Pretty Hurts: Problems & Potential in Black Women’s Beauty Spaces

I remember my late grandmother – “Gamma” to three-year-old me – coming back glowing after she’d seen April. April was a woman I met only once or twice as a child but to whom I felt inexplicably connected because she was named after my birth month (hey, these things have significance when you’re a kid). More importantly, she was Gamma’s beautician, and after a visit to her salon, my grandmother’s hair, would be an equally-glowing golden brown.

Grandmother’s hair was lion’s-mane thick, healthy and, by the time I came into the world, peppery gray with roots of black suggesting a youth much more colorful and exciting than the tame, quiet life she came to live. You’d never know it, though, because April would get that color deep down to the root and blow her hair out into undulating waves—much like fields of wheat to my reminiscing mind, the graceful bob encircling her aged, caring countenance.

My grandmother would come back singing the praises of her hairstylist, always marveling at the fact she could turn her belligerent roots into something more beautiful than she appraised. Her mood was elevated. For a woman who had her own arduous mental health struggles throughout her life – the joy was meaningful, and noticeable.

There have been endless discussions around and praise directed towards the barbershop: movies, newspaper articles and even books dedicated to a place where men can talk freely, be their true selves, have an opportunity to rest from the outside world, and share a break from the racism all around them. However, until recently – like within the last twenty years – little was said about their counterpart: Black hair salons. I think my grandmother’s experience—and the experiences of many others—demonstrate that Black beauty salons merit a discussion of their own.[1]

As I remember this, and my own painful experiences at hair salons (I was and still am very tenderheaded), I begin to wonder at the unique role they play in our lives as Black women. What are the functions of “the hair salon,” at least as we understand it? Black women find just the same respite, communion, and refreshment in Black-owned hair salons as Black men tout in their barbershops—not to mention the practitioners who tend to the heads of both genders. In the hair salons, women can literally let down – or perhaps in most of our cases, let out – their hair, express creativity, and have a certain level of autonomy without worrying what other people will think about them.[2] We know thousands of heads have come into the salon before us and we are just, at the very least, another client.

History takes us back to the readily recalled Madame C. J. Walker, an orphan-turned-millionaire and the first black woman to do it, no doubt.[5] Then research takes us to her second in command, Marjorie Steward Joyner, who, from a background no less difficult, goes on to train over 15,000 beauticians in Walker’s “System and Preparations,” a scientifically-devised protocol for straightening, curling, and styling Black women’s hair previously untapped.[6] The two women together generated an industry that went on to finance a myriad of other important Black institutions: newspapers that were the platform for groundbreaking Black thought leaders, churches that were the communal center of Black cities across the country, and more.

In light of recent research that the use of some hair products has impacted black women’s health, reflecting a troubling image for the beauty industry as a whole, hair salons undoubtedly find themselves at the intersection of Black women’s mental, physical, and spiritual health.[3] First and foremost, the salon is a human institution that focus on external beauty–an extension of the physical “preoccupations,” of life, if you will. In this view, there is nothing spiritual about it. It is a place for vain self-appraisal and narcissism, to feed the obsession with appearance and fill wallets.

Yet, at second look, we see that its practitioners often fulfill roles beyond just stylist, taking on a mothering, mentoring, or “micro-counseling” responsibility, which results in faithful clients who return again and again.[4] It’s complicated. After all, it is often the center of black women’s community–fiscally and socially. Yet it is simultaneously a space that recreates problematic standards of beauty.

The fact remains that the space of the hair salon reinterprets, reproduces and problematizes the expectations of society. Black women have reported that it is not in public that they face the most criticism, and thus trauma, surrounding their appearance and self-worth but in the spaces they are supposed to call home. Perhaps because they are often not prepared to deal with it when it comes. (Ah! The cruelty.) This positions health and black hair salons at cross purposes and in the hot seat again.[7] Do salons and hair care take up too much of our time?

Although our individual experiences are different, the time spent together to do such an intimate act as tending to one’s hair and self-image can serve as a space to mutually reimagine our interdependent social and racial identities. The discussions of Blackness that take place are central to our understanding of the issue of whiteness and European beauty standards. And because of their historical amnesty from external surveilling entities, salons are sacred spaces for utter Black girl magic. Obviously, salons as an institution cannot be analyzed as a monolithic entity, but must be taken case-by-case, just as individual people must be appreciated one at a time.

Regardless of the nationality, ethnic background, or language, the Black hair salon is a space where we can be ourselves. It served as a political center during the Civil Rights Movement and has been the linchpin of Black women’s commerce for generations. As shops reopen in Florida, we see this legacy clearly, and we are faced with the fact that for far too many Black women beauty has become one of, if not the only, profitable livelihood. It is up to us as individuals to continually renegotiate, redefine and shape the ways we encounter, understand, and behave in these spaces because at the end of the day, we don’t leave with our hair or any external feature of ourselves. We leave with ourselves, and the way we treated others – not our hair.

Notes

  1. Keys, Venise L., and Melissa L. Oresky. “Black – \`Blak\.” Black – \`Blak\. ISU ReD: Research and eData. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://core.ac.uk/reader/48841731.
  2. “South Africa: Braids – an Artful Language of Culture and Expression.” allAfrica.com, July 22, 2019. Gale OneFile: News (accessed May 12, 2020). https://link-gale-com.smithsonian.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A594344444/STND?u=smithsonian&sid=STND&xid=35f51b57.
  3. Laura Stiel et al., “A Review of Hair Product Use on Breast Cancer Risk in African American Women,” Cancer Medicine 5, no. 3 (2016): pp. 597-604, https://doi.org/10.1002/cam4.613)
  4. Mbilishaka, Afiya. “PsychoHairapy: Using Hair as an Entry Point into Black Women’s Spiritual and Mental Health.” Meridians 16, no. 2 (January 2018): 382–92. https://doi.org/10.2979/meridians.16.2.19.
  5. Rhone, Nedra. “CULTURE AFRICAN AMERICAN HAIR SALONS: Madam C.J. Walker Museum honors entrepreneurs’ legacy: African American women were financial pioneers with salons.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution [Atlanta, GA], December 9, 2019, B1. Gale OneFile: News (accessed May 12, 2020). https://link-gale-com.smithsonian.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A607967290/STND?u=smithsonian&sid=STND&xid=2f1c20d1.
  6. Driskell, Jay. “Making Waves: Beauty Salons and the Black Freedom Struggle.” National Museum of American History, February 13, 2020. https://americanhistory.si.edu/fr/blog/making-waves-beauty-salons-and-black-freedom-struggle.
  7. Lu, Stacy. “Health in Black Hair Salons.” The Crisis, Fall, 2014, 8, https://search-proquest-com.smithsonian.idm.oclc.org/docview/1639865629?accountid=46638.