Haircare for black women has a 'hidden cost'

When Hazel Chongoti was growing up in Kenya, she was never worried about where to get her hair done. She could easily get her hair braided every two weeks for school. But that changed when she moved to Vancouver in 2018. Suddenly finding places to get her hair taken care of was challenging.

“I feel like there are not enough hairdressers, or they’re not used to the texture of our hair or they don’t know how to handle it,” she said. “It’s very rare to find someone who actually does [our] hair. If they do, it’s all the way in Surrey which is so far from where I am,” the fourth-year electrical engineering student said.

After three years of struggling to find ways to maintain her hair in Vancouver, Chongoti made the difficult decision to cut her hair off.

“The main reason is because it’s been really hard to maintain it. I started noticing that I was getting a lot of breakage, my hair was constantly dry or [I was] spending a lot of hours doing my own hair, or if someone else would do it, I would spend a lot of money,” said Chongoti.

Wamaitha Kinothia, a fifth-year political science student, has a similar story to Chongoti. Like Chongoti, Kinothia moved to Vancouver from Kenya to attend UBC. Since she moved to Vancouver, she has found it much harder to find affordable hair care options.

“So I just usually keep my braids in for a really long time and then when I take it out, I’ll spend maybe a couple of weeks with it natural,” she said.

Tanya Hayles, founder of Black Moms Connection (BMC), a non-profit organization based in Toronto that connects Black moms to resources, echoed a similar sentiment.

Hayles said if the price of getting hair her done at the salon was cheaper, she would go more frequently, rather than going only on special occasions. She added that hair care is one of the top three topics of conversation in BMC.

“I don’t think people really understand the costs of Black hair,” she said. “It’s one of those secret hidden costs of being a Black woman that most people don’t think about.”

'Network of Black beauty'

According to Cheryl Thompson, author of the book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, lack of access is the biggest barrier for Black women to care for their hair, especially for women who live in smaller cities without big retailers and Black hair salons. “This can make access not only to products but knowledge about Black hair difficult,” she wrote in an email to The Ubyssey.

Tanya Hayles agrees.

“Black hair stores are only located in neighbourhoods that only have a high population of Black people but not everyone lives [in those neighbourhoods],” she said.

In Kenya, where the majority of the population is Black and there are multiple hairdressers, Chongoti did not have to think about caring for her hair herself.

“It’s easier to [confer] with other people, easily get tips and see how people take care of their hair and maintain it. There are always hairdressers available [in Kenya] at a good price who can help you take care of your hair,” she said.

“I wish I learned how to take care of my hair when I was back home because, honestly, I never really gave much thought to it. I just [assumed] someone else will do it for me,” she added.

Community networks and engagement are “intimately” connected to Black beauty culture, which makes it unique, according to Thompson.

“The network of Black beauty supply is often via word of mouth and while newer businesses make use of digital advertising, the old-fashioned referrals, walk-ins, and word of mouth still define the industry,” she wrote.

Jessica Hayles, an actress and a project assistant with Black Women Connect Vancouver, moved to Vancouver from London in January 2020. She described the process of finding a hairdresser in both places as trial and error.

“When you find these people, you find the right person, you stick to them. And so it was tough to leave those people and then find new hairdressers here,” she said. “You just want to have your services that you trust, that you like, that matches your price range and then just keep going back to them.”

When she lived in London, she could go door-to-door to talk to hairdressers in specific Black neighbourhoods which made the process easier. Moving to Vancouver meant she had to leave the established hairdressers she had in London. But as Vancouver does not have dense Black neighbourhoods, finding new hairdressers was more difficult.

“In London, there’s a lot of Black areas and neighbourhoods so the trial-and-error can be a bit more physical,” she said. “But I think there’s not so much of that in Vancouver so it feels a lot more kind of looking online.”

Kinothia expressed a similar sentiment when it comes to finding a salon in Vancouver.

“Every time I have to do my hair, I have to go to [a place] like Burnaby or some woman’s apartment that I found on Facebook or Instagram,” she said.

A Canada-wide problem

Black women in Vancouver are not the only ones who face this problem. Across Canada, the challenge persists.

Black hair in Canada has a long and storied history beginning in the 19th century, explained Thompson.

“The history goes back to the 19th century when Black women and men laboured as barbers and hairstylists,” she wrote in an email to The Ubyssey. “In the 20th century, these individuals became 'beauty culturists' — individuals who made their own products and developed a distribution and sale system that was locally based.”

The history of Black beauty in Canada is very important to Simone Wright, who runs a non-profit focussed on education around Black hair history.

In 2017, Wright was at a workplace diversity, equity and inclusion training session. The woman facilitating the session was discussing covering — a term that describes when people hide their true identity at work. She said that an example of covering is when Black women straighten their hair to hide their appearance. Wright was upset by this statement because the woman did not provide any context.

“After slavery, Black people, we had to compete in a world that wasn’t created for us and one of the ways that we competed is altering ourselves which is straightening our hair,” Wright said. “She wasn’t sharing our story accurately and I decided that you know what, I need to take this opportunity to educate people not just non-Black people but Black people as well.”

