Black people have long respected the sacred spaces of beauty salons and barber shops as locations of empowerment and freedom. We don’t go just to get our hair “did”; we go to get our life right and to testify when it, like our hair, is perfectly laid. We trust our beautician to talk us off the ledge of a bad haircut and a bad life decision. And so a stylist’s chair is a confessional booth and psychologist’s couch rolled into one.
At least, that’s how I think most black women view beauty salons. I wouldn’t know, because I have largely avoided salons for the past seven years. This avoidance coincides with the length of time I’ve had natural hair, but it has less to do with the state of my hair than the state of my personality. I’m an up-do DIYer, a late-night two-strand twister, a woman who prefers seeing money in her account rather than on her head. I might go to a salon once or twice a year to get a trim or a press, but I haven’t been in a salon since December 2012.
And the reason? Going to a salon is…well…awkward for me, and I hate how it makes me feel. It’s strange. I love the environment and décor of beauty shops: African art on the walls, women with skin the color of almonds in diva poses, a celebration of pretty things. Fingers massaging my scalp near the nape of my neck take me to a spiritual place. Having someone else’s hands “in my head” is a luxury for which I gladly pay. And tip. But late stylists notwithstanding, the service isn’t what keeps me away.
I am an awkward black girl who doesn’t know how to talk to strangers. And because I don’t go to salons often, the women who do my hair remain just that. I have never experienced the camaraderie with a hair stylist that inspires a client to say, “Girl, let me catch you up on what’s good!” I am too reserved, purse clutched like Kevlar against the black cape draped over me.
She asks me where I want my part. I trace a line on the right side of my head and she nods. Even over the hum of the dryer and the popcorn bursts of laughter from women in stylist-client tandems, the silence blanketing the space between me and her is loud. My tongue sinks to the bottom of my mouth and drowns all the words I would say. I want to be sassy. I want to make her laugh with a bawdy tale of red dresses and heels pointed skyward.
But that’s never been me. Stylists are often fashionable and fancy and up on trendy entertainment–I am none of the above. My gossip is NPR fodder and my funny is a linguistic double entendre. I’ve never seen Real Housewives of Atlanta, I tell her when she asks, hoping for common ground. The note of disappointment in her voice is an F-flat. Oh. Fail.
I battle jealousy when I hear other women speak of their relationships with their hair dressers. They are on first name basis and bestowed with nicknames that you would reserve for girlfriends. Because they are follicle-close, following the strands of each others’ lives to the point where cutting off a stylist feels like betrayal and not business. Not me. I break up with stylists like men do women in Atlanta: no phone calls, no explanations. There are other flat irons in the fire and the market is hot.
Ultimately, I feel like I am missing out on a special part of black sisterhood. Doing hair is such an intimate act that it feels wrong to sit in that chair and feel isolated by my own doing. I listen to the chatter around me and crack a smile. I want to join the conversation. But I am the black girl who watches the double dutch ropes swinging rhythmically and, intimidated, shuffles crestfallen in the opposite direction.
So I stay away from salons, but I also stay asking, “Who’s your stylist?” in hopes that one referral will lead me to a black magic woman who works wonders on my hair…and my accursed shy tongue.
How do you feel about beauty salons and your hair stylist?