The Black Hair Industry – A 2.5 Billion Dollar Business Built on Racism and Self-Hate

Having a child, particularly a mixed child who struggles with figuring out his place in a racially charged world, has caused me to do a great deal of self-reflection. My approach to parenting has always been grounded in my belief that my job is to guide my child into becoming his best self through the example I set and the experiences we share. I have raised my son to be a critical thinker and that has required being willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations.

Recently, my son has been dealing with a lot of issues trying to assert his identity to other kids who seem to feel as if he doesn’t fit into any of their identity groups. One day he came home very frustrated that kids at school kept saying that he wasn’t black and he asked me if I had considered the ramifications of having a mixed child before having him. The answer was no I didn’t.

I’m black but my mother is Colombia, black Colombia but still Colombian. I was raised primarily by her and with a very strong sense of connection to my Hispanic culture. My son’s father is Mexican-American. He has an indigenous ancestry so he has a light brown skin-tone. However, as far as I was concerned he was also Hispanic. I never really saw him as separate and apart from me ethnically because I always focused on our cultural similarities, not our racial differences, definitely not the way I probably would have had he been white.

That being said, my sister reminded me once that I have always said that I didn’t want a child with “nappy hair.” Mind you, I come from a culture and a generation where this is how people talk. They may not be so bold to say the phrase “nappy” in public in 2019 but they are definitely saying it at home and I’ve heard many many times that I had nappy hair. It was not positive!

I think subconsciously that might have had something to do with why I fell for my son’s father. I don’t really know but it’s true that I have always wanted my kids to be lighter and have softer hair than me. Not necessarily because I associated these traits with beauty but I definitely associated them with social acceptance and an easier life. The way my son’s dad looked I’m sure filled some void in my identity that, on a subconscious level, influenced my desire to be with him.

I have had my hair processed as long as I can remember. Long before I was getting chemical straightening, I was having my hair pressed. If you’ve never had your hair pressed, you’re a lucky person. It is a very traumatic experience. You basically have someone singeing your hair (hair that’s been slathered with hair grease) into compliance with a very hot iron comb (a comb that’s steaming and smoking), and in the process, you are often suffering from getting small burns. If the comb didn’t hit your ear, the steam would definitely hit your scalp.

Last month, I was thinking about my financial goals going into 2020. I’ll be turning 45 this year and my retirement and old age savings are very much on my mind. On top of my aging, my son is going to college in 2.5 years. Believe me, when I say, ensuring my future financial security, for both of our sakes, is not something I’m taking lightly.

To create my 2020 budget, I decided to sit down and look at my entire spending for 2019. I was shocked to see that I had spent over $3000 on my hair alone. What’s sad is that number really only takes into consideration the things I could easily trace, like buying wigs and getting weaves and braids. $3000 is a lot of money ya’ll.

What’s even sadder is that I bet I probably paid much more than $3000 in year’s past because I used to live in the salon when I was younger. Extensions and braids are never less than $150 and if you want a weave, a really good weave, $600 on hair is about right.

If I were to have put aside $3000 over the last 20 years, at 6% interest, I would have about $120,000 in the bank.

According to  Schwartz, the average American spends approximately $89.95 USD on hair care products in a year. A year! How many black women do you know that have only spent $89.95 in a year on their hair? “Mintel values the black hair care industry at more than $2.5 billion, but that statistic doesn’t include products such as hair accessories, wigs or electric styling products. So, the industry is actually worth much more.” According to a recent WWD report, African American women spend about $7.5 billion per year on beauty products.

The sad thing is that black women spend so much on their hair and we aren’t even putting that money back into our community. ” Most hair care products purchased by African-Americans are imported from countries like India and China, despite the U.S. having one of the most lucrative hair care markets in the world.

Even when buying natural hair products you got companies trying to sell you miracle cream for exorbitant prices. The kinkier the hair, the more moisture it requires but does that really mean I need to spend a small fortune on cremes and other products that are meant to make me look acceptable, I mean to make my curls “more defined.” There is a reason why you rarely see ladies with very kinky hair, or as they call it these days 4B or 4C, used in natural hair product ads. They don’t have the right type of hair to sell products.

Joycelyn Mate, left, and Rachael Corson, right are the founders of hair care brand Afrocenchix.
 PHOTO: AFROCENCHIX

I’m not ignorant about the power dynamics and the history of social control associated with black hair. However, the reality is that in life we make choices that we think will give us the best outcomes. For me and for many black women, that has traditionally meant keeping our hair straight. If you’re not wearing your hair straight, then it needs to be “well kempt” and preferably you need to have “good hair.” You want to just wake up and go out with your hair the way you came into the world? No Bueno.

Today, we live in an era where natural hair is the in thing and people don’t use the phrase good hair, at least not publicly. However, we still are using a hair texture ranking system where straight hair is #1, and if you go to Youtube there are countless videos about how to make your curls look more defined or ways to “decrease shrinkage.” If you don’t know that these words I have in quotes are coded language for good hair, I’m here to clue you in. These words simply mean how to make sure your hair doesn’t look short and nappy! Having hard, nappy, hair that looks the way you came into the world is still not acceptable.

A white woman can wake up, pass a comb through her hair, and go straight to work, put her hair in a scrunchie without making sure that she’s caught every strand and no one will question it. Can a black woman do this? Noooooo. That hair better be greased up, laid, and “tamed.”

Only one of these pics brought the people’s wrath. Guess which one.

Not even our kids are safe from the scrutiny, just ask Beyonce or H&M. I mean how dare they use a little black girl with unkempt hair in an ad. In her book, “Becoming,” Michelle Obama talks about how many Saturday afternoons she gave up as a child at the beauty salon while her white friends were out having fun. How many black women do you know that skip workouts, or refuse to go swimming, or will not go out if it’s raining because they don’t want to sweat out their hair or get it wet? How many of us are obese and choosing to keep our hair straight over getting our bodies in shape? Somethings gotta give!

