For Many Black Women, the Salon Is the Only Therapy We Can Afford

Updated 04/28/19

“What are we doing today?” my hairdresser asked, as she did many times before over the last two years. “I don't know,” I replied, like always. “Surprise me.”

Most of the time I feel high levels of guilt for coming to my hairdresser week after week without a style in mind. I always wonder if I’m making her job more difficult. But she never chastises me for it. Perhaps she understands I am so busy juggling the pressures of career development and parenthood that days pass where I don’t have a moment to think.

Or maybe she is aware that by the time I reach her chair, I’ve had a full two weeks of work, and my creative juices have been exhausted, leaving me without the capacity to come up with any styles. Whatever it is, her actions imply she understands, and by the time I leave our biweekly appointment, I feel like I’ve just left the therapist’s office.

Natural Hair
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Heading to the hair salon gives me the only one to two hours I have to escape work and parenthood. It serves as a much-needed reset for the stresses that accompany my life as a black femme. Not only that, the physical confidence I feel afterward renews my strength to take on the world.

I’ve seen “regular” therapists before. They ask their strategic questions, doing their best to take in as much data on who you are as possible. The goals of traditional talk therapy are to discover what causes my thoughts and actions through this strange one-way communication method, but I find that the environment is so contrived, the relationship is little more than skin-deep. My town is less than 1% black, so finding a therapy with cultural competency is literally impossible. For me, at least, the relationship feels so disingenuous that it prevents any real personal growth.

The therapy that takes place during a hair appointment is very different—it’s much more personal. Both my hairdresser and I are black women in a town that lacks racial diversity—we’re both doing our best to navigate military spousehood. We understand one another. The conversations are seldom one-way.

Every piece of information I tell her about myself, she meets it with an equally personal bit of information that makes me feel more and more comfortable each time we work together. Each story I recall is met with an understanding that comes from a similar background. That’s something a therapist has never given me. There are times our relationship feels more like a friendship than one of business. She invites me to game nights and birthday celebrates, even though I’m a homebody who doesn’t attend as often as I would like.

For many black women, hair appointments give us the opportunity to discuss the things we often hide due to fear of judgment.

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My appointments are typically on the days my son has daycare, which are some of the few times I can think clearly enough to understand myself. On those days, I’m forced to pause my obsession as a workaholic and rest my eyes from many consecutive hours of staring at the computer.

At the salon, we have the chance to rejoice, discuss, and complain. I don’t have many opportunities to speak with individuals who understand the nuances of the black household or the additional challenges that come with black motherhood and black marriage. Unlike the therapists of my past, my hairdresser understands the importance of dialogue and catharsis.

My experiences are not uncommon. For many black women, hair appointments give us the opportunity to discuss the things we often hide due to fear of judgment. As a community, we lack access to the time, access, and resources required to see a mental health professional. When the world around us says black women are strong and unfeeling, our stylists offer a moment of vulnerability.

When the world around us says black women are strong and unfeeling, our stylists offer a moment of vulnerability.

Afro - Curly Hair
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Salons serve as a place of refuge in a world that negates black women’s value, and the beauty is that the limits of a salon are boundless. That is because they are nomadic alchemists—individuals who travel and create things in a majestic fashion. No physical address is required for our talented friends to grab a mix of worries, dreams, and your hair, and craft something beautiful.

For me, the hair salon exists as a place that I can find the community when I am a double minority and can go days without seeing a similar face. Hair stylists make many sacrifices that we never address. They move their schedules around to accommodate rush jobs and help us out when our needs are high and our funds are low. And they listen to us in a way we often don’t get to experience anywhere else. All of that goes without saying that a good hairstyle can make you feel like you can take on the world.

A good hairstyle can serve as a reminder that you are beautiful when the world has let you down.

When I leave the salon, it’s with a clean slate—the effects that life’s stress had on my physical appearance are washed away, their disappearance bringing on new confidence. I don’t know what I would do without the emotional and cosmetic benefits of my stylist. In a town where so few understand my intersecting identities, she’s is there. She is one of many throughout the generation who was hand-picked to change lives. The work she does requires seeing the masterpiece in each of us—even when we are at our worst.

I may not always have access to a mental health professional, but I will always need a stylist. 

The Flipside - Byrdie
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideofBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.

Next up: Read how I learned to love my natural hair in a society that likes long, straight, and blond.

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