In 2017, Nielsen reported that black consumers spent $473 million on their hair, both on products and salon services. Yet for many with natural hair — especially those with 4C, the kinkiest of all textures — being able to simply walk into any salon and get their hair done is not only nearly impossible, but experience that can be both fear-inducing and triggering.
Despite evidence that more black people may be wearing their hair in its natural state, if decreasing sales of chemical relaxers are any indication, not all stylists (especially non-black stylists) are trained to style tight curls. This is a fact that's all too familiar for some women with 4C hair, like New York City resident Tiffany Charles, who has worn her hair natural for over four years since doing her big chop in 2014.
For that moment, Tiffany went to a salon in Manhattan that specializes in curly hair. But in June 2016, wanting to get a cut and style, she visited a different salon in Brooklyn after being referred by a friend who assured her the stylists knew how to work with 4C hair. But once Tiffany arrived, she felt a pang of discomfort after noticing there were no black stylists working.
Still, Tiffany opted to get her hair cut and styled at the salon. And while she says she had no issues with the cut itself, she was less than thrilled about the rest of the service. "[The stylist] wasn't aware that after he washed my hair, it wasn't just going to curl up like the 3A hair girls. My hair kinks up fast," she tells Bustle. "After the wash, he proceeded to put me under the dryer without detangling [my hair] or [adding] any product. He also thought that when I said 'cut and style,' it meant that I wanted to leave the salon with my hair in a 'fro, which I didn't. I wanted it blown out."
Tiffany says she not only left the salon disappointed, but with her hair "looking damaged." She's also sworn off visiting any salons. "I now just maintain my own hair and go to a family friend if I need a quick trim," she says. "That way, I can hold myself accountable for whatever happens."
Tiffany's experience is the kind of story one hopes to never have to tell after a salon visit. And, it begs the question: Why isn't every hairstylist well-versed in working with all hair textures?
According to Topher Gross, a stylist at New York City’s Seagull Salon, it's likely a result of many beauty schools centering their training on fine, straight hair, inherently excluding natural hair and kinkier textures. In his experience, "There is no focus on natural hair, other than a short section on relaxers," he says. "You [have to] go back to school or [pay to] get extra training for textured, natural, and ethnic hair. That’s a huge problem. Every stylist should know and be trained to cut, style, and/or color all textures [from the start.]"
Gross shares that when he attended cosmetology school to get his training in 2008, he never got to work on a mannequin with textured hair. "They were all blonde or brown hair with zero curls or waves," he says. And a quick search of the term "cosmetology kit unboxing" videos, which are popular on YouTube, proves he's not the only person who has had this experience. There are pages and pages of students from a variety of schools receiving multiple, nearly identical white mannequins for practice — all with fine, straight hair — even though mannequins with 4C hair certainly exist and are available.
Gross also mentions that working on textured-hair mannequins and models was not required as part of the New York State exam he took in 2008, a state where over 19 million black people reside today, as well as being home to one of the most racially diverse cities in the world: New York City. "It’s a very archaic exam with vintage roller sets and the most basic haircut," he says.
Bustle reached out to New York State's Department of Licensing for comment on official test questions and how often tests are updated, but did not hear back by the time of publishing.
Even with practice cosmetology exams, the same questions appear across each state's three-part test. And out of 150 total questions per exam, there are zero pertaining to coiled hair in its natural state, and only a few questions on relaxers. However, there is one moment where "coarse and overly curly" hair is specifically mentioned as the answer to the question: "What type of hair is MOST difficult to press?" — which, arguably, furthers the idea that kinky hair is problematic for stylists to work with.
Regarding the inclusiveness of the formal exams given to prospective cosmetology school graduates, Tela Goodwin Mange, public information officer at the Texas Department of Licensing & Regulation — the state with reportedly the largest black population in the U.S. in 2018 — tells Bustle: "Cosmetology candidates are responsible for knowing all the information in their textbooks. All written examinations are done on computer and candidates receive tests that have randomly generated questions, so not all candidates may be asked about a specific hair type."
