Black woman getting a haircut from a white hairdresser

Will the new rules requiring all hairdressers to cater to Black hair make a difference to Black women?

From today, UK hairdressers have to be trained in cutting and styling Afro-textured hair. Here, one writer explores her own experience in salons and what this new practice means for Black women.

Growing up in a predominantly white area, my afro-textured hair has often been treated with deep caution, confusion and perhaps, at best, a bizarre curiosity – almost like I was an animal in a zoo.

People asking if they could “touch my hair” long after their fingers were already grasping my curls in fascination was a fairly common occurrence. Sometimes, they’d compare my hair texture with other Black people’s hair in the vicinity, surprised that our hair textures weren’t all the same.

So, whenever I’ve had my hair done within white spaces, I’ve experienced a lot of attitudes like this. Visiting the wrong hairdressers could be a strange, mentally draining experience. I’ve heard horror stories about Black women simply being turned away, with hairdressers admitting there would be nothing they could do for them. For the most part, whenever my hair has been in its natural curly state and not straightened, I’ve gone to Black-owned salons as it’s obvious that the average high street hairdresser would have no clue what to do with my hair.

Banseka Kayembe
Banseka Kayembe has had to travel hours to find a suitable hairdresser.

In my early 20s, I “relaxed” my hair, a chemical process which changes the bonds in your hair permanently so your hair becomes straight, largely because I’d internalised the idea that Black hair was ugly and difficult. I assumed this meant that a white hairdresser would know how to handle it, given it was really no different to most of the Eurocentric hair they dealt with day to day – but I was wrong. One of the hairdressers described it as “a challenge” to straighten, as though somehow my hair needing more time made it difficult. My hair, though mostly straight, was still very thick and they failed to even dry it properly.

I went home with damp roots and I vowed that I would never set foot in a white hairdressers. I would get my hair done only at Black hair salons, where I didn’t have to feel like my hair texture was being judged and mishandled. I’ll never forget the first time I had a Black woman style my hair when I was around nine or 10 years old. Her hands gently combing from ends to roots, parting my hair carefully, her hands feeling safe and knowing, rather than startled and unsure. I missed that feeling and knew I could no longer take the risk of going to non-Black spaces for hair care – even if I had to travel a couple of hours to find a suitable salon.

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In the recent review of the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for hairdressing, afro and textured hair have now been included into one cutting and styling practice standard for all hair types. This means from today, all UK hairdressers will have to be trained in cutting and styling afro-textured hair.

This change has been a long time coming. Two years ago, the British Beauty Council set up a task force in conjunction with the Hair & Beauty Industry Authority to support the revised NOS who set the nationally-recognised practice standards for professional hairdressing.

Woman with curly afro-textured hair

“Until now, tens of thousands of hairdressers have no qualifications in cutting and styling afro and textured hair,” says Helena Grzesk, chief operating officer at the British Beauty Council. “Our aim is to amplify and celebrate the voices of all the communities the industry serves to ensure each and every one of us feels seen, heard, valued and excited to engage with the beauty industry”.

This all sounds very positive; the fact that racially segregated hair care has been normalised is actually very troubling. However, I still have questions about how effective this will be.

Banseka Kayembe
Banseka raises concerns about the new practice.

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Firstly, will UK hairdressers actually learn about the variety of afro Black hair? We don’t all have the same hair texture, density or porosity. There is no catch all for Black hair, it is extremely varied. My concern is, much like the natural hair movement in the Black community, we may see more inclusivity around looser-textured curly Black hair, like mine, but still a resistance and lack of knowledge about curly 4A-4C hair. Any practical hairdressing course will need to teach the full range of Black hair, not just the more ‘desirable’ kinds.

Will the new rules help hairdressers unlearn the stigmas and microaggressive terms used to describe Black hair, even if they know more about how to style it? Will our natural hair still be described as “messy”, “unkempt”, “difficult” or “challenging”? We still live in a wider society where Eurocentric hair is praised, and hair in closer proximity to Blackness is deemed less desirable.

Woman looking in mirror

Even in Black hair salons, I’ve experienced my looser-textured hair praised as “good hair” due to its perceived proximity to white hair, which in turn implies Black hair that is not in proximity to whiteness is “bad hair”. The last Black salon I went to was plagued with complaints on social media from Black women whose hair had been irreversibly heat damaged by them. Even within our own community, issues of how to treat and take care of Black hair persist. These new standards will really need to challenge the Eurocentric ideals of hair we’ve all been brainwashed into holding.

Enforcing these rules is a good, necessary step forward, no doubt. But I can’t say I’ll be rushing to a non-Black hairdresser anytime soon. 

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