"Do you have experience working on curly, textured hair?" "Do you do natural hair?" "Do you have Black hairstylists?"
Unfortunately, as a Black woman, my experience has taught me to ask a combination of these questions when calling a new hair salon. Growing up in a predominately white city, I didn't have many salon options that knew how to service my hair. Determined to find someone to style my 4A curls, I would salon hop. My experience was always the same: arriving at the salon eager and excited only to be greeted with stares and shock at why I failed to mention I had "ethnic" hair.
From there, the stylist would either politely decline and send me elsewhere or pretend they knew how to manage my hair, resulting in a terrible experience. The nightmare appointments included stylists detangling my hair with a brush, blow-drying my entire head instead of sectioning parts off, not straightening my roots in fear they would burn me, and spraying or massaging in products to "fix" the texture. Arriving excited, I'd leave feeling less so by professionals whose job it was to make me feel beautiful.
Sadly, my experience is not unique. All the Black women I know have dealt with some form of this at hair salons. The fact is: women with textured hair don't have the luxury of going to any salon. It's not common for us to have good experiences when we don't vet prospective salons. As a result, we stick to hair salons that cater to Black or curly hair. However, wouldn't it be great to have multiple options of salons where stylists are well-versed in textured hair instead of being sent away or experimented on?
With the Black Lives Matter movement continuing to gain momentum, my hope is that 2021 will be the year hair education incorporates textured-hair theory and techniques. To gauge the industry's thoughts, I checked in with hairstylists and salon owners Geo Brian Hennings, the department head of hair and makeup for Tina: The Tina Turner Musical on Broadway; Brittany Smith of Confidence Upscale Studios in Indiana; and Aisha Gatlin of Beautiful Luxe School of Cosmetology in Michigan. Read on to find out why hairstylists are lacking education in textured hair and what we hope is done about it in the new year.
The Problem With Textured-Hair Trainings
The curriculum taught in beauty school is based on two main textbooks: Milady and Pivot Point. These two books have been around for decades and — prior to 2013, the year both were updated — failed to mention any natural hairstyling techniques.
Hair-care educators created lessons based on the chapters in these books and what students would be tested on at the end of the year to obtain their cosmetology license. The state board test, composed of theory and practicals to be performed in front of a board of representatives, only includes knowledge on straight hair.
"The experience in school was to prep us for a certain type of salon and to pass the state board, not necessarily to cater to all hair types," Gatlin told POPSUGAR as she recounted beauty school in Michigan. "A lot of the things we learn in school can't be used on clients because [it's not applicable to] their hair type."
If you attended a Black beauty school like Dudley, you were guaranteed education on Black hair. But if you were like many stylists who were of the few Black students in their school, you either didn't learn about texture or you became the teacher. For Smith, she was one of three Black students in her school and remembers teaching the class on how to do braids, sew-ins, and wash-and-gos. With each textured-haired client, instructors would insist one of the Black students service their hair. "We didn't do any of the white people that came in," she said. "When we complained, they'd say they didn't have the teachers they needed and that textured things were extra, so we could either help or no one would learn."
Gatlin had a similar experience in schools when Black women would come in. "Everybody else around either didn't care to learn or the instructors thought it was too much work for them to handle and would bypass a caucasian person and give it to the Black stylist," she said. Continuously exempting white students from working on textured hair furthers the stereotype that Black hair is unmanageable, making it unappealing to stylists.
Hennings recalls learning about L'Oréal, Matrix, and other historically white-catering brands in school. "Seeing all the advertisements showcase white girls with sleek, straight hair conditions you to think in order to be successful, you have to do white hair," he said, adding that he believes this could be a reason stylists were turned off to learning about textured hair. But by only teaching skills compatible with straight hair and displaying brands that value white hair, cosmetology schools are reinforcing the idea that straight hair is better and more important than textured hair.
Because textured hair isn't tested on by the board, there is little importance placed on it as a curriculum. Even still, the few schools that are teaching on textured hair are extremely outdated. They teach how to put in relaxers (which aren't used as widely anymore) or how to tame and wave textured hair. Hennings said, laughing, "They are still teaching Jheri curls in beauty school."
A Racial Reckoning in 2020
Although textured hair is obsolete from the curriculum in most beauty schools, change is coming. With the killing of George Floyd, thousands of Americans were awoken to the systemic racism that Black people face every day. In all industries, we saw many brand founders and senior leaders step down from pristine titles to combat the criticism and racism that happened under their watch.
The hair industry also took a hit. We saw popular Instagram accounts like @behindthechair_com, @modernsalon, and @beautylaunchpad called out for featuring less than one percent of Black artists and textured-hair tips on their platforms. After public apologies were issued, the accounts now feature Black stylists, braids, updos, and natural styles. Without this year's racial uproar and awareness, I don't think platforms would have been so willing to listen and change.
"The younger generation, similar to the ones that flipped the election, are going to be the ones that say, 'No, we do all hair.'"
Hennings has seen change in his business this year as well. In the past, Black and Latinx stylists would apply to assist him, but as more and more people learn about racism and show interest in allyship, he's been receiving a lot of applications from young white stylists. Hennings sees this as a positive step toward change. "The younger generation, similar to the ones that flipped the election, are going to be the ones that say, 'No, we do all hair,' because they're going to want to."
What Hairstylists Are Hopeful For in 2021
Recently, Milady updated its textbook to include more sections on working with textured hair. (A rep for the company told POPSUGAR: "We know we can do better and we will continue to expand and enhance content on diverse hair care. Our efforts, along with a commitment by schools, educators, and state boards to deliver a curriculum that is truly inclusive of all hair types and skin colors, can together create a better experience for all students and clients.")
Still, Gatlin said this change as wdone in vain, since state exams still don't require the training: "Just because it's in the textbook doesn't mean it's actually taught in the school."
All three stylists agree that in order for the industry to change, the board of directors must make textured-hair theory and practicals mandatory on each state exam. Stylists who are already practicing should also seek out textured education courses.
"Learning how the curl pattern acts when wet or under extreme heat is vital," Smith said. There are plenty of schools and organizations like The Texpert Collective that teach textured hairstyling as a standard, instead of a specialty. Stylists could take classes directly, or salon owners could hire educators to train all their stylists on textured hair.
"White stylists will want the education and both the success and rejection of it," Hennings said, noting that textured hair takes time and years of experience. He hopes stylists who aren't experienced in natural styling won't give up on it but instead humble themselves into success.
As a Black woman, I can't easily walk into a trendy salon or blowout bar and get great results. It's time to fill the education gap. Until the state board adds textured-hair theory to its exams, the necessary level of skills and comprehension to style my hair won't be met. I'd like to see the board of directors encourage textbooks to include sections on natural, curly, and kinky hair. I want to see more Black educators get hired by well-known schools. And I want consumers to hold the industry, salons, and stylists responsible.
We cannot lose the energy and outrage we had this summer discovering racist tactics at fashion and beauty brands. That energy made us look inward and redistribute our dollars. As a consumer, we must be part of the solution. The next hair salon you visit, ask about its policies. Ask if it has Black hairstylists and if it accepts appointments from textured-hair clients. If the answer is no, demand more or consider supporting a salon that does. It's going to take all of us — customers, educators, stylists, and the state board — to produce stylists who know how to work with textured hair. Here's hoping that's something 2021 brings.