promotes hair growth, makes your scalp actually feel clean, and this is why it’s so cool to have a dry shampoo that contains coconut because it works in that way. I love putting honey and any type of oil that I have on hand in my masks or conditioners to give it an extra oomph. I’m obsessed with shea butter too; I love using it to open up the curls. One of the things I do once the curls are washed, I apply the curl products, let them dry, and then with some shea butter or coconut oil I separate curls to give them more volume.
Are you using the pure natural shea butter? I actually make my own mix that has castor oil, coconut oil, Argan oil, and then it has essential oils of lavender, lemongrass, and rosemary. It smells like heaven.
How do you work with girls and women to help them gain confidence in their natural beauty?When it comes to girls particularly, we have really cool workshops that we do with them. We go into schools and we start with deconstructing this idea of good and bad hair and educate the girls. We do this really fun activity where we have them describe what curly hair means to them and what straight hair means to them. Usually we have a lot of people talk about curly hair is bad, curly hair is like a mop, you mop the floors with it, things like that. And then we go through each and every one of their comments and we break it down. And we’re like, can you clean the floors with your hair? And they say no. it sounds so simple but it’s so powerful just to even see the expressions on their faces when we start deconstructing all of these ideas. We put a big X in all of these terms and we circle the terms that are correct, like curly hair, fluffy hair, etc. Then you see them repeat these messages to their siblings or parents or cousins. They’re doing a lot of peer education with the tools we’re providing them. And then I believe there’s a lot of power in teaching girls and women how to care for their hair, so we’re teaching them what brushes are correct for their hair, what products, what ingredients. That’s powerful because for years we’ve been using the wrong tools thinking that our hair is wrong and not that the tools are wrong. Giving people the right tools allows people to feel empowered and that there is nothing wrong with them. In the Dominican Republic a lot of girls are not allowed to wear their hair curly to school, and school is the base of our education, so you’re telling these little girls that they came broken. For us it’s really important to deconstruct that idea and let them know they are beautiful just the way they are. And finally, I tell this to my stylists who are also volunteers when we do these workshops. Just the mere fact that we are standing in front of them in a classroom is powerful enough, no matter what comes out of our mouths, because the thought of these little girls seeing women that look like them in a position of power, and the fact that girls see me as a business woman, that even doing this campaign—Dove is such a household name—and the fact that someone that looks like me is working with this brand, that’s powerful. That’s a reason too why I took on this campaign. I am sending a message of how multidimensional we are as black Latina women. We’re not just artists, actresses, singers—we’re business women, activists, entrepreneurs. We have so many dimensions and it’s really important for these little girls to see that so that they know they are also capable and worthy of being whoever they want to be when they grow up.
What does wearing your hair natural mean to you? When I think of that two words come up right away: freedom and beauty. I feel like my hair is gorgeous and I really believe it wholeheartedly. I exude that and people around me see that. It’s really awesome for them to say “your hair is beautiful” because the way I interpret that is not that they think my hair is beautiful, but that they see themselves in me, and I am validating their beauty. I am giving them permission to love themselves with their hair just like mine.