No Beauty Supply & No Salon: 4 Black Women on Haircare in Quarantine
04.21.20

I’ve changed my hair every week since quarantine began. I tried mini twists, a blow-out, long marley twists, short marley twists. I haven’t been this cavalier with my hair since 2010, when I dyed it purple and cut diagonal “side bangs” on the same day. Granted, I was listening to a lot of teenaged Demi Lovato that year—but now, one month into quarantine and hopscotching between hair styles, I feel a real kinship to my 15-year-old self.

I know I’m lucky. My mother taught my sisters and me the holy trinity of black hair styling: flat twisting, cornrowing, and adding hair. I know, though, that black women who don’t do their own hair now may find themselves under unique strain. Salons are closed, as are most beauty supply stores, so we’re relegated to searching the “ethnic hair” section of the grocery store for products we know they won’t have. Depending on where you were with your hair journey when the outside world shut down, this quarantine may find you feeling a little unsure. I know I feel that way, even with everything I’ve learned and a doomsday-level product inventory in my house. And even though I have the skills and the products, I’ve found that self-isolating has me questioning aspects of my haircare I’ve never stopped to scrutinize: Just because I can put my hair in marley twists for the 4th time, does that mean I should?

The braid train. From left to right: Me (Mikaela); my oldest sister, Riana; sister, Olivia; and my mom, Marla.

With nowhere to go and less exposure to cold, rain, and humidity, I can’t exactly call this weekly shapeshift “necessary.” And I can’t tell if it’s about finding self-expression in isolation—or if the remnant of my adolescent self, tucked deep down, still isn’t entirely comfortable with presenting herself with hair exactly the way it grows from her head.

I sat down with my two sisters, Riana and Olivia, and my cousin Ellicia (Leshe for short) to talk through how the quarantine has affected our thoughts about our hair—including how much we miss the beauty supply, our top YouTube recs, and some advice for any of our colleagues tempted to compliment our “haircuts.” What follows below are our unique experiences—and as we know, we black women are not monolithic—so please share your thoughts in the comments.


Mikaela: So: Quarantine happened—and everything black women needed shut down.

Ellicia: [Laughs]

Mikaela: So the question is: How are we handling our hair in quarantine?

Riana: I FaceTime you every day, and your hair is different every day. And yesterday you made me think that I should take my twists down maybe and wash my hair.

Mikaela: I guess that’s a reflection of how my quarantine is going. I’ve been changing my hair every single week—if not every few days.

Riana: That’s a lot of work.

Olivia: Almost everybody I’ve talked to either has mini twists, Senegalese twists, straight back braids or—just like Leshe—has on a bonnet. As soon as I knew that we weren’t going anywhere, I put braids in my hair so I don’t have to do anything with it. And that’s only because I had [hair] in my bathroom. A lot of people don’t keep hair in their bathroom.

Riana: Which is a travesty.

Mikaela: I have seen so many mini twists, including on myself. I feel like one Instagram hair video must have gone viral, because–boom!–every black woman has mini twists now.

My cousin, Ellicia.

Leshe: That’s what I’ve been doing, just twisting my hair. I’m the opposite of what Liv said, because I’m in the house and not going anywhere, so I’m not about to put a whole lot of effort into my hair. Usually I would have a protective style like box braids or a sew-in, faux locs, but—

Olivia: But you usually go to the salon for that, right?

Leshe: Yeah. So now, at home, I’ve already spent $50 on hair products so I can wash it and try to do something with it. Washing my hair, since it’s so thick, takes, literally, all day. I’m physically sore. My shoulders and arms hurt when I get done washing, deep conditioning, and styling. It’s a lot of work.

Mikaela: Dang, Leshe, come on now—you gotta build up them muscles! But that actually makes sense: “If you’re not going anywhere why put in the effort?” I just feel like some of these corporate-America colleagues be turning on their cameras for meetings and then you feel pressure to turn yours on too–Liv, why are you making that face?

Olivia: Because I don’t turn nothing on for nobody, okay? And I look fine, but if I don’t have my eyebrows on, you can’t see me. I’m sorry.

Mikaela: I’m curious, Leshe—would you ever try to do your own hair?

Leshe: On wash days, I’ll do mini twists or whatever. That’s the most I’m going to do, though, because I can’t cornrow, I can’t do flat twists, I can’t do any of that stuff. All the stuff you all can do, I can’t, so….

Olivia: And even if you could do it, the beauty supply stores are closed. You can’t get hair.

Riana: I don’t think I’ve been in a beauty supply store since February.

Mikaela: It’s sad.

Riana: I know. The last time I was in there, I didn’t know what I wanted, so I called Olivia, because at that point I had already been in there for 30 minutes. I was like, “Do I want to braid my hair?” No, because that would take too long. “Do I want a wig?” No, I’ve been doing a lot of outside field work for my job which means plants, and bugs, and animals, and I don’t want a wig on when I’m out collecting brambles. [Mikaela note: Riana is a Lab Specialist at the Charlotte Discovery Center.]

