For Black women, going to the hair salon used to be both a privilege and necessary during a time when our health depended on it. Dating as far back as the early 1900s, when Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker created Black hair care products to help women in the South prevent damage, dandruff, alopecia, and other scalp diseases, getting your hair done helped Black women to assimilate into society in a time when the white beauty standard was the only acceptable one — a time when our great-great-grandmothers were judged harshly based on their grooming habits. Later, during the Jim Crow era, Black beauty salons and barbershops transformed into safe spaces for activism while also creating entrepreneurial opportunities for the Black community.
During the 1990s, in the days before the internet, the Black beauty salon experience continued to be a central part of our culture. As a little girl, coming of age to finally get in the salon chair — graduating from going with your mom every two weeks and sitting there for hours while she got her hair relaxed, sat under the dryer, and straightened with a hot comb — was known as a right of passage. A hairstylist doubled as an entertainer, a counselor, and oftentimes a friend to clients they would likely service for years to come.
In conversation with Unbothered, longtime hairstylist Susy Oludele explained how crucial it is to intentionally treat her clients with care and respect. “I have always put the client first,” said Oludele. “There were times where I was just building with money in mind, but it is the community that makes your brand whole.”
However, with the rise in platforms like YouTube and Instagram, where people no longer have to attend years of beauty school to learn how to do hair or how to run a hair business, that sacred stylist-client dynamic has shifted. Stylists can now go into business for themselves, setting their policies, enforcing them on their terms, and gaining a revolving door of clients who are finding them through hashtags or booking websites like Styleseat. Yet, with the growing field of girls getting to the bag by learning to do hair through tutorials, more and more Black women are growing frustrated by the decline in basic customer service. Every day, new horror stories populate the internet sharing tales of unreasonable policies, lack of hair care, late appointments, cancellations, and just overall poor attitudes.
Unbothered surveyed anonymous Black women about their salon experiences and these were some of their responses:
“I showed up for an appointment, but the stylist was not there — the salon lights were out! I texted her, and she said that she was on the way. AN HOUR later, she let me know that her assistant was the one who texted me and that she was no longer available to do my hair that day as she chose to take the day off.”
“Per the booking policy of this new salon I tried out, a deposit was required before for a sew-in, which I’ve never had to do before. However, she only wanted the money through Cash App, but it didn’t go towards my bill in general, and it was non-refundable. So like, why am I giving you money if it’s not going towards my service. And if my hair turns out trash, then what? Canceled!”
“I’ve had two different encounters with difficult stylists before. The first one wasn’t personable at all. She offered limited services, saying that I had to come washed and blow-dried, but also taxed extra if it wasn’t ‘properly washed’.’ The service took very long, and it was obvious she was taking other ‘preferred’ clients before me. Stylist #2 scheduled me at 11 am and didn’t show up until 3 in the afternoon. (I only stayed because I had an important event the next day.) When she finally arrived, I found out she had five other ‘11 am’ appointments. She took everyone before me, so I didn’t leave until 1 am. She was very personable and sweet — just extremely unprofessional.”
Ive tweeted before about how sad I am that there are so many black girls and women walking around who never got to experience getting their hair done, sitting between someone’s legs, the routine of preparing to have their hair done. There is a cultural bonding that happens there
Twitter user @agiantpaperclip started a thread of policies from stylists found on various booking sites. One stylist said (in all capital letters) not to book with her if you had any other plans that day. She also threatened to cancel the appointment and ask you to leave if you asked how much longer she was going to take or “anything close to it!” Another threatened to cancel the appointment if she “felt any bad energy” from her client, but also promised that she would take a 30-minute food break in the middle of styling your hair. In many instances, stylists are demanding that customers arrive with hair that’s already been washed, blow-dried, and detangled. And more recently, stylists are requiring customers to agree to take pictures or videos so that they can showcase their work, and will not do your hair if you don’t comply.
On the flip side of these late fees and non-refundable deposits are stylists who are often late themselves with no repercussions, or the all-too-common story of stylists canceling on clients the same day as the appointment. To put it simply, customer service is a thing of the past; in this new world, it’s the stylist— not the customer — who is always right.
When you add up the cost of modern professional hair services, the total isn’t cheap at all; we’re running up a bag at these establishments. And Black women aren’t just paying for our hair to look good — we want the complete experience. Spending our hard-earned money means that we’re seeking the excellent service, positive attitude, and quality skills that make for an exceptional hair appointment. Yet, it can feel disheartening when our simple expectations of feeling like ‘that gurl’ aren’t met due to a lack of decorum.
“Sometimes, hairstylists enforce rules and regulations that can scare clients,” says Oludele of the current state of the Black beauty salon. “But I think that both the client and hairstylist should put themselves in each other’s shoes. And stylists should take into consideration some of the policies that they’re making so that it doesn’t kill their business in the long run.”
So where do we go from here? The bond that Black women have with our hairstylists is a cornerstone of our culture, and we can’t keep losing recipes. Traditions may not be the same as the years pass, but we must bring back the basics of thorough consultations, washing clients’ hair before styling, and service transparency. After all, not everyone can just abandon the salon and pivot to DIY, at-home hair care.
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