The Beauty Salon: Truths From a Tender Head
At a hair salon on the east side of Atlanta, I sat for the first time in the throne we call a styling chair. My feet dangled above the shaggy ground as my mom and sister awaited my transformation. This was my first acquaintance with the enchanting milieu of a black beauty salon.
The topography of this charged social sanctuary overwhelmed the senses. The char of burnt hair mingled with coconut oils, creating an exact and slightly grim aroma. The air tasted thick with heat and history.
"I need you to hook me up with a nice press before I go see about this boy," said a young woman in her 20s while pawing for lipgloss in her handbag.
"Honey, you too cute to be worried about some boy; take your press and get you a man," responded an older hairdresser while sagaciously cocooning her damp head.
The thunderous reverberation of laughter and rapt storytelling was more prominent than the hiss and singe of the flat iron. The women spoke of their joys, their goals, their children, their discontents, their latest attempts to spice up their marital sex lives, and the panel of preening patrons offered their counsel.
More so than the dawn of my first period, this moment marked my ascent into womanhood. I had never been engrossed in something so black and so feminine.
As my hairdresser, Louisa, a curvaceous woman with bright blue eyeshadow and an air of well-earned wisdom, finished the last of my blowout, she perched her plump frame behind me, stretched her arm around my mother's chair, and asked;
"You want it straight today, baby, or do you want some volume in all this beautiful hair?"
Her eyes traced between my mother and me as if to give me the illusion of choice while simultaneously assuring mom would get the final say. I was accustomed to a slight curl at the ends of my hair when straightened to mask any pesky split ends, but this time I had received the full treatment and opted for a change in pace.
"I'll try completely straight," I said. Eager.
My mother rolled her eyes, "Oh, she just wants the good hair like those little White girls she goes to school with."
I was confused. In a room full of Black women, how could I manage to walk out looking White? Is that the transformation we were all hoping for?
This was my first introduction to the diametrical discord: "good hair" vs. "bad hair." Suddenly, this space of unobstructed Blackness was infected with the white glare of comparison.
Years later, I translated my mother's comments.
Society weighs down the buoyancy of black hair with baggage and damaging stereotypes. The afro: a symbol of resistance and aggressive black pride. Braids: a mark of slavery, poverty, and illiteracy. Kinky Curls: an unruly and unserious style not fit for the workplace. And alas, my mother's reference, straightened hair: the sullen adaptation to a white beauty standard of which we would always fall short.
The division between pin-straight and beach waves on "good hair" never accrues quite the same level of controversy.
While my mother's comments certainly beckoned contemplation, the electricity of this communal ritual reigned supreme in my memory. The stories I heard for those two hours under heat were more memorable than the style I exited the salon with.
The Black hair styling industry has been a crucial enterprise for the African American community since the late 1800s. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine under Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Black people were exiled from white trades and forced to create their own markets. Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black female millionaire, spotted a gap in the retail market—no products were explicitly meant for styling black hair.
"More so than the dawn of my first period, this moment [in the salon] marked my ascent into womanhood. I had never been engrossed in something so black and so feminine."
Walker is most well known for introducing the Hot Comb into the U.S., resulting in an array of mixed controversies. The tool originated in the 1870s from a Frenchman, Marcel Grateau. However, the tool remains notoriously accredited to Walker, who redesigned the comb with wider teeth to better suit black hair. Despite the device's massive popularity, the comb lacked all temperature regulation, resulting in gruesome burns and accidental hair damage for many of its users.
Contrary to recent debate concerning the morality of straightening tools and the perpetuation of white beauty standards, which cumber her legacy, Walker's enterprise was built on products designed to strengthen Black curl patterns. Her first product, a hair growth serum, was sourced from African oils and designed to strengthen roots. Historian Henry Louis Gates explained, "Her dream was not to be emulative of whites, but divinely inspired and (...) African in origin."
Gates remembers her as a "hair culturalist" who prioritized the uplift of her community through cosmetics. Her hair care instruction, deemed the "Poro Method," stems from the West African term for devotional society. In Walker's own words, "I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself; I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race."
