Thanks to lockdown, DIY haircare has become part of a collective new normal as women everywhere have learned how to cut, colour, and style their hair at home sans the help of professionals. But for many women with afro hair, at-home haircare means a lot more than fixing overgrown bangs or touching up roots. And it certainly is no novelty.
Whether natural or chemically relaxed, our hair needs a particular kind of care. As a result, the DIY approach has become somewhat ingrained, and the self-taught process is vital to surviving, managing, and even thriving independently. For a string of practical and financial reasons, being able to do our own hair makes our lives easier. While people are currently counting down the days until hair salons reopen in their respective cities, for Black women like me, their closure has made no difference to our self-directed, autonomous afro haircare.
"While everyone is currently counting down the days until hair salons reopen, for many Black women, their closure has made no difference to our self-directed, autonomous afro haircare."
In fact, scarcity and lack of availability has long been an obstacle for lots of Black women living in predominately white areas as mainstream stores fail to cater to our hair maintenance needs. For women such as Lynda Moyo of the Mane of Your Own podcast, learning to do her own hair was not a choice, but rather a requisite. Growing up in '80s Preston, there was limited racial diversity. Haircare was taught and learned in the home much like other life skills, such as cooking. Similarly, my mum talks of when we first came to Britain in the late '90s; she had to lean on the knowledge and kindness of strangers in regard to haircare for the sake of herself and her two toddler daughters. This is something she never experienced in Uganda, our country of origin.
Likewise, her friend Denise*, who arrived in Britain from Cameroon in 2002, says she was forced into understanding her own hair as other people couldn't –— or simply — wouldn't. She recalls immediately taking out the braids she had just paid someone else to do because they would always fall out hours later. Iris*, who first moved to Wales from Zimbabwe in 2000, echoes that she quickly realized there was nowhere she could go to have her hair done. Beyond that, there were not even any products at hand that would work for her hair.
The disheartening yet unsurprising lack of availability for a wide range of Black haircare provisions is not something of the past. These are common stories emerging from the multicultural and migrant experience today in Britain, and I too can relate. Some big drugstores I have visited have been aggressively Caucasian. During my search for afro hair salons, I have often found myself asking strangers, just like my mum 20 years previous.
"As salons gear up to reopen in the UK this week, I think of how the future of afro haircare could be brighter. I want more Black women to have the choice of treating themselves, like the next straight-haired white woman."
In some areas, things are ever so slightly better. It is likely that inner-city high street drugstores will sell a modest range of afro hair products. But it is mainly the Internet which has been nurturing generations of self-directed afro style gurus. There are a stream of YouTube tutorials, websites and social media accounts where Black women speak directly to other Black women, helping them navigate what must have felt like a stab in the dark years ago.
But it’s not good enough. Afro haircare is still on the margins of the mainstream and many new DIY products emerging during lockdown attest to this: in-shower hair dye best suited to straight, blonde hair; at-home blow-dry tools. They operate, as does most of the world, with Caucasian hair in mind and the default consumer is certainly not Black.
The hair and beauty industry must now change. It is not enough for more afro hair products to be available on the high street or for afro hair maintenance to be a mandatory part of training for hairstylists, for which there is now a petition. There needs to be longterm commitment to showing Black women that their hair isn’t "different" or classed as "specialist." Of course, this won't happen overnight. But as salons gear up to reopen, I think of how the future of afro haircare could be brighter. I want more Black women to have the choice of treating themselves, like the next straight-haired white woman. Salons should be a place that caters for our needs as well as everyone else's. We've been in the DIY game for a long time, now.
*Name has been changed.