While there don't appear to be any reports stating whether or not schools are required to include Afro hair styling in their curriculums, cosmetology students have taken to YouTube to discuss texture discrimination in classes. And others, like Melissa Taylor, owner of Beauty Lounge salon in Minneapolis, have created programs like the Texture Academy to fill the education gap by creating a 16-hour, hands-on training session for professional stylists and cosmetology students to learn more about naturally curly hair.
But working with kinky strands being excluded from beauty school curriculums is nothing new. In the late 19th century, African-American hair care innovator Marjorie Stewart Joyner — who created the permanent wave machine, a tool that could help people of all races straighten or curl their hair — was initially only trained to work with naturally straight hair, according to the Smithsonian. Like many of today's stylists, she, too, had to pay for additional training to learn about Afro-textured hair.
Still, not all non-black stylists have let the educational roadblock stop them from learning how to work with all hair types. Dayna Goldstein, a stylist at Roman K, a New York City-based salon with locations in Flatiron and Tribeca, tells Bustle that while she only worked on one mannequin with textured hair (which had been straightened) during school, she always had a desire to learn how to work with kinky hair. And she credits her Latina cosmetology school teacher for showing her how to work with natural tresses, 4C included, right off the bat.
"She was the first instructor that ever showed me how to properly shape a very curly natural haircut on a model," Goldstein recalls. "[My instructor] knew that working with textured hair was not a big portion of the cosmetology school curriculum, and since then, I had made it part of my mission to be sure I learned how to do [it]."
"There should never be any reason for us to turn down a client because of the texture of their hair or color of their skin,” she says, adding that at her current gig, and when she previously worked at the Ted Gibson salon in NYC, she would host classes for her colleagues on how to wash, blow dry and style highly textured hair. "A stylist should approach [kinky hair] differently than other textures. The specialized [formal] methods of working with different textures are lacking.”
Gross agrees, and even uses his own experience as a client for why it's so important for stylists to know how to work with all textures. "As a mixed race person, I struggled with styling my own curly hair and ended up with many terrible haircuts," he says. "I never wanted my clients to walk away feeling unhappy, unseen, or not taken care of while in my chair."
Evan Joseph, owner of his eponymous Columbus, Ohio-based salon, tells Bustle that he learned to work with curly and kinky hair on his own. "One day a curly client came into the salon and instead of saying 'No,' I said 'Yes,'" he says. Now an expert at working with even the most tightly coiled, kinky textures, Joseph prides himself on the fact that his curl-centric salon has helped to train racially diverse stylists to work with highly textured 4C coils. But he's still understanding of black people's trepidations when it comes to going to a white stylist, seeing as many outside of his practice are simply not trained to work with natural hair, as Tiffany Charles' story shows.
NYC-based French teacher Janelle Charles (no relation to Tiffany) has made it a priority to carefully vet salons and stylists before making a visit. She tells Bustle that after doing the big chop in 2017, the idea of going to a white stylist never initially crossed her mind. Rather, her first inclination was to seek out a black hairdresser who specialized in natural hair to learn more about her texture from someone who looked like her. Janelle was able to find a home at Honey Salon in Harlem in New York City, where the stylists there taught her how to care for her 4C kinks, a texture she has fallen in love with.
And now, she says she would be open to going to a non-black stylist because she's now an expert on her own texture — which helps her to feel more empowered during an appointment. "I now know what my hair needs to thrive and I can be its best advocate in different settings, whereas before I was dependent upon a stylist for guidance," she tells Bustle.
Black people of all hair textures should be afforded the luxury of getting their hair done wherever they choose, with ease. And while cosmetology schools may be lacking when it comes to educating stylists to work with kinky textures, those who are taking the initiative to be inclusive, like Gross, Joseph, and Goldstein, are all positively leading the way forward. "At Seagull, we give classes to the assistants on different hair textures," Gross adds.
Goldstein says she also offers her own in-salon classes to give associates training about kinky hair. "It’s definitely something that over time should be given more recognition and paid more attention to for all stylists out there," she says.
In fact, the stylist shares that two of her favorite clients are twin sisters, whom she actually encouraged to go natural. "They both had traumatizing experiences with breakage and bald spots from relaxing their hair for so many years," she says. "The first time I suggested they do it, they were terrified. Now, here we are, two years later, and they both still see me about every two weeks for a blow dry. They haven’t looked back and their hair is stronger, thicker, and healthier than ever."