This story is a part of The Melanin Edit, a platform in which Allure will explore every facet of a melanin-rich life — from the most innovative treatments for hyperpigmentation to the social and emotional realities — all while spreading Black pride.
My hair fantasies started during the pandemic. I’d lay in my bonnet and daydream about my childhood blowouts. My mother is a wonderful heavy-handed woman, who hated doing my thick, tangly hair, so she’d drop me off at our local salon every two weeks. Our stylist would place a wooden box on a vinyl salon chair so her hands could work their magic. She’d wash my coils and move the box to the hooded dryer for my deep condition. Then, she’d take her yellow hairdryer — the one with a comb duct-taped to the nozzle — and manipulate my thunderous Afro into submission. I’d leave with an age-appropriate style: moisturized shiny twists, fastened by matching clips, and the smell of grease and hair spritz clinging to my frame. I can chart my life through those hair appointments, like pencil marks on the wall of a childhood home.
So, during the pandemic, when I was touch-deprived, scared, and bored, I’d fantasize about blowouts that would leave me with loads of body, tangle-free hair, and impressive length. I imagined masked strangers stopping me on the streets to ask about my lustrous, healthy hair.
To be clear, my hair isn’t exactly healthy. I go too long without trims and deep conditioner, and I stretch as many days as I can between elaborate wash days. I let protective styles stay in too long, and my edges resist control. But mid-quarantine, I had major hair aspirations. I wanted a professional to take my hair to the next level.
Here’s where I went wrong: Instead of going to one of the three Black salons in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I fished through my closet to unearth a gift certificate from a nationwide blowout emporium. This was a gamble, but it was going to be free, and several Black influencers shared positive experiences on YouTube. As I wrote a long paragraph in an online booking system explaining my natural hair and need for a Black stylist, I thought "a Black stylist will shield me from anything bad."
During the pandemic, when I was touch-deprived, scared, and bored, I’d fantasize about blowouts.
I walked into the salon: It looked like Starbucks and SoulCycle had a baby that did hair. Each blow-dry station had about six bottles of hairspray and a canister containing thin-toothed combs my hair would destroy. This wasn’t the salon of my youth — with a small stove for hot combs and a holster for six curling irons. There wasn’t a cubby to the left filled with colorful rollers of differing sizes. Nothing about this place made me feel at home. I should’ve run, but instead, I waved at the Black stylist assigned to me. It didn’t take long to realize that she apparently found my curl pattern offensive. She spoke only to tell me that my hair was damaged and eventually seemed to give up on sparing me any pain. She raked through my hair as a white woman nervously swept clouds of coils that had fallen from my head. It felt like someone had pulled down my pants in public.
If you think I got what I deserved, I’m not surprised. None of the Black women in my life raised me to walk into a white salon. And, as a self-proclaimed “bad natural,” I’m used to people remarking about my hair. But something about this experience was different: Beyond the soreness you might have when your hair is being pulled straight, I woke up the next day feeling troubled. It felt like the stylist’s hands (and bad vibes) were still lingering in my scalp. Although my hair was straighter, I was disappointed overall, and I felt a little violated, too. When I found myself talking about this in therapy, I knew something was wrong.
“It absolutely is appropriate to use the word ‘trauma’ to describe some of the experiences Black women have had with regard to their hair,” Donna Oriowo, a licensed independent clinical social worker and founder of Cocoa Butter & Hair Grease, says. “By the time a Black girl is six [years old], she knows the value of having the ‘right’ hair texture and skin tone. That means she is also aware of her value relative to others, how they receive her, and is able to feel the harm … even if she doesn't have the vocabulary to describe it.”
“It absolutely is appropriate to use the word 'trauma' to describe the experiences Black women have had with regard to their hair.”
Getting an incredibly rough blow-dry in a white space reminded me of experiences I’d forgotten. I rambled to my therapist about how my mom called me “thunderhead Willy,” about bad experiences in salons, and embarrassment at school. Then I widened the scope: I babbled about friends who’ve had to explain to their grandmothers that natural hair isn’t “messy.” I talked about a viral video showing a mom-shaming her daughter for having thick hair. I mentioned gold medalist Gabby Douglas, whom I hadn’t thought about in years, and how her hair overshadowed her accomplishments.
Yeah, OK, I am probably triggered, I told my therapist. But almost every Black woman has an experience where a family member, friend, or stylist shamed them. My salon experience isn’t that unique. She responded by telling me it was hair trauma.
We are in a golden age of Black beauty and natural hair care. The CROWN Act, or Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, was first introduced in California and expanded on the California Education Code and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act’s definition of race to include Black natural hair and protective styles. The anti-texturism act is now law in 13 states. Legislation like this illustrates that we need protection from white supremacy, a system that harms our minds, bodies, and livelihood. What I experienced from that Black stylist in the white salon is way less severe — but that doesn’t mean what happened wasn’t harmful.
Afiya Mbilishaka, an assistant professor of psychology and a researcher at the University of the District of Columbia who examines hair discrimination, says while many people have positive family and community experiences, internalized texturism can impact how we treat one another. "There were experiences of family members being critical, and even the haircare space became a part of that system where stylists or barbers would be really rude about people's hair texture and openly criticize them in spaces where they're supposed to be helpful," she says. "We have those experiences of internalizing texturism and racism, but it's reflecting the larger society."
