The UK regulations have been updated, but many black women have been treated too badly to trust mainstream salons, explains Natasha Mwansa
I arrive at the photographer’s studio feeling nervous and excited. Today I’ll be trying on pretty clothes for an editorial photoshoot with – most exciting of all – hair and make-up included.
But, as the hair stylist glances at my natural 4C hair, I swear I can see a bead of sweat forming on her brow. “You’re alright to take care of your own hair, aren’t you?” she finally says. I nod and smile, letting her off the hook before brushing my own hair back into a humble low bun while my non-black peers get blowouts and curls done professionally.
For me and many other black women in the UK, getting our hair done is never as easy as walking into a high street salon and hoping for the best. Our options are limited, and almost every one of us has a story of unskilled hairdressers either butchering our hair or refusing to style us altogether. This is about to change. The National Occupational Standards for hairdressing (NOS) has been updated, declaring that all hairdressers across the UK are now required to learn how to style Afro and textured hair.
About time too. It’s insulting how high street salons often balk at black hair as if the thought of tending to it were a form of hard labour they should never be subjected to. After my episode at the photoshoot, I was surprised to learn that this treatment isn’t just reserved for a non-famous like me. World famous models like Naomi Campbell, Jourdan Dunn and Leomie Anderson have all been vocal about the shoddy treatment they’ve endured at the hands of inexperienced hair stylists at fashion shows.
Most black women have a story of unskilled hairdressers butchering our hair or refusing to style us altogether
So why the change now? “The BLM movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death has definitely shaken things up,” says legendary hairstylist Charlotte Mensah who’s worked with Michaela Coel and Zadie Smith. “What started as a conversation about police brutality in the States, became a conversation about the many ways in which racism affects Black and ethnic minorities in the UK. Part of that is the microaggressions we face with our hair.”
The merging of hair types in salons could help to reduce those microaggressions. The idea of non-black clients sitting side-by-side next to black women having sew-ins or braids installed would go a long way to break down the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ black women often feel. I would love, for example, to see the day non-black people stop referring to my braids as dreadlocks – they are two very different black hairstyles.
George Northwood, hairstylist for the likes of Meghan Markle and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is on board with the NOS update. Looking back at his own training, he says, “like so many, this wasn’t something that was part of the hair education I received. Because of this, last summer I spent time on an Afro hair styling course. I felt that this really helped to diversify my skills and understand a broader spectrum of hair textures, which is so important. Even after many years in the industry, there is still so much more to be learned.”
Charlotte Mensah also welcomes the change. “For people with Afro, curly or textured hair, this is a real game changer,” she says. “The reality is, the demographics of big cities mean you’re rarely far away from an Afro hair stylist. However, there are many who live in more rural areas who don’t even have a choice of the hair salon they can go to.”
Will black people trust high street salons? Many of us have a go-to black hairdresser or independent stylist we dare not cheat on. What will it take to make the move to mainstream salons? First of all knowing that we’re welcome. Years of getting the cold shoulder has conditioned many to not even bother trying. Salons will have to make a concerted effort to market to black people directly to make us feel we can walk in without being met with cold stares.
Supporting the black community is crucial too. A hair salon which employs a good spread of diverse stylists who can cater to all hair would be preferable to a salon with majority white employees who would then potentially be taking business away from often underfunded black hair salons. As for black clientele? We’re probably not ready to part with our trusty black hair stylists yet, but it’s nice to know that in a crisis, we could walk into any hair salon and know that we’ll be given the high-quality treatment we deserve.