As the rapid spread of COVID-19 — the novel virus that has affected hundreds of thousands globally — continues to upend lives and livelihoods, it seems hair care would be the least of any person’s concern. That’s not the case for Black women who depend on consistent hair appointments to help them show up as their authentic selves — and who view those appointments as a form of self care — in a world where their overall appearance is often policed.
“Most of my clients are working professionals, so they really love having their hair taken care of so they can free up time in their daily routines,” Ymani Blake, a natural hairstylist based in Chicago, told R29Unbothered. Before the pandemic, Blake turned a room in her apartment into a styling space, which is based around creating a peaceful experience.
On March 20, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased in the northeast, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo — along with the governors of New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania — took a multi-state approach and announced the temporary closure of businesses offering personal care services. The measure, which included hair salons and barbershops, went into effect on March 21 at 8 p.m. Other states including California, Texas, Ohio, Minnesota, Washington, Kentucky, Colorado, West Virginia and Nevada have done the same.
The Black internet community reacted the way it knows how: with teary memes and videos that described their anxiety and outrage. But despite the humor, there was a tinge of panic to it all. What happens when hairstylists are no longer able to have clients — many whom they consider family or good friends — in their seats due to COVID-19?
Governor Cuomo: I'm closing all barber shops & hair salons.— Fidel Cashflow (@Maserati_Gotti_) March 20, 2020
Black and Spanish Women: pic.twitter.com/leiijtOAxQ
“The concept of African American women not being able to get their hair done is considered traumatic to them,” celebrity hairstylist Tish Celestine explained to R29Unbothered. Celestine, who owns the La Belle Boutique in Brooklyn, NY, shut her salon’s doors the day after the governor’s announcement. The decision to close affected her and the five other techs who work there.
“But I believe I am not an essential worker. Nor is a hairdo essential,” Celestine continued. “I thought it best to protect myself and staff from skeptics who may not be taking precautions or taking this seriously.”
It’s no secret that hair plays a major role within Black culture. But Black hair also has considerable effects outside of the community. Black women’s hair can impact the creative state of popular culture in so many ways. What we decide to do with our hair and how often we switch up our style often sparks or reignites trends. It shows up on Instagram, moodboards, and eventually ends up on magazine spreads.
And while salons and barbershops often function as the epicenter of community, as coronavirus developments began to pour in prior to Governor Cuomo’s announcement, they were forced to become less of a warm, welcoming environment in order to create a safer one.
It required Neal Farinah, Beyoncé’s hairstylist and owner of his self-named salon in Brooklyn, NY, to be the strictest boss he’s ever been with his team. He equipped his team with masks and reiterated the importance of following salon hygiene protocol. He balanced it with levity by sharing videos of new greeting protocols (elbow taps and air fist pumps). But when it came time to officially close his salon, it was still a tough decision.
“I started crying when I had to close my salon,” Farinah shared. “It wasn't that I was closing down because I wasn't doing well as a businessperson. I had to close to protect my staff and the people who walk through my door.” Farinah told his stylists, who are independent contractors, that they could pay reduced rent for the month.
According to The Department of Labor, a record 3.3 million Americans have filed for unemployment, the highest number of initial job losses in history. While there isn’t specific data on how much Black hairstylists make annually, it’s clear that Black women are spending money on their hair. According to Nielsen, Black consumers spent a total of $473 million in a $4.2 billion hair care industry in 2017. But without that money being spent in salons, stylists and owners have had to reevaluate how they do business.
Now hairstylists and beauty content creators are focused on finding innovative virtual revenue streams in a world increasingly relying on digital forms of communication.
Emmy Award-winning hairstylist Angela Christine was working on the set of a feature film when the studio eventually made the decision to postpone production. Now, she plans to put more emphasis on creating how-to videos from home, sending product recommendations and promoting her children’s book, Hair.
“I'm still structuring what I plan on teaching based on the demand,” Christine told R29Unbothered. “I'm going to give out more free content to see where people have a desire to learn and based on that feedback, I can tailor things for people.”
“Making wigs at home to mail out or pick up is a safe option to continue to earn and help the clients still have a hairstyle,” Celestine notes. She’s started taking virtual appointments to walk women through simple styles. She’s also been testing video content on Instagram as a way to encourage women to try out new styles at home.
Stylists are also helping their clients carve out a new self-care ritual that involves tending to their hair at home.
“Our number one priority as stylists requires us to be client focused, and honestly the best thing we can do for our clients right now is to make sure they are safe,” Blake said. She’s no longer taking appointments, but is creating online courses and content for both her clients and others stylists.
Beauty influencer and photographer Alissa Ashley is being mindful of how she’s framing her content on Instagram and YouTube by using more affordable products as people are facing uncertain financial challenges. “I'm not going to sit here and use a bunch of high-end products every single video because ultimately there is no denying that times are shifting right now,” she said. “We're all in this situation together.”
Bonnti, a mobile app concierge service, allows users to book hairstylists and makeup artists to come directly to their home. They saw the impact of COVID-19 on the beauty service industry firsthand through the number of cancelled appointments on the app and concerned stylists. What Maude Okrah, Bonnti co-founder, found most troubling was a lack of relief funds for beauticians. So she and her team created one: The Beauty Relief Fund.
“I think for us, what we found more important was the industry-wide issue of professionals being out of work for weeks, if not months,” Okrah said. They created a GoFundMe that allows anyone to contribute, and are taking private donations. In addition to Bonnti’s crowdsourcing initiative, a quick search of “beauty relief funds” on GoFundMe pulls up a number of other fundraising efforts focused on helping specific salons.
Some Black women are taking this time to experiment with styles they can do at home or learn new techniques. Some women like Gia Peppers, host of VH1’s Black Girl Beauty and co-host of Black Girl Pod, are using the extra time at home to love on their natural hair.
“I got my hair shaped and styled by @octobergloryhair and I’m letting her breathe during this #quarantine,” she said on Instagram.
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Full, unwavering self love begins with loving on, respecting and valuing every single part of who I am. Every iteration, every mood, every style, every moment and every strand. 🙌🏾❤️ I Got my hair shaped and styled by @octobergloryhair and I’m letting her breathe during this #quarantine. Before all the non-essentials closed in the DMV, my sister @befiercebefab and I snuck outside for an impromptu shoot when no one else was around and we needed 20 minutes to take in the sun. 1/ #photocredit: @befiercebefab #aseriesofselflove
Besidone Amoruwa, who is the strategic partnerships manager for Beauty, Lifestyle and Gaming at Instagram, is known for walking into the office with a Naomi Campbell-length wig one day, and a Kerry Washington bob the next. She’s taking this time in stride and choosing to be optimistic.
“It's impacted me in the sense that right now, I’m closer connected to my hair because I am the only one that can do it. I’m putting my hands through my hair to mold it into who I want it to look like today. Especially as we're inside, I'm more faced with myself. Taking care of your hair is taking care of yourself.”
Although Black hairstylists are figuring out how to be creative and make ends meet at this time, nothing can replace the fulfillment of having clients back in their chairs. They’re eager to get back to it. Farinah has faith the Black community will come together to support each other, as it so often has in the past.
“I can only hope the best for me, other hair salons, hairstylists and all the people who are in the industry,” said Neal. “I can only hope we can regroup and hopefully survive it together.”