To some, Tessica Brown’s perma-sleek mistake was just another punchline that launched a million Gorilla Glue Girl memes, but the fact that a Black woman was struggling with at-home hairstyling during a pandemic wasn’t a simple joke. It was a viral example of the creative ways in which Black women have had to adapt to a reality without salons. As global lockdowns and social distancing guidelines rendered regular tips to the hairdresser nearly obsolete, many Black women have had to learn to style their own natural hair — an endeavour that can be at once anxiety-inducing and liberating. The New York Times spotlighted a virtual braiding class on Facebook that is just one of the growing number of live hair tutorials attempting to recreate the safe space of a Black hair salon with a DIY twist. Hashtags like #QuarantineCurls started popping up on Instagram, and TikTok was taken over by self-taught stylists proudly rocking twists, knotless and box braids — styles that are no longer just for the professionals. Black women have been finding empowerment, community, and solidarity through figuring it out on the fly.
For 22-year-old Kyra Miles from Greenville, North Carolina, learning to style her own hair during lockdown. “I really wanted braids, but my local store was closed,” she told Refinery29. “I gave myself yarn braids in the summer. I finished the style over the course of three days, so I did about three to four hours [of braiding] a day.”
Miles is a full-time journalism student who graduates this year, and found that braiding her hair herself actually helped with her quarantine schedule: “Doing it on my own time felt so much better,” she continues. “I could watch what I wanted and stop for breaks. It was also so much cheaper; I only bought two skeins of yarn which was $8 (£5) total.”
Kamara, 26, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, says camera-on Zoom calls was the catalyst that led her to learn how to self-style her hair at home. “It was overwhelming,” she admits. “Right before lockdown, I had braids because I was so nervous about going into the salon. I took them down myself and I didn’t see my stylist for maintenance afterwards. I had a lot of split ends that I had to deal with on my own, plus I had coloured hair so my roots were quite embarrassing and harder to hide as the months passed.”
As a result, she took matters into her own hands. “I spent the whole of spring and summer doing my own hair. Most of the early days in quarantine was just wash and go’s because my scalp couldn’t take the tension of constant twist outs,” she says, crediting her stylist Julie for teaching her the technique and recommending the right products and YouTube tutorials. Kamara enjoyed styling her own hair, but she’s keen to get back to the salon. “I saved a lot of money, but I’m not an expert and even after years of practice, I tend to cause more split ends when I do my own hair.” While salons have reopened in New York City, Kamara still continues to style her hair at home, but will head back to the salon when it’s time for maintenance and treatments.
In London, where salons are closed until 12th April, 22-year-old Lianne Thornton was forced to learn to braid her own hair throughout the pandemic. “I saved a lot of money but not time. It took three days,” she says, adding that she had to juggle hairstyling around her work hours. If she had gone to the salon, however, the style would have cost her £80. “I got the hair from an afro hair shop in Shepherd’s Bush on Uxbridge Road back in December and it cost me £4 per pack, and I used about two and a half packs. Doing it at home took way too long, but it’s great to know that I could actually do my hair myself if I really wanted to.”
For others, lockdown has been an opportunity to embrace their natural hair. Jamila-Lee Smikle, a 27-year-old from London, says lockdown allowed her to take a healthier approach to her hair. “I styled my hair in length retention styles, which [is] eight to ten three-strand plaits [that I] then put into a bun, so the ends are protected.”
Smikle tells Refinery29 that before the pandemic, she would often have her hair in weave or braids, and when she didn’t, used a lot of heat on her hair to make it straight. “My styling technique is now done with only the health of my hair in mind,” she says. “It took me a while to do the research because YouTube can be so overwhelming. but after finding the best regime for healthy afro hair, I decided to start my afro hair page Girl Free The Fro, which encourages other Black girls and women to wear their hair confidently.”
While Smikle’s focus has mainly been to maintain healthy hair, she also spent lockdown learning new styles, such as braids. “It was my biggest achievement,” she says. “It took about five hours and was a lot of arm work, but I’m so pleased I have managed to master it. I followed quite a few Instagram accounts in order to get there, such as Fresh lengths for hair braiding tutorials, Enitan Hair Coach for hair health, Charlotte Mensah’s Instagram lives.
She continues: “I also saved so much money on hair styling. I was paying about £150-£200 every two to three months.” So will she be returning to salons once they reopen? Maybe. “I miss the pampering element — someone taking the time to wash my scalp and give it a proper massage and the salon chat. It’s a whole experience. I have met some great women at the salon who I’ve had unforgettable conversations with,” she adds. “But I have learnt so much about my hair since doing it myself, what it likes and what it doesn’t.”
While we all wait patiently for salons to reopen around the world, it’s clear Black women have got it all under control, at least for now. No glue, just vibes.