On March 23, just after Ontario, Canada declared non-essential businesses would be closed in an attempt to slow the spread of covid-19, a 20-year-old student named Racquell Fogah tweeted her dismay: “The beauty supply store isn’t considered an essential service?????” She followed that up with another tweet: a clip of Ms. Juicy from Lifetime’s Little Women: Atlanta asking a fellow cast member, “What the hell we gon’ do now?”
Fogah’s viral tweet was made somewhat in jest. But while health is a priority over one’s hair upkeep, there’s a kernel of sincerity in her panic that speaks to the importance of black hair, which has always represented not only aesthetics, but broader cultural and emotional significance. The drive to look “groomed” is informed by both racist beauty standards and the sincere pleasures that are derived from styling and maintaining a particular hairstyle. Black hair can be political, it can be mundane, it can be glamorous, and the sheer scale of styles that can be rendered from it have resulted in a massive industry, one worth $2.5 billion by conservative estimates, including chemical relaxers, braiding services, and all the other products and professionals necessary to give black women their desired looks. Yet due to covid-19, salons have been forced to close along with local beauty supply stores, leaving black people across the country to rely on their own varied skills to maintain their hair for an indefinite timeline.
In my own mad rush to procure some basics before more strict social distancing measures were put in place in New York City, I stocked up on a massive tub of conditioner, leave-in spray, and a couple of deep conditioner packs that I knew my natural hair would desperately need in the weeks to come. As I stood in the drugstore aisle, next to the modest section quartered off for “ethnic hair,” I made a mental note to look for the portable air-drying bonnet that my mom sent to me years ago that I never got around to using; no better time than now, I figured. I wondered how many other black women, like me, were frozen in front of a colorful tower of black hair care, cursing themselves for not scheduling a last-minute appointment at the braid shop.
When people on social media discuss beauty procedures during this crisis, hair care has been written off as either frivolous (How could you possibly think about your hair in the midst of a plague?) or a time for whimsy (cut some bangs in the sink, rock a cool girl mullet, and keep it moving). But these scenarios exclude black women from the picture. This might be difficult for the messy bun brigade to understand, but for black women, neglect and a lack of maintenance can lead to breakage and hair loss. Black women maintain hair routines not only to keep their preferred styles looking fresh, but to make sure their hair doesn’t go haywire along the way. An extended period of time away from their trusted hairdressers and reduced access to their local beauty supply sets black women up for an added layer of stress during a period already marked by complete uncertainty. Black hair is a big deal, and how black women navigate the months ahead is guaranteed to be a seamless transition for some and a wild ride for others.
But over the weekend, actress Gabrielle Union-Wade made the case for covid-19 as a time of renewal. Union-Wade, who usually wears braids, posted a video of herself running her hands through her short, natural locks with the caption, “When your natural locks appreciate the lock down.” The next day, she posted a photo of herself with her baby in tow, both rocking mini afros. “Now mom & baby both rocking their natural curls,” Union-Wade wrote, with the hashtag #QuarantineNaturalHairChronicles.
“I am one of those people who doesn’t do my own hair,” said Charlene Carruthers, a writer based in Chicago. “My hairstylist, I’m faithful to her. She takes care of my hair for me.” When we spoke, Carruthers was getting ready to take out her braids and set course for an indefinite length of time without the skilled hand of her hairdresser, Brenda Johnson-Castillo. Illinois, too, has mandated that all non-essential businesses—such as salons—close up shop due to covid-19.
A few weeks ago, when the United States finally received its covid-19 wakeup call, Carruthers dropped by a beauty supply store and bought hair products for the first time in years. “I said to myself, ‘This thing might really turn left, and I might not be able to go to my hairstylist,’” she told me. “I didn’t even know what to buy.”
For Carruthers, having a dedicated hairstylist was a way to ease her busy lifestyle and support black businesses. She could either spend half the day doing her hair, or spend an hour or two at the hairdresser instead and help another black woman put food on the table.
The choice was easy, and it’s one that countless black women make every Saturday and Sunday, camped out under the dryer or waiting in a long line at the braider. Busy black women, regardless of their income, might get braids or a sew-in or an easy-to-manage style so that they don’t have to worry about their hair. But with social distancing blocking off women’s ability to get their hair done, upkeep becomes another thing to worry about. And while maintaining a so-called natural hairstyle is always an option—and might be the only option for many as covid-19 lurches on—natural styles require steady care, maintenance, and upkeep to prevent breakage, tangles, and dryness. They’re not necessarily easier to manage.
Once Ontario announced it would close non-essential businesses, Fogah made a quick and expensive beauty supply store run, stocking up on essentials like Ecostyler and Aunt Jackie’s styling products. But for those who do manage their own haircare, obtaining black hair care products could get harder. Leo Agu, a graduate student from London, told me that salon closures in the United Kingdom are of little consequence to her since she does her own hair, but not being able to hit up her local beauty supply is a loss. “I miss the flexibility of walking down to the only black hair products place in town,” said Agu. “Especially as I failed to stock up on curl and coil cream and conditioner before Boris [Johnson] closed all the shops.”
While some larger retailers have expanded their sale of black hair care supplies, the access and range of products is often limited. Black hair care is more than just shampoo, conditioner, and styling product; Walgreens, for instance, is probably not selling kanekalon, the synthetic hair used for box braids, anytime soon. Purchasing it on the internet is not always accessible, either, thanks to premium prices, shipping, and delivery times, which may only get worse as the pandemic goes on.
