I sit in a stylist’s chair, peering through a curtain of fourteen inch yaki hair. I try unsuccessfully to blow it out of my face and eventually settle for holding it aside with one hand while I scroll through Twitter with another. I nearly drop my phone about five times. My stylist leans over me, oblivious, as she carefully weaves the yaki into newly braided hair. The only sounds in the place are the TV in the corner and the pull and twist of my hair. It’s going on the third hour of my (estimated four hour) salon visit, and things are going at a steady pace. We’ve conquered the take down, the wash, the deep condition, the blow dry, the trim, the braids. I was spared the relaxer this time. Still on the agenda: finishing the sew-in, another trim, and the styling.
I’m accustomed to this process, but I don’t like it. Getting my hair done takes time and money, occasionally some pain, and there’s always the risk of #blacksalonproblems. The trending hashtag last week made me no more appreciative of salon visits, but it did make me comfortable admitting that I hate getting my hair done.
Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I laughed out loud remembering my dread as I was placed under a sweltering dryer and my ruined relief when the cycle was restarted. I laughed recalling my silent indignation when my stylist stepped away to take a call or eat something when I’d been starving for two hours. I laughed remembering times I’d arrived right on time for appointments only to end up second or third in line. I laughed especially hard remembering men who’d roll in with suitcases of bootleg DVDs, dropping zippered cases of discs into our laps while we sat under the dryer and he chatted up stylists. The experience is funny via tweets and GIFS, but it’s less entertaining when you’re in the chair and counting the hours until you get to leave.
The black beauty salon isn’t necessarily run by professional hairstylists. It’s run by our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends. They’re women who picked up a side hustle, setting up shop in their kitchens and basements or renting out a space in a shop, all to make some extra cash. #Blacksalonproblems are, as the hashtag proves, far from an isolated incident, but even as they became commonplace during salon visits, acknowledging these shortcomings felt like a subtle betrayal of my blackness.
I’ve always known salons are black female spaces. My grandmother took me to my first appointment, a freebie by a gracious family friend. That was the first and last appointment I enjoyed. My mom and aunt had paintings on display of black women sitting glamorously beneath dryers, and one of my friends’ moms appeared in a Nelly’s “Country Grammar” video sitting bobbing her head beneath a dryer (dryers are very important in salon culture). So to admit that I hate going felt like I was slapping generations of black women in the face. They loved this, painted images of this for display in people’s homes. They made friends there. So who was I to decide it was horrible?
Despite their flaws, I’m grateful to black salons. Even if it takes forever for my hair to be finished, even if I’ve sometimes left with a few more curls than I’d like and looking like someone’s aunt Lucille, it’s worth it. If not for them, who else would do my hair?
It won’t be me, with my rudimentary hair styling abilities.
It won’t be mom because her abilities begin and end at accidental pops in the head with plastic barrettes.
It won’t be my friends because though they can be relied upon to help me glue hair back in when it falls out (it was a bad time), they’re not much better than me.
There aren’t enough stylists in more professional settings knowledgeable about black hair to give up black salons entirely, unless one wants to take on the job herself or even attempt non-black stylists. I shudder at the thought of asking a non-black woman to put a relaxer in my hair or doing it myself, but many black women have, and still do, kiss salons goodbye. I’m not there yet. As much as I hate sitting in one of those chairs, I’m dependent on the black salon.
More specifically, I’m dependent on my current stylist, who I continued to see even after I left town for college. In a predominantly white town, what’s a black girl to do about her styling needs? If there’s a pocket of the black population getting their hair done in Columbia, Missouri, I haven’t discovered them. Even if they exist, I’m not ready to trust someone else to do my hair. I’ve been seeing my current stylist since middle school. She’s seen me through high ponytails, bangs, breakage, at least one hair catastrophe, and every sew-in. If we don’t count the three African women who did my microbraids twice, or the white women I let style an updo for junior prom, she’s only the fourth stylist I’ve ever had.
But I’d be lying if I said that’s the only reason I continue to see her. Honestly, going to her salon isn’t that bad. Though the length of the visit (which has a lot to do with my chosen style) is long, she doesn’t double, triple, or quadruple book appointments. There’s still the rare sales pitch from a guy with bootlegs, but my stylist uses a Bluetooth for phone calls to keep her hands free. Visiting children are poorly behaved indeed, but when my stylist orders food, she offers me some and eats fast. These are trades I’m willing to make.
And though she is a perfectionist and will spend ten minutes combing two strands of hair, I always leave happy with how I look. And until I master the art of sewing hair into my own head, I’ll take it.