So in February of that year, she opened the Instagram account @partingtheroots not only as an educational tool but also to celebrate Black History Month.

Today, Parting the Roots is a non-profit organization based in Toronto that educates about Black hair history and does annual exhibitions.

Why is finding a hairdresser so hard?

In addition to a lack of Black hair salons, the lack of stylists who know how to do hair in non-Black hair salons exacerbates the problem Black women face in accessing hair care. Beauty and cosmetology schools in BC are not required to teach how to take care of Black hair.

“If you go into a salon that isn’t necessarily a Black hair salon, you as a Black person most likely can’t get your hair done because they wouldn’t know how to work in your hair, versus when you go to a Black hairstylist. They know how to work both in non-Black and Black hair, hair texture[s],” Wright said.

Tanya Hayles said this puts an extra burden on the Black women to ensure that a salon actually does their hair type before going there.

“The onus is now on me as the Black person to ask, or even go to their Instagram page to see if they posted Black clientele,” she said. “If they haven’t, then I know that Black people don’t go to those salons and that I’m not going to be able to get the proper hair care experience that I need or want.”

She added that the reason some hair salons do not do Black hair is not necessarily due to not wanting to, but not having knowledge or the awareness.

“Most businesses, if they’re doing fine enough with their clientele that looks like them, then they won’t see a need to say, ‘Oh, we should learn how to do Black hair,’” she said.

Moureen Spence owns Mou Jam Beauty Salon in Surrey which specializes in Black hair care and styling. It’s been operating for over 20 years.

Spence said that Black hair is a “specialty” and people need training to be able to take care of it properly. She added that her salon is like a family and people who come to the salon are repeat customers who continue to return year after year.

Trinay Brown opened her salon CRWND in August 2020 amid the pandemic. She acknowledged that finding places for Black people to get their hair done in Vancouver is difficult, but because her salon is in downtown Vancouver, her prices are higher than average. Brown charges an average of $120 for a style.

Jessica Hayles said the prices for hair care in Vancouver were a shock to her compared to London.

“Sometimes my price can be too high for people. So if it was lower, I would have a lot more clients,” Brown said. “Also, living in Vancouver is expensive and I do pay two rents so I have to keep everything in mind when doing my business.”

She has been doing hair for about eight years, learning through practice on herself and from YouTube and Instagram. She added that she’s still looking for ways to improve her skills and learn about different hair textures.

Hairstylists in BC are required tolearn how to cut, colour and chemically treat hair, work on extensions and learn the business fundamentals of hair salons. They learn these skills in schools and obtain licenses after they pass the industry red seal exam.

The industry training association requires that hairstylists “cut diverse textures of hair using cutting tools” but does not give any details on the types of textures students are required to know. Nowhere are they specifically required to learn how to work with Black hair or coilier textures.

Louise Danhaumer, department leader of the hair design, skin and body department at Vancouver Community College (VCC) said that students in the foundation program get ten weeks of training on hair theory with mannequins in the foundation program before moving on to working with clients based on their skill level.

“We address whatever hair comes in the door to us,” said Melanie Burke, a hairstyling instructor at VCC. Students get training on whatever hair textures come to the salon.

She added that the school is expanding the types of mannequins they use for training students through a company called Pivot Point so that the students can gain experiences with different textures before working with clients.

“Rather than waiting for those textures necessarily to walk in the door, and make appointments with us, we can intentionally use them in our curriculum day-to-day so everyone gets their hands into curly textured hair,” she said.

Danhaumer added that the school is planning to introduce “micro-credential courses” to enable people to focus on specific skills and included in those courses specifically tailored towards textured hair and Black hair that will be taught by experts.

Loving your curls

Though there are challenges when it comes to caring for black hair, Black women are embracing their natural hair as part of their identity in all its shapes and twists.

“I do wear my hair in its natural state and I do wear my hair [in] more traditional hairstyles, and it’s a way for me to express myself and really showcase that, I am a Black woman and I am representing my African roots,” Wright said.

Jessica Hayles added that the conversation about Black hair across all industries should be more open, positive and accessible.

“It shouldn’t have any tenseness coming along with it from other people and it should be something that is able to be talked about in workplaces in a positive way so it doesn’t feel like a weight,” she said.

Though her hair is shorter, Chongoti said she does not let it define her.

“I feel like cutting it also brought out a different side of me, and I was even feeling more confident, and just more myself,” she said. “I don’t let it affect how I see myself. Either way, I feel beautiful the way I am — long hair or short hair.”

For Kinothia, it is about embracing one’s curls and not striving to achieve beauty ideals.

“I think it’s just about embracing yourself and how you consider yourself to be beautiful and focusing less on Western ideals of what you’re supposed to look like,” she said.

“So just being like, ‘this is my hair, I’m taking charge.’ I’m not gonna do a style because it’s what’s more acceptable. I’m gonna let my hair be the way it wants to be.”