Afro-haired women still struggle to get a decent haircut – Stylist’s Chloe Sharp investigates the inequality happening on our high streets.
As I remove my coat, I dubiously take a seat under the bright lights and wince at the frowning face looking straight through me. No, this isn’t a much-feared trip to the dentist. In fact, I’m sat in one of the hippest hairdressers in Leeds. And I’ve never been more uncomfortable in my life.
After pulling and prodding at my hair for the longest five minutes, the stylist finally breaks the silence with the sentence I was dreading.“We don’t do your kind of hair here.” I’m instantly overcome with embarrassment. Was I crazy to think I could just waltz in to any salon and emerge 90 minutes later with swishy hair and a spring in my step like any other customer? Apparently so.
My ‘kind’ of hair is afro-textured hair. The hair I earned from my Jamaican-Irish heritage, and the hair that for 25 years has left me with a fully fledged, nausea-inducing phobia of salons. And I’m not the only one. That experience back in my university town five years ago is just one of many happening all round the country on a daily basis. Every day women with textured hair are turned away, treated poorly, left with hair that makes them feel worse than when they walked in, or presented with a bill far greater than their Caucasian friends will pay. If you have Caucasian hair, it’s perhaps something that you’ve never noticed. But think of the styles offered at your favourite blow-dry bar, or the images on the walls of the salon you go to. How many of the models are black, and how many of the styles would work on afro hair?
Until recently, this was just something that I’d rant about to friends and colleagues. It was an outrage, but one that we’d been conditioned to accept. But then as other inequalities began to be dismantled, with more women of colour being represented on the catwalk, on the covers of the UK’s glossy magazines and in the shades of foundation on the high street, the hair industry started to look seriously out of step. Why can’t women like me walk into any salon and get the same excellent service as our white friends? And so that’s why we, at Stylist, have decided to take a stand. When we launched our diversity manifesto in July 2015, we made a commitment to represent and celebrate diversity by making Stylist a diverse and inclusive destination for fashion, beauty and beyond. Something we’ve proudly upheld ever since. Now we’re asking the hair industry to do the same, urging salons up and down the UK to sign up to our Hair Equality Initiative.
Mind the hair gap
While this isn’t the first count of inequality committed by the hairdressing industry (global research by Business Insider in 2015 found women’s haircuts cost on average 40% more than men’s) there are positive signs that change is afoot. Refreshingly, Denmark’s Board of Equal Treatment ruled in 2013 that women with short hair must always pay the same price for a haircut as their male counterpart, and east London’s Not Another Salon has introduced new gender-neutral pricing. When challenged for this feature, most salons explained gender-based pricing depends on average length, or that men tend to visit the salon more often than women.
But when it comes to afro hair, it’s harder to explain. First, there’s the issue of cost. In my research of salons up and down the UK, I found the difference in price for an afro or Caucasian hair cut can be as much as £20. Can this really be justified? Indeed, it’s estimated by L’Oréal that black women already spend six times as much on our hair than Caucasian women. Every year black women spend £4.8 billion on beauty products and services globally, and with the UK home to 1.25 million black women, if nothing else, salons are missing a real trick by their ignorance. “While women with tightly curled or afro hair spend heavily on product, salon visits can often be few and far between because services or treatments they require may not be available,” explains Andrew McDougall, global haircare analyst at Mintel.
According to Superdrug, 70% of women of colour feel the UK high street doesn’t cater for their beauty needs – with the hair industry being a key culprit. From national salon chains to the fanciest inner-city boutiques, websites are dominated with images of white models with peroxide hair as smooth and shiny as sheet metal. There’s rarely a black or Asian model in sight. After browsing the websites of 10 major high-street salon chains, I was shocked to discover more than half featured an astounding total of zero women of colour. If curls were mentioned at all, they were referred to as a passing trend as opposed to a genuine hair type.
“Over the last year, curl-specific styling ranges have finally become mainstream,” agrees Victoria Buchanan from trend forecasting agency The Future Laboratory. “But the salon experience has been slow to catch up to this shift. Brands today really should be thinking about how they can create a whole experience inclusive of different hair types and textures.” From blow-dries to haircuts, and braids to colour treatments, most pictorial menus seem to largely ignore women of colour. So if any of these salons do cater for afro hair, they’re certainly not showing it.
