This piece is from our series, Hair Story. We interview an array of women from different walks of life to discover what their hair means to them. From photographing non-binary people who challenge society's norms by wearing their hair in bright colours, to investigating the 'dumb blonde' stereotype, this series explores the intrinsic link between hair and identity.
An early memory that many black women share is being sat on the floor between our mother’s legs with a numb bum, having our hair done. The impatient tugging of my untidy cornrows. The hot tingle of my first at-home texturiser. The threat to cut all my hair off if I didn’t look after it properly. Black hair stories tend to come from beautifully modest and intimate beginnings. But as I grow increasingly resentful of struggling to maintain my own sad, damaged hair, unable to retreat to the comfort of aunties’ living room floors, I can’t believe how much I took the early days for granted.
I spent years wearing my hair in braids, cornrows or gelled back into a sticky, tight bun. When I hit my teens, I finally got the courage to tell my mum that I wanted my hair relaxed. This sort of chemical straightener was a big step but I was desperate for my head to be lathered in that creamy curl killer. My hair had to be sleek and bone-straight, and 16-year-old me had little foresight beyond that. My mum did, though. "Why do you want to pay money for someone to put chemicals over your beautiful, thick, shoulder-length afro hair," she’d preach. "And are you going to remember to go back to the hairdresser every month to get it treated, and back again to get your regrowth relaxed?"
Hands up if you took your mum’s advice seriously at that age. Me neither. She came around when I told her that the fate of my school leavers pictures depended on it, however. It’s here that my hair journey took a sharp, expensive turn towards committed and chemically processed.
The weeks passed and though I loved my new do, yes, I quickly realised that Mum was right. All the money I had (and then some) was going to have to go on fortnightly treatments to combat how weak the relaxer made my hair; a regrowth relaxer every other month when my roots grew out – not just for aesthetic reasons but to prevent the hair breaking at the point where the different textures met; new products to make sure I was washing and conditioning my hair appropriately. It became too much, too quickly. My white friends gasped in horror at my £80-£150 hair bills that didn’t even involve a cut or colour. My few black school friends knew the struggle well enough not to bat an eyelid when I started to turn down cinema trips and meals out.
It didn’t feel like there was another option, so I placidly went along with what I’d become accustomed to until the money I was spending on my hair meant sacrificing food, transport and even utility bills when I got a bit older.
The deterioration started at university when I simply couldn’t travel back to London from Swansea, where black hair services were sparse and out of my financial reach, every couple of weeks. My now thin, bob-length hair was breaking rapidly and it was only when I came home in the holidays that I had the opportunity to get the all-important treatments, trims or simply professional advice that I needed. And even then, that was only an option if my mum helped with paying for it.
The cheap clip-in extensions I insisted on wearing to try and disguise (oh, the irony) the length I’d lost certainly didn’t help my hair health or my bank account, either. But by this time, even on the other side of my degree, I’d let things get beyond my DIY attempts at hot oil treatments and home remedies. I found myself in a frustrating spiral of avoiding going to a salon to save money but eventually having no choice but to find a way to pay for it to save the hair I had left. It felt like I’d been priced out of maintaining my own hair, which as a black woman whose hair carries so much complicated emotional, cultural and political value, was a really difficult realisation to come to terms with.
Speaking to other black women about their relationships with hair and money, many of us seem to share similar concerns. My friend Eden tells me that she was stuck in a similar cycle and even living in London, the stress that comes with having to hunt around certain areas for products of your own is almost too much. "You have to go to a hairdresser that can actually do Afro Caribbean hair. Once you’ve found a good hairdresser, you then need to be prepared to pay more than other hair textures," she explains. "I went to a salon in Shoreditch and would regularly get treatments while I transitioned back to my natural hair, then when my hair had grown back and was completely natural, the price went up."
"Not only is it a struggle to figure out and love your hair in this Western society, it’s so expensive to buy products that cater to your hair and actually work," Eden adds. "Although shout out to Superdrug for actually selling Shea Moisture." National high street offerings are sparse and hard to find, though, and it’s common to spend hours having to research online in advance to find what you’re looking for.
Like me, Eden has opted to do her hair herself where she can. My saving grace came years later when I had an opportunity to review a salon, try my first weave and was able to protect and grow my natural hair underneath. I was beyond overjoyed. I was jumping out of bed in the morning with little more to do than whip off my headscarf and flick my 18-inch Peruvian extensions into place, safe in the knowledge that my natural hair was out of harm's way and that I could use common brands like TRESemmé on the extensions. It was a dream.
Well, dreamy until I reached the end of the recommended six to eight-week period of wearing a sew-in and I couldn’t afford to have it taken out properly, let alone the treatment that my natural hair would need afterwards. I left it in for as long as I could. When the lace front started to look a bit tatty, I cut myself a fringe to disguise its age. It eventually got to the point where I had to take it down myself (after weeks of YouTube tutorials and pep talks from my friends) and deal with the damage solo.
Now, most of my relaxed hair has grown out. Unfamiliar and nervous about the natural texture of my hair (that’s something I’m working on, don’t worry), I’m terrified of pursuing any other style for fear of not being able to come back from the commitment financially. Even in its current state, I’m finding myself spending a disproportionate amount of money on haircare products that builds up at a rate that doesn’t compare to that of my Caucasian-haired friends. And, like Eden, even looking into hair salons with afro services makes my debit card tremble.
It’s a wild reality to have to consider when the UK market for black women’s hair is huge. A study once suggested that Afro-Caribbean women spend six times more on hair than other ethnicities, while other studies have claimed black women in the UK account for 80% of total hair product sales. So why do so many of us find ourselves financially screwed over when there’s such a high need for products for our hair in particular?
I asked my colleague Effy and though she notes that the hair service landscape generally seems expensive across the entire spectrum, in looking after her hair she too has consciously changed or avoided a style because of the cost. "For the longest time (approximately the first 24 years of my life) I exclusively wore braids or cornrows because they were much more affordable. My sister did them for me and I simply couldn't afford the cost of doing and maintaining straight hair or weaves," Effy explains. "I have four sisters and we always discuss and laugh about how much it costs (in terms of time and money) to keep our hair looking good. There is a perception that in the black community, your 'hair is your beauty'. My hairstylist says it to me all the time and so it's a regular topic of conversation."
I’m sure many of us are far too familiar with the difficult 'hair is your beauty' concept, which perhaps factors into why black women are so willing to pursue such expensive avenues of haircare. When I asked my mum what she thought, one of the big issues for her was within our community. "There should be more sisterhood within the industry," she explained. "There are times where I’ve noticed black hairstylists exploit black women in the prices they set because the demand certainly outlays the supply. As a minority group, we should be supporting people and while everyone’s got to make a profit, it’s shit when you can order a bundle of hair for £30 on Amazon but then not have any choice but to pay hundreds to have a specialist install it for you."
The culture of black women’s hair is so beautiful, nuanced and celebratory. But beneath it is a rumbling frustration at how much we pay for services in a society that typically doesn’t gear itself towards the needs of our community, despite the ever-growing requirement for products and services that include us.