Thinking about all of this brought me to a revelation. I don’t even know what my natural hair can do. I don’t even remember what it feels like. Even when I have ever had it supposedly natural, I’ve always used texturizers. I have to admit that I have never been 100% comfortable with my natural hair and it’s true that I did not want my child to have “hard hair.” I have been suffering from a form of self-hate that had been so deeply ingrained and normalized that I didn’t even realize it.

My mother’s hair is very soft and wavy and as a child I was constantly reminded that I should have come out with “better hair.” That message stuck! Even when I grew up and wanted to embrace my natural hair, deep down I couldn’t completely.

Me in 2017 at hotel in Amsterdam. I celebrated quitting my office job by chopping off my hair. My hair is texturized.

Even when we don’t have money for food, we feel pressure to spend our last dime on maintaining an appearance that will give us the love and respect that is far too often denied to us. You only need to spend one day in the food stamp office to see for yourself what I’m saying. Those ladies are dirt poor but that hair is done. Better yet, count how many beauty supply stores are in the hood preying on our self-loathing with products that are actually often filled with toxic substances.

Toxic ingredients such as lye (found in relaxers) and formaldehyde (found in keratin straightening treatments and Brazilian blowouts) are still commonly used in black hair salons. Largely toothless federal regulation has made it easy for the cosmetics industry to get away with using highly toxic ingredients.

Sierra Club

I know I need to make changes, for my sense of self-worth, for my financial health, and because I am a mother (and an Auntie) who wants to set a better example. I want my son to know that you can be proud of who you are, all that you are, and have a healthy and happy life. I don’t want him to grow up feeling that he can’t be proud of half of what he is because his mother isn’t proud.

People say that it’s only hair, I’ve even said it’s only hair several times, but we all know that for black women it’s not only hair. The way I’m treated when my hair is long and straight versus the way I’m treated when it’s short and kinky is night and day and it impacts every aspect of my life. When it’s long and straight, I get several beauty compliments throughout the day. When it’s short and kinky, I’m virtually ignored except by the random trash man or construction worker who wants to catcall me. I’ve been rejected by people that I loved because I chose to not wear my hair straight any more. At my last job, my boss nearly had a heart attack because she felt I wasn’t putting forth “the right image.” It’s not a game.

The research is clear than when people think you are attractive they project a whole range of positive traits onto you. Psychologists call it the “halo effect.”  They think you are prettier, smarter, even nicer, and they want to be around you. For black women, being perceived as pretty often means having straight hair. If it’s natural being perceived as pretty means having “good hair.”

Experiments have shown that we consider attractive people “as more sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, intelligent, and socially skilled” than unattractive people

There is a great deal of power and, even more so, pain associated with black hair and it’s time we stop allowing other people to reap billions of dollars off of our inability to address our generational baggage. Two of my goals for 2020 are (1) to deal with my mental health and (2) to get my financial house in order. Ironically, these two goals are intertwined. I know there are many other black women out there who are in the same boat as me. Join me and let’s break the mold together.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Incredible article, Mercedes Diane. You are truly an inspiration. Well, I can give a perspective as a Caucasian woman with curly hair. And I can agree with many of your points! Curly hair is thankfully becoming more acceptable now but it is definitely not the standard of beauty in general American culture. Think of any of the movies that involve a makeover- the curly haired girl always ends up getting her hair straightened! (Princess Diaries with Anne Hathaway is a great example. And Hermione! It’s a straight hair bias!) Like most women of any race, I have also gone to great lengths to suppress my curls. When I was in middle school, I knew two curly haired twin sisters who used to iron their hair for each other on the ironing board! I was so jealous that I did not have a twin sister. I fought back my curls for years but eventually I married my husband who is mixed and has sort of kinky hair. He taught me to use ethnic hair products and it made a big difference. How stupid of me not to think of that before! I mostly still tried to pull my hair back but now that I’m older, my face is too angular and I can’t even pull off a ponytail anymore. 😥 I just have to wear two hairstyles all the time. Hairstyle A or Hairstyle B. It’s so repetitive and there is no one in my family to direct me to a salon. But now, from reading your article, I understand that the salon route also may have drawbacks in that it can be costly and time consuming. Is it strange that I carry around a travel-sized bottle of hair product in my purse? Its as important as my wallet!! In some cultures, curly hair is considered beautiful. While living in Peru, I met another pair of sisters with wild curly hair. (Here we would call it frizzy!) They would steal my ponytail holders or playfully slap my hands so that I couldn’t pull my hair back! In 2012, my family and I went to the Philippines to visit my parents who were there for a job opportunity and it was so humid that I had no choice but to wear my hair curly. The weather was hot but there would not be any ponytails for me. Similarly, I hardly ever wear a hat in the cold. As curly haired people know, once you put on a hat, you have to commit to wearing it the rest of the night!! As a parent to kids who are mixed, I have had to sometimes learn things the hard way. You are right it is considered okay and even cute for Caucasian children to have messy hair. Once we had to go to a school play for my son who was 10 or 11. I spent so much time getting him ready that I forgot to take stock of the girls who had been in school all day. My husband was very upset with me when we got into the car and realized that their hair was disheveled. (However, the youngest (strangely) has straight hair so she can get away with more.) Some of my friends with daughters have taught me that Sunday afternoons are for braiding and doing hairstyles, which seems like a really nice weekly tradition. Many of the hairstyles really showcase the curls. Let’s hope this trend continues!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Danay Escanaverino says:

    This was an amazing piece. Thank you for the honesty.

    Liked by 1 person

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