But access to product doesn’t mean much if you don’t really know what to do with it. And the diaspora knows there’s a stigma against black women who can’t—or tend not to—manage to maintain their own hair with ease. I’ve noticed that those who don’t have the dexterity to produce even the sloppiest of twists, and those who fail to wear a silk bonnet at night (guilty) are derided as negligent at best, slovenly at worst; women who have willfully lost an innate skill passed down from mother to daughter. The image of matriarchs lovingly rubbing their children’s scalps with oil and scorching the napes of necks with hot combs warmed on stove burners is romanticized as some universal black coming of age. The reality is more of a patchwork, with some relying on generational wisdom and years of practice and others relying on little more than a flat iron, a silk pillowcase, and a prayer. There are black women who are feeling lost, and they don’t want to feel attacked for not knowing what to do.
Lindsay Buchanan, a friend of mine who practices law in Washington, D.C., told me she goes to the salon once a month and gets her hair relaxed every three to four months. She intended to get her hair relaxed next week. Obviously, that’s no longer in the cards. While working from home, Buchanan has kept her hair in low buns during the day and wrapped her hair in scarves to look presentable during virtual happy hours at night. But the pressure to develop a routine with her hair as her natural roots grow out is mounting.
“Ever since college when I saw that my friends had these very involved, intense home routines: ‘Then I do this, then I plait my hair, then I put this conditioner in, and I no-poo [no-shampoo], I do that, and I do this’ and I always kind of felt like, well, I don’t have a routine that I do every Sunday at 12 sharp,” Buchanan said. “It made me feel a little bit guilty that maybe I wasn’t being a good black woman for not having a routine like that.”
Her concern has some precedent: When natural hair was having a comeback in the late aughts and early ‘10s, there was a heavy emphasis on intricate routines practiced by bloggers like Naturally Curly and vloggers like Naptural85 (who, today, boasts 1.5 million YouTube subscribers). Their content made taking the step into natural hair exciting and helped give women an alternative to heat-heavy routines and drying sulfate-laden treatments that did more harm to black hair than good. But this also spawned a trend of other naturals policing others. Valuing length and loose curls, they proselytized against the ills of shampoo; sang the praises of homemade concoctions using apple cider vinegar, mayonnaise, and jojoba oil; and made taking care of one’s natural locks with obsessive detail a borderline moral imperative. “I think everyone’s trying to turn this period into a life boot camp,” Buchanan said. “I’ve put this subconscious pressure to make sure my hair is in check.”
Maybe it’s not boot camp, but Carruthers’s hairstylist, Brenda Johnson-Castillo, is urging black women who rely on hairdressers to use this time away from the salon to get acquainted with their hair. And she insists that it can be done without the crazy DIY gatekeeping.
“We need to start educating our clients on being able to do their own hair, because I have a lot of clients who don’t know how to twist,” Johnson-Castillo said. “And I’m like, that’s the basics. That’s the 101 of natural hair. I have clients who literally do not touch their hair until they’re sitting in my chair.”
Johnson-Castillo said that now is the time to deep condition and try out protective styles, low maintenance dos like braids and buns that keep the ends of one’s hair safely tucked away to avoid breakage and retain moisture. She’s considering offering courses online with helpful tutorials for black women left adrift, and to help make ends meet.
“Everyone works paycheck to paycheck, but as a hairstylist, I work from one head to the other,” Johnson-Castillo said. “So I know on the weekend I can pay this bill, this bill, and this bill because I have this amount of people. But now that I have no people, those bills aren’t getting paid.”
Still she knows she isn’t the hardest hit in her field. Her husband is still employed, they’re still receiving income, so far she hasn’t had to take housecalls, though her clients have asked. Many of her peers aren’t as lucky. They’re the ones who are more likely to take housecalls and risk contracting covid-19 to assure that their bills get paid.
“I have a braider that does house calls and she just posted something about scheduling appointments yesterday,” says Bri Malandro, a Texas-based pop-culture archivist. She wants to get box braids when the weather heats up, but in the meantime, Malandro isn’t particularly concerned about her hair: She’s wearing a braid down and rotating between wigs for the time being. She’s more concerned about her nails and eyebrows.
“Going to the salon is like a respite for a lot of us,” Carruthers told me. “And we don’t have that respite and that time to just talk to someone else. Our hairstylists for many of us are like our counselors. So missing out on that opportunity to have a conversation with someone who knows you, who sees you regularly, is real.”
And it’s that arena—whether seen as a haven or necessary nuisance—that will be lost in the months ahead, and one that cannot be replicated with a Zoom call or a low-quality YouTube tutorial from 2010 on how to do perfect two-strand twists. The months ahead will force black women to fend for themselves for the first time in years or continue as they always have, just with the limited ease of access to the local beauty supply or their annual summer Senegalese twists.
Maybe the easiest solution is what California-based author Rebekah Witherspoon did: Getting a big chop before lockdown. Knowing that she wouldn’t see her barber for a while, Witherspoon shaved her head to start fresh and avoid uneven growth. It’s true: the easiest way to manage one’s hair is to have little to no hair to worry about in the first place. But it’s more likely that black women will try to manage as best they can without venturing into extremes, until extremes are the only feasible option left.
As for Fogah, whose well-timed, wildly relatable tweet is still racking up likes: she bought the weave of her dreams—a “28-inch body wave Peruvian”—just before covid-19 panic really set in. But it’s a cold comfort, and disappointment mounts: with spring and increasingly summer looking like it might very well be canceled, she’s left stunting her waist-length hair for the ‘gram and the ‘gram only.
Whether in the form of a laid Peruvian weave or retwisted dreadlocks, it’s that urge to let the world see us at our most confident selves—something black people have been socialized to fight for, to claim space to—that will be another victim of this pandemic.