Texturism has roots in ancestral trauma
Many Black women have a long and complicated history with our hair. And while we can recount social experiments where Black girls choose white dolls, reducing internalized texturism to some weird fondness for Eurocentric beauty standards oversimplifies the way we adapt and survive. At different points in history, straight hair was linked to a better life.
During slavery, Black people tried numerous things to loosen their curl pattern, says Ayana Byrd, journalist and author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. “There were things like taking heavy wheel axle grease and using that to comb through the hair,” Byrd says. “With babies, [we were] using regular thread that you would use for sewing, and braiding that into baby's hair, hoping that it would pull it down as their hair was growing … and also taking butter knives … and pulling them over the hair, sort of like a hot comb.”
This might sound intense, but enslaved Black women weren’t taking butter knives to our hair because we found white women so beautiful. “The terms 'good [hair]' and 'bad hair' were born during slavery,” Byrd says, adding that straighter hair increased the possibility that you might work in the house instead of in the field. “Within the barbarity of slavery, you might have a safer path,” she says. Straighter hair didn’t save you — working so close to white people came with its own dangers — but it might give you a higher chance of survival, she explained.
We see this relationship between straighter hair and economic mobility over and over throughout American history. When Black folks moved north during the Great Migration, Byrd says straight hair denoted sophistication for folks fleeing rural roots. And, as a Black middle-class emerged, there was overwhelming pressure to conform so that we might have a fighting chance to continue ascending and achieve. In 2021, research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggested that Black women with natural hair are perceived as less professional and less competent than Black women with straight hair.
Straight hair is irrevocably tangled with respectability politics, and these long standing attitudes make it clear why a stylist might shake her head when you show up with dry, damaged natural hair or why your grandmother might ask you to get a relaxer. A survey from the Perception Institute found that, while most people who identify as women experience some anxiety about their hair, Black women report higher levels of hair anxiety. Just as there are whisper networks — hushed conversations we have to avoid abuse — side-eyes and comments concerning hair are just another way Black women have helped each other survive.
The natural hair movement isn’t immune to texturism
The most recent natural hair movement — which Byrd says is the most successful natural hair movement in this country to date — has been a respite from that kind of message. It gives so many of us a place to feel beautiful. Still, it isn’t immune to internalized texturism. For evidence, one can look at the ongoing conversations around well-known hairstylist Andre Walker’s hair typing system, created to differentiate between textures. The system uses numbers 1 through 4 as labels: Type 1 hair is straight while 4 types are curlier. From there, we use letters a, b, and c, to explain the tightness of the curl. 4c is often considered the tightest texture.
There’s a robust conversation about whether the hair typing system does more harm than good. Still, a quick survey of YouTube videos for 4c hair treats you to all of the ways you might stretch, twist, pull, and “hydrate” 4c hair into submission. There’s nothing wrong with the creativity Black women use to make our hair pop, but the messages are clear: If there’s a hair hierarchy, then thick, coarse coils aren’t at the top.
We deserve to take our hair trauma seriously
It’s worth mentioning that these implied messages and emotional traumas exist alongside physical damage. “Clients have spoken to me about the trauma of getting their hair done,” Oriowo says, citing things like having their braids pulled too tight or fingers popped for reaching up. She even mentions that being called tender-headed “can be a form of gaslighting and diminishing someone's pain experience.” Breakage around the edges (a source of shame and ridicule) is often called traumatic alopecia.
“Hair traumas happen. Some of those traumas are intergenerational — passed down from generation to generation like warped heirlooms,” Oriowo says, adding that texturism is part of our inheritance. “As a result, some folk grow up and can’t smell certain smells like hair grease … without almost re-experiencing or having flashes of their own past hair experiences. And this type of flashback sounds a lot like a trauma response to me.”
So what if we take a moment to take our pain more seriously? What changes if we stop shrugging off these small experiences and instead look at them as part of our racialized trauma? “We have to start with naming our hurts,” Oriowo explains. “When we identify what hurts us, we are better equipped to do something about it.”
"Some hair traumas are intergenerational, passed down from generation to generation like warped heirlooms."
If you’re in a situation like I was, where a stylist is rough or unkind because of your hair, both Oriowo and Mbilishaka say it’s okay to speak up, advocate for yourself, or even leave. “Some of the people who do the best hair may or may not have their own wokeness,” Mbilishaka says. “I would encourage people to restrict their payments or funds. When you're trusting someone, you're in a vulnerable position, and they're not taking care of you but actually harming you.”
In our longstanding commitment to dismantle white supremacy, we must also continue to heal ourselves. We can do that, Mbilishaka says, by questioning and processing the stories we tell ourselves (and each other). We did not create the system that privileges straighter hair, but we’ve inherited it, and so it’s another thing that we have to process and heal. “I think, as we tell and retell some of our personal life experiences, we can see, ‘No, there's nothing wrong with my hair or my beauty. It's the system that would critique tightly coiled [and] darker skin,’” Mbilishaka says. “And how sick is that? That they have to create this false dichotomy of good and bad?”
And, whether on social media, in salons, in therapy sessions, or group chats, we have to continue to fortify ourselves against a world that tries to erode our self-esteem. “In the face of all that discrimination, you will need a safe haven. Be sure to find or build a community,” Oriowo says. “There is much we have internalized about our worth and value from what folk have said about our hair. Let’s make sure we are equally working to heal what was hurt.”
This piece is part of The Melanin Edit, a platform in which Allure explores every facet of a melanin-rich life. If you liked this story, be sure to read our report on why some women are leaving the natural hair movement as well as the rising popularity of Botox among Black consumers.
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