I hate doing my own hair. Always have.
It’s thick and long and it sure is pretty when it’s all done up, but darn if I want to do it. I don’t want to twist it. I don’t want to braid it. I don’t want to blow dry it straight or flat iron it. But I can’t go the easy and cheapest way out (cutting it) because of a pact I made with myself six years ago that I wouldn’t cut my hair again. I did this because, every time I cut it, I regret it. Anytime I drastically change my hair, I want it back to how it used to be. So I decided to stop changing it so flippantly.
Therefore, I was left with a choice – lose four hours every weekend doing my own hair or pay a stylist to do it every two-to-three weeks.
I decided to eat out less and go with the stylist.
But I, and my hair, haven’t always lived in places where you have a great selection in stylists. In fact, I started out reporting in a lot of desert towns with small minority populations like Midland, TX and Bakersfield, Calif. Usually there were two licensed black hair salons and both treated you with the kind of disdain you get in towns where there’s no competition.
Of COURSE they weren’t good with your hair, were rude, late, overbooked, and charged insane prices for the most basic styles and treatments … but where else are you going to go?
But leave it to me, my hair and my money — I was willing to take it someplace else, any place else, really, than endure women who would slather perm on my head, but then argue with me over whether it was burning my scalp or not.
And sometimes that meant not going to an African-American stylist.
If you have hair like mine, you’re usually not up for a stylist “practicing” on it, but necessity is the mother of invention. I couldn’t go back to Hair Hell #1 and #2, so I had to make it work with anyone who seemed to have the slightest clue how to help me maintain my look without rendering me bald.
The first non-African-American stylist I ever went to was white. I knew him well, as I’d written about him a few times for the local paper and he’d styled the hair of models for a few fashion photo shoots I’d orchestrated. After telling them of the time a local stylist tried to give me third-degree chemical burns out of pure laziness and spite, they offered to take a stab at giving me a blowout for the low, low price of “free” since they were playing Science Fair with my head.
But it wasn’t all crazy. They had an “idea” of how to do black hair even though they’d had little experience with it. Back in 2004, were the first people to ever suggest using a round, stiff brush and a hand-held dryer to get my hair dry. Up to that point, most black stylists had preferred hand-held dryers with comb attachments. No one ever dared to put a roller set on me and have me sit under a dryer because no one had that kind of time to waste, including me. My hair is particularly sponge-like and holds onto water like a river dam.
The brush was a good start, especially since my hair at the time was completely untreated, and I’d given up the perm for good. But once they got me dry, the husband and wife team were at a loss. Typically with their curly headed white clients, their little flat irons were enough. Yet here I was, sitting in that chair for hours as they tried to figure out how to straighten my hair even though they didn’t have any kind of product that worked for my hair that could help their pathetic flat iron out. Straightening took hours of negotiating, starting and stopping, and theorizing. Eventually it happened … of sorts, although I found myself “finishing” my look with my own giant, double hot ceramic curling iron at home afterwards.
Even though husband and wife had no clue really of what they were doing, I went back to them a few more times for hair coloring and a blowout. I never even entertained letting them assist me in a natural hair do, even though they offered. I was desperate – not crazy.
Years later, when I returned to St. Louis for a bit, I found myself returning to some African-American hairstylists of my youth. Big mistake. Mostly because the women who did my hair as a teen were the ones who gave me my first perms and had kind of “stacks of 10,000-year-old Ebonys and Jets” shops where you sit in the salons for six hours on Saturdays as they “work you in” even when you made an appointment. These were women who hadn’t educated themselves about any product or hair style in over a decade. They pretty much just begged me to let them put a perm in my hair. And in some respect, they were actually worse than the clueless, but well-meaning white couple, because they KNEW black hair and they KNEW something was wrong with mine because it just wouldn’t do right. Obviously, my hair was at fault, not the fact that most of them hadn’t looked at a natural curl pattern since their virgin hair grew out of their scalps as little kids. They didn’t know how to blow out, press, or flat iron hair because they didn’t do it or in some cases had never done it. They did perms.
The last one just had this pleading look on her face of “What do you want from me?” I pitied her as she spent six hours of grueling misery on my hair. Sure it got “done,” but it was greasy enough to fry eggs.
