In black America, there’s a mythology surrounding the black beauty shop—I would even argue that the black beauty shop is the place where #BlackGirlMagic actually began. The moment you sit in the chair and the stylist wraps the cape around you is the moment you begin to be magically transformed.
But the mythology—and reality—of black beauty shops isn’t just about the stylists; it’s the culture, the rhythm. It’s the lady up the street who takes lunch and dinner soul food orders and the brotha with bootleg movies stopping through on a Saturday morning; the gospel music in some spots and the hip-hop or trap music in others. It’s generations of women from one family either working in the shop or getting their hair done in that same shop. For many black women, the shop is a second home where we create family ties through nurturing our hair.
When I saw Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair, I was surprised to learn that black hair care is a multibillion-dollar business. Most of us don’t think about those numbers; what’s always been most important to me—as I’m sure it is for other folks—is to find a shop that aesthetically makes me feel comfortable and at home. I want to be in a place where the business practices are exceptional and the stylist cares about my hair. But for me, the black beauty shop experience is also complicated by my identities as a lesbian, butch woman and a black/biracial person.
I grew up in the black church—which meant long services, skeevy deacons, wilding-out preachers’ kids (PKs) and older women who absolutely ran the church, regardless of the pastor. But one of the things I remember most from my religious education is that a woman’s hair is her “crowning glory,” which meant you had to be very cautious about how you cut or styled your hair.
As a kid, I had thick, curly locks that at one point extended down to my butt. People gushed over my hair, but quite frankly, I hated it. I never quite understood what to do with it, and it never held a relaxer like my friends’ hair did.
As I got older, I felt even more alienated from black beauty shops because of my own relationship with race. I was adopted into a black family, so I had a clear understanding of my blackness from a very young age. But it wasn’t until I was older that I began to explore the nuances of being light-skinned, black and also biracial. The push and pull of being accepted by black folk who weren’t sure whether I was “black enough” felt constant. And that push and pull extended to the relationship I had with my hair, and my identity as a butch woman.
For me, long hair was not part of my butch identity. It indicated a femininity that felt uncomfortable, and I needed a stylist and salon that understood and respected that. The choice to cut my hair was the most liberating feeling I’d ever experienced, aside from coming out to the world and myself. But it took a long time for me to find the right person and the right shop.
I’ve been in hair salons with a heavy evangelical Christian energy, where people consider Harry Potter “black magic” and implore folks to beware of the churches with rainbow flags, because that’s where “those people” go to church.
I’ve been in salons where the stylist criticized my hair just for being my hair. I’ve been in salons where I was simply a number in a chair. And, of course, we’ve all had a salon experience where your appointment is at 9 a.m. and you don’t get out of the chair until 5 p.m.
At a certain point, I knew I needed a place with a mixture of great energy, client-centered service and stylists who wanted me to love my hair as much as they loved doing hair.
I was lucky to find Consciously Beautiful salon in St. Paul, Minn., through a friend who wears her hair natural in intricate braided styles. My relationship with stylist and owner Marla Smith is intense and intimate; she knows me almost as well as my partner of 18 years.
She was the first stylist to tell me that my hair has an actual identity (spiral corkscrew 3a), and the only stylist to identify my partner’s formerly inflamed scalp as a sign of lactose intolerance and recommend that she lay off dairy for a while. Recently, she recommended that I use a little coconut oil before adding product so that my hair doesn’t dry out in the harsh Minnesota winter.
Marla says she decided to go into hair care because she wanted to do something she could be passionate about. And though she loves black women’s hair, her clientele is diverse and spans different types of identities and people. And most importantly, her spot is a place that has great healing energy. Every month, I leave her spot relaxed, rejuvenated and filled with joy.
I know there are women who work in barbershops, and butch lesbians and straight women alike who get their hair cut in barbershops, but my personal politic is that I don’t belong in black barbershops. There are so few places where black men are able to be vulnerable with one another that it just doesn’t feel right for me to be there.
But I’ve also had plenty of moments where I felt out of place in black beauty shops. I’ve often felt like I was eavesdropping on black women’s vulnerability in a space where femme black women have felt their safest to talk about their partners, their children, their relationships with their mothers and other women in their lives, and maybe—at their most raucous—whether they should be the first one to text their new love back after a night of getting their backs blown out.
My place in black beauty shops has often been fraught with deciding what part of my identity must take precedence over the other. At this point in my life, I feel lucky I no longer have to worry about that, but that’s not the case for every butch woman. Understanding our place within black and primarily femme women’s spaces can be complicated.
But I love the scents of black beauty salons and the energy of black women. We are divine, complex individuals—even in our most hood and ratchet moments—and in those spaces, we find ways to make joy and community.
Thankfully, I’ve found a space—a space where my stylist literally and figuratively weaves magic—where I don’t have to decide which of my identities gets to show up. For Marla, I am Stephanie: black/biracial, butch, lesbian, a client she respects, and whose success she roots for. And that’s pretty damned cool.