The communal value of hairstylists and barbers is one of the most enduring traditions on earth. In the European Middle Ages, barbers treated injuries, offered dental services, and cut hair. This critical cultural value has prevailed and reified within the Black community over time. Researcher Olga Idriss Davis describes the modern-day black hair stylist as a "griot, regarded in African cultures as the wisdom bearer, the recorder of history and the truth sayer."
African women were the first to commence this intimate tradition; braided protective styles are the oldest hairstyles in the world. While the ritual of hairstyling involves an essential ancestral connection, Black women ultimately suffer from the painful procedures designed to alter their hair structurally—not care for it. Methods like aggressive hair relaxers and misused violent heat can result in burning to the scalp.
While my mother would attempt to straighten my hair as delicately as possible, the procedure would result in several accidental burns to the neck and face. The 350-degree curler interrupted our repetition of a once-revered ritual.
Braids, natural curls, and some heat-based styles are known to be the healthiest for black hair. However, as Black women's hair is increasingly politicized, the industry has become inundated with chemical relaxers that damage the scalp and have been linked to the development of uterine cancer. Braids, locs, and twists are banned in certain schools and workplaces. The implications are plain—the more aligned with black tradition one's hair is, the more vulnerable they are to discrimination in all forms.
In March of 2022, Congress responded to repeated pleas for action by passing the Crown Act. This effectively added an anti-discrimination clause to the Civil Rights Act protecting "traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and protective styles."
The freedom for black people to style their hair in a healthy, authentic, and expressive way is necessary not only for the sake of employment rights—these liberties safeguard some of the most foundational tenets of African American culture and that of the African diaspora as a whole. Barbershops are the aegis for an unrestrained marketplace of uniquely black ideals and values.
The African tradition of oral storytelling and historical account is embedded in the term Nommo, meaning "the generative power of the spoken word." This power extends across time, region, and gender. The long-held practice of imparting spiritual adage and allegory that began among the original African hair braiders has endured into modern-day barber shops.
Davis explains, "The barbershop is one of the few places where African American men gather and do not feel threatened." While the African American Church was initially a major source of this communal comfort, its involvement in the Civil Rights Movement transformed sanctuaries into sites of police patrol. Alternate purlieus fail to maintain quite the same level of innocuity in the eyes of white oppressive systems as the hair salon/barber shop.
As writer Jason Parham details, "A haircut is a restorative experience; at its best, it transforms—mind, body, and soul." In Parham's essay, "The Power and Politics of The Black Barbershop," Edgar, a barber at Levels in New York, explained black barbers are "like psychologists, a barbershop is a place you come to unwind and build self-esteem, we help raise each other right and move forward."
When we, as Black people, make a trip to the hair salon or barber shop, we ask them to prepare us for big moments: a date, a job interview, a first day at school, or a wedding. Stylists are entrusted with giving us confidence in essential aspects of the human experience. Through raw emotionality and effusive dialogue, the community within a salon offers windows into our ancestry and immortality to our stories.
Every Sunday at the "Selby Salon," when my mother would perch me between her knees, I struggled to justify any reason beyond vanity to suffer the scorch of a fiery flat iron. I would be anxious to cut my hair routine short. Shifting in my seat, wincing as my mom tugged at my curls, I wondered what more productive tasks I may have endeavored without hours spent struggling to tame a fearless mane.
The salon ritual regains its divinity when I come home again and sit between her legs as she runs providence through my roots. I hear her voice, I hear my sisters, I hear my ancestors, and I feel the strength from thousands of women before me bound in my still tender head. I wish then I would have cherished all that misspent time sitting idle beneath heat and history.
Edited by: Ava Emilione
Issue 17 Credits
Photography: Zelle Westfall
Creative Direction: Payton Selby, Ava Emilione, Leslie Vargas, Zelle Westfall
Photography Assistants: Ruby Summer, Jewel Simpkins