I never went back.
I also tried a gaggle of natural hair care twist n’ locs spots around St. Louis to mixed results. They’d do my hair, but would only want to twist it in the easiest style possible. Never had I had so many offers of dookie braids and cornrows. And this represents the biggest issue I’ve run into repeatedly with any stylist – no matter their race. They almost never want to do my hair.
It’s unnaturally thick in a way where if you know what you’re doing you hate it because you know it’s going to take a lot of work, and even if you’re good, some two-to-three hours to finish. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, you just hate it because it mocks your years of training and salon ownership. “Oh, you thought you knew how to braid, straighten, or twist hair? Hardeharhar. WELCOME TO THE THUNDERDOME!”
The same response I got from naturalistas in St. Louis, I got from Dominicans in New York and Ethiopians in Washington, D.C. “You have too much hair.” Most almost always wanted to charge as if my torso had sprouted a second or third head. I understood their pain (again, even I do not like to do my own hair), but I felt like, “Hey. I’m paying you. I always tip well and call a week ahead or more to make appointments,” channeling my miserable childhood stylist, I thought, “What do you want from me?”
The Dominican stylist in Brooklyn I went to was the fastest, but also, the most brutal. The heat from the blow dryers felt terrible. I worried I’d lost half of the hair on my head (not that you could notice) from how fast and furious the drying came. She also unceremoniously gave me a “layered” look I didn’t want that was patently ridiculous looking. There was no flare in her work but she had this look of “Well, hey, I got it straight for $40. Beat that.”
Yet, despite that price being UNBEATABLE, I didn’t think even my mutant hair could stand so much heat.
The Ethiopian stylist in D.C. I went to had begged to do my hair for the longest, not realizing what he was asking until I emerged from the miserable shampoo bowl. They’d run out of hot water and I was arguing with the shampoo girl who didn’t even try to make her fingers reach my scalp or the back of my neck. She was disinterested, like so many others who just didn’t want to deal with the mutant afro growing in the shampoo bowl with every drop of moisture. Even though he’d tackled countless Ethiopian girls with longer, wilder hair, their hair was always thinner, as he’d incorrectly assumed mine would be. He did it, but it took four hours.
In the end, I was right back where I started, with an African-American stylist, a guy this time, who was wonderful with my hair. It always looked great. There was only one real problem – his absolute hatred of doing it. Again, it made me feel ashamed for dumping my hair struggles onto someone else … even though it was his job. Even though I was paying him, plus a $20 tip for being so nice, always on time, never over-charging, and having shampoo people who understood my head had a back part to it.
But there was his face every time he saw me walk in –
“Girl, I had to catch my breath as soon as I saw you. I thought I was going to faint. I forgot I had to do your hair today.”
Then he’d joke about needing a power bar.
Usually by the time he was finished and saw the end result of his labor, he loved my hair, but the people who owned the salon didn’t. They were always fighting with him to charge me more because it took two-to-three hours to do my hair from shampoo time to finish, instead of the hour-to-hour-and-a-half they preferred.
I’d all but given up on finding a stylist who actually liked my hair until I found two African-American women — one in St. Louis and one in Washington, D.C. — who actually wanted to do my hair, seeing it as some sort of test of their own skill and talents. It wasn’t some thick nightmare where stylists went to die, but a snowy, curly Mt. Kilimanjaro they wished to climb and plant their flags.
After all, for all my hair’s brutality, there was no denying – it’s pretty when it’s finished. And there’s nothing like a walking, talking free advertisement in me, who after so many awful experiences pretty much never shuts up about the few stylists I actually like going to. My hair was a like a talking billboard that, if a hairdresser could do my hair and LOVE IT, they had to be good since even I can’t be bothered with my own scalp anymore. Both stylists are good in that they don’t make me feel bad. They don’t make me feel like I ruined their day by simply showing up at the salon. They like natural hair and all the different styles you can do with it. And they like talking about hair, as they’re always educating themselves and growing.
It was a long, painful, confusing slog, but at least my hair looks nice. Thanks to Gwen Fields at Halcyon Salon in D.C. and Debra Small at New York New York Hair Design in St. Louis, it was worth it.