But surely, it’s their responsibility to cater to all hair types? For this feature, I called salon after salon to ask directly if I would be welcome to make an appointment. While many salons said they could cut my afro hair, it came after plenty of umming and ahhing – not exactly the sort of response an already anxious woman wants to hear before putting her hair at the mercy of someone else’s scissors. The worst experience came when speaking to one trendy east London salon, who told me I would have to pay a deposit for my appointment. A deposit not required by Caucasian customers – as though my skin colour made me less reliable or something. And even if I could look past the insult, how would that play out if the appointment left me with a bad haircut? (When he added, “We definitely can’t blow-dry your hair,” alarm bells rang.)
The root cause
“In today’s multicultural society, it’s a damning indictment of the industry that a salon shouldn’t be able to service any hair type,” agrees Joseph Roberts, signature stylist at London salon Gielly Green, a rare gem in a city of salons whose website, menu and staff are all indicative of the multicultural society we live in. So why is it that in 2017, the vast majority of hairdressers don’t know how to style afro hair?
Read more: The 20 best beauty buys for Afro hair
“Training for afro hair has long been a completely separate module to the [widely accepted] hairdressing NVQ,” reveals Roberts. “Until recently, students had to pay more to learn to do afro hair.”When you’re a young student with limited funding, extra modules aren’t likely to be on the top of your spending agenda. Thankfully, change is underway in this department. “It’s only right that the curriculum reflects our multicultural society,” explains Diane Mitchell, City & Guilds’ technical advisor for hair and beauty who develops the curriculum for the hairdressing NVQ. “Since 2015, all students have been required to have knowledge of working within the four hair classifications: from heavy straight hair right up to extremely curly, coiled or kinky hair, including afro hair.” In theory, it should only be a matter of time before more widely trained stylists enter your local salon. But it’s clear we need to keep up pressure on salons to prioritise these customers in the services they offer, and ensure stylists keep up the skills so they remain current, competent and – crucially – confident.
Until that day though, where can we go when we need a decent trim? The first option for many is the afro-specific salons often concentrated in areas with large Afro-Caribbean and African communities. In a salon such as this, price is the main pull – you can get a weave fitted from as little as £20. With a laid-back aesthetic, these salons are often extremely busy, at times cluttered and have received bad press in the past due to the ‘tumble-weave’ of hair extensions that often blow down the street nearby. But while these casual walk-in spots offer a great sense of community, they can lack professionalism: once I was left in the chair for over an hour during a weave fitting whilst my stylist went for a romp with her boyfriend in his car. No joke. Deborah Johnson, who owns Simply Gorgeous, a destination afro hair salon that set out to provide top-level service at affordable prices in Kilburn, London, sums up how many of my friends feel about visiting an afro salon. “You’d be booked in for an 11am appointment but wouldn’t get seen until 11.45am. There’s no customer care. It’s a combination of clients not feeling the need to turn up on time and stylists over-running and not keeping on track.” Often, these salons are more focused on relaxed hair, wigs, weaves and braids. “I’m tired of being asked if I want a little bit of relaxer in my natural hair,” complains Stylist Beauty Council member Danielle Marshall.
For me, and many women I know, the solution has been to find a freelance hair stylist. I found my hairdresser Zateesha on Instagram (@zateeshahairstylist). She’s styled hair on shoots for model agency Anti-Agency and magazines such as Galore and Wonderland and is simply cool and on point, like the big name stylists in the salons I wish I could visit. And she knows exactly how a young, modern, afro-haired woman wants to look when she leaves the salon. I don’t feel nervous walking in to my appointment at her rented chair in east London. But I do feel annoyed at what I’m missing out on sometimes. What if I wanted to join my Caucasian friends in a cool salon for a blow-dry before a night out?
Pioneers like Charlotte Mensah and Errol Douglas have opened high-end salons specialising in afro hair, and last year saw the launch of Tress Free, an online booking service helping Afro-Caribbean women find specialist afro stylists in their area. But, sadly, these salons and services are in the minority and operate mainly in London. What if you live more rurally? Even in a city as multicultural as Leeds, I couldn’t find anywhere. It’s clear that this issue still has a long way to go.
