Samantha Dixon Slawter started cutting hair professionally more than 30 years ago. A receptionist at her uncle’s hair salon in Halifax, she noticed how clients would travel from across Nova Scotia to get their hair done there; it was one of the only Black beauty salons in the province. With no schools teaching students how to cut and style Black hair, Dixon Slawter learned on the job, apprenticing at her family’s business and eventually opening her own place, Styles by SD Ltd. in Dartmouth.
Three decades later, little has changed: Today, Styles by SD Ltd. is one of the only Black-owned salons in the province, and hair schools in Nova Scotia (not to mention the rest of Canada) still largely ignore Black and textured hair styling, care, and techniques in their curriculum.
Around the country, stylists are speaking out. In June, Solange Ashoori of Toronto’s Ziba Style Bar started a petition urging Ontario beauty schools to make Black and textured hair education mandatory. So far, over 9,400 people have signed it. Montreal’s Nancy Falaise, who owns a salon and mobile school dedicated to 3A to 4C hair (curly and coily hair types), is also petitioning to broaden the provincial hair curriculum in Quebec. “Beauty education institutions make hundreds of millions of dollars and yet disproportionately focus on European beauty standards and hair textures,” reads Ashoori’s petition.
In Alberta, for instance, students will learn braiding, weaving, and knotting techniques in an introductory class, but there’s no specification about the type of hair they’ll learn them on. In Nova Scotia, students are taught about all hair types, but “most of the learning is done through theory or on mannequins, unless an individual comes in who has the type of textured hair that you need to work on,” said Dana Sharkey, executive director of the Cosmetology Association of Nova Scotia. That means, the theory of cutting textured hair may be taught in a single day, and students might never actually touch coils before they go to work in a salon. Ontario's curriculum includes how to chemically relax hair (a Eurocentric standard of beauty), but not styles, like locs, box braids, or twists.
“The people that come to me... have very limited knowledge of curly hair,” says Falaise of her students, many of whom have graduated from provincial hair schools. “They need to touch an Afro. They need to wash a head of hair that needs a lot of water to make sure that it’s all the way through. They need to do the hair of someone who only washes their hair once every two weeks, and understand why.”
When hair stylists aren’t taught techniques for working with and caring for curly and kinky hair, it's a form of discrimination that further marginalizes Black women, reinforcing the idea that Black hair and by extension, Black women, aren't valued. "When you go to hairdressing school, you’re not being taught about hair texture. You’re only going to learn about straight hair; all the work that you do is on straight hair. So really, it’s culturally exclusive,” say Dixon Slawter.
This lack of training doesn’t just disenfranchise Black customers, it can lead to health risks. If women can’t find a stylist who knows how to take care of their hair, they may opt for styles that seem easier to care for, like relaxing hair or wearing tight braids, which, over time, can lead to issues like traction alopecia, says Falaise. “A lot of beautiful Black women get their hair ruined."
That’s why Dixon Slawter is hoping to open the Crown of Beauty Institute, her own school to train a new generation of stylists. She’s written a curriculum and applied to the province. In the meantime, she continues to work in her salon, hosts hair workshops, and has applied to take on apprentices this fall. Dixon Slawter isn’t sure how long it will take to open her school, but says she’s in it for the long haul. “I’ve been working on this for 30 years. I wish I could give you a timeline, but all I know is I hope it’s not going to be 30 more years.”