We, as the proud owners of afro hair, should demand more too. Our voices have been heard in the fight to diversify the range of products on offer in the make-up industry, but we’re also entitled to a level playing field for our hair. So ask your salon to sign up to our campaign. Don’t settle for a second-rate experience. Don’t pay extra for your haircut. We’re worth more than that. We should be able to walk into a high-street salon for a mere trim and maybe, just maybe, one day we should be able to get a weave on the high street if we want.
The beauty battle
Four Stylist Beauty Council members share their frustratingly common experiences in the salon chair
“I have to travel 230 miles to get my hair done”
Vivienne Inmonger, 31, legal counsel
The scarcity of black hair salons has meant I’ve had to undertake a three-hour train journey for a conditioning treatment in the past. No salon was able to provide the service where I lived, so I paid for this journey every two months.
“I want a salon experience like everybody else”
Nancy Miller, 36, copywriter/translator
I get my hair done in my living room because I can’t find a luxurious salon that can style my hair. They’re creepy, often under a shop, with no windows. And in a classic salon, if I don’t see anyone who looks like me, I just assume they can’t do my hair.
“I’m tired of, ‘We don’t do your type of hair’”
Phyllis Taylor, 35, compliance consultant
When I was 16 a salon told me they didn’t know what to do with ‘my type of hair’. Recently my seven-year-old son went to the barber and they said they couldn’t cut his hair texture. Afterwards he asked what was wrong with his hair. It’s so upsetting.
“I’m not prepared to pay if I can do it better myself”
Reni Sota, 30, fashion PR
I’ve worn my hair naturally for 10 years, but find stylists in all kinds of salons don’t know how to care for it. They wash too aggressively and brush too hard, which damages it. I’d love someone to be more in the know than me about my hair.
Stylist’s hair equality initiative
Enough is enough – this is the standard hairdressers should be meeting. Get your local salon to sign up now
Since our diversity manifesto in July 2015, we’ve kept our promise of ensuring every one of our 400,000 readers feel represented on our beauty pages and beyond. That’s why we’re launching the Stylist Hair Equality Initiative, to urge UK salons to treat and represent everyone equally. Salons that sign up will be sent the Stylist Hair Equality Initiative logo, an online and in-store marker that signifies you can trust them with your hair, whatever ‘kind’ it is. What we’re asking for:
To make it clear in-store, on the website and in other communications that this salon can serve afro-haired customers. To guarantee any afro-specialist stylists or colourists are clearly flagged.
To promise no service for afro hair costs more than non-afro counterparts, for either cut, colour or styling, regardless of the afro specialist’s own level.
To ensure all communications including social media, menus and shoots are ethnically diverse and representative of the UK’s population.
The following salons have already pledged their support:
Larry King, London
Larry’s new menu, Remedies, offers options for afro hair, and every one of his staff can work with it.
Bad Apple, Birmingham
These salons have very diverse social media plus stylists to cater for natural hair.
Umberto Giannini, Manchester
Stylists here are competent in all hair types, but they’re now organising additional training.
Jamie Stevens, London
Jamie says hair is hair – you won’t be charged more. “I just hope more salons get on board.”
Hazel & Haydn, Birmingham
Whatever your hair texture, there is a stylist at Midlands based Hazel & Haydn that can style and care for it as the salon’s philosophy is that everyone should have great hair.
Aveda Institue, Covent Garden London
This hair haven in Covent Garden already fulfils every aspect of our pledge and couldn’t wait to be on board.
Craig Chapman Hair Design, Cornwall
Well known in the hair industry for being able to style all hair types, Craig Chapman wants his salon to be recognised as somewhere that all women with all hair textures can visit.
Gielly Green, London
This boutique salon in London’s Marylebone already has stylists that can care and style naturally textured hair and were thrilled to sign up to our salon inequality pledge.
If you’re a salon owner and wish to take our pledge, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional words: Shannon Peter, Sarah Jane Corfield Smith
Hair: Zateesha Barbour using Avlon and Kera Care
Make-up: Jess Whitbread at S Management
Photography: Republic of Photography