Mikaela: I’m always scared that a spider’s going to lay eggs under my wig. [Hello, Mikaela note again: This fear has no merit. I had a bad dream once….]

Everyone:

Leshe: I blame my not being able to do hair on growing up with boys. I have a sister, but we’re 14 and a half years apart. I didn’t have a sister to play dolls with or to practice doing hair with.

Mikaela: I didn’t think about that. I bet the salon was a special thing you got to do because it was like, “Okay, Leshe, you’re the only girl!”

Leshe: Right.

Mikaela: You got to go to the salon so much! I was jealous—your hair was always laid.

My middle sister, Olivia.

Olivia: And ours was looking…raggedy.

Mikaela: Leshe, have you always had the same hairdresser?

Leshe: Yeah. When I had a relaxer, I pretty much went to her from like middle school up until I went to college. With the braids and stuff, I have a friend—she’s a licensed cosmetologist. She’ll do my sew-ins. Sometimes I might go to her to just do mini-twists on my hair because I never get mine neat enough. She’ll flat iron my hair and clip my ends. So I go to her for a lot. Then there’s another girl I go to for, like, crochet styles.

Mikaela: You do have those people who have just been doing it for you for so long. It’s weird. It really feels like this institution of black culture—the hair salon—is just kind of…not happening.

Riana: I just miss the camaraderie of the beauty supply. The last time I was there, there was another lady there who was going to give her daughter Lemonade braids [à la Beyoncé]. It was just nice to chat. When you go into the beauty supply, you don’t have to have it all together.

Riana: Everyone is understanding that you’re there either because you need to get your hair done, or you ran out of hair, like, midway through. There’s no judgement. I really miss that.

Olivia: Also it’s important to know the distinction between a “beauty supply” and, like, Sally’s. Sally’s are those other places where you get, like, Nexus. The beauty supply is for black women pretty much only. It’s like a depot of everything—the little gold trinkets you see in our hair, the beads, the different types of braids that we wear, the colors of braids. I just gave Mikaela some oils. Like African root or something like that.

Mikaela: And she was like, “This is really hard to get, too, so appreciate it because they just don’t sell it everywhere.”

Leshe: Right. That’s the frustrating thing. When I bought some hair products a week or so ago, I had to get stuff I’d never tried, and it’s always hit or miss. It’s like, dang, you’re spending $15-$16 on a bottle of something that might not work for your hair. But you can’t go to the beauty supply and get what you normally get. It’s been a struggle.

Mikaela: That’s what’s tough. You can go to the drugstore—that’s where everybody else is still finding what they need. I mean, I guess we can order online. It’s just weird when you’ve never had to.

Olivia: A lot of the nonessential items that you’re ordering online are being deprioritized to ship out toilet paper and stuff like that.

My oldest sister, Riana.

Riana: First off, I know that what I consider essential and what someone else considers essential are going to be very different—but there’s a disparity on where we can access our product. Someone else can get their beauty stuff from a Walmart or Target, but the Beauty World here in Charlotte, North Carolina—that’s not going to be considered essential, even if that’s the only place where I can get my shampoo.

Mikaela: Is that a point of frustration for y’all?

Olivia: That’s why I put my hair in twists, because I didn’t want to have to worry about it. And that’s why it’s important to know how to do simple, basic protective styles with your hair. It’s a good time to be able to learn what your hair likes and doesn’t like.

Leshe: Right. And that’s how I’ve looked at it too. Even with having to buy a different product than what I normally would buy. I’m like, well, maybe my hair will like this and this can be something else I can use.

Riana: And it’s a good time to practice those skills, like flat twisting or whatever.

Olivia: When we get out of quarantine, what I want everyone reading this to know–everyone who’s not black–is that when we inevitably do change our hairstyles because we are so excited about the beauty supply opening back up, you do not have to comment on them every time they change. Some of the comments that we have heard are: “Sassy!”

Mikaela: [Laughs] That’s at your job. [Mikaela note: picture an old school, big, homogenous workplace.]

Olivia: “You changed your hair, did it grow?” “Wow, that wasn’t like that last week was it?” “Did you get a haircut?” Yes, I did. The answer is always “yes” from now on. Whatever you think I did, that’s what happened.

Mikaela: Right. That’s good.

Riana: I’m really missing my curls, and the fact that your hair is out, Kaela, makes me kind of want to take mine down.

Mikaela: Are you jelly? [Laughs] She’s jellllyyyy.

Riana: You know how when you take your hair down and then you stick your head under the faucet when you’re taking a shower—obviously you shouldn’t do that all of the time. But being able to do that and feeling the water on your head—and feeling your curls all bounce up—is nice.

Leshe: It is nice.

Mikaela: I love when you first put the conditioner in, and it gets all springy. It’s just very tactile and calming.

Riana: I’m telling you right now, if I take these [marley twists] down, I will not have the strength to make myself put them all back in.

Mikaela: I almost wish I didn’t take mine down, because I’m like, there’s no way I’m going to just sit and part my hair by myself. If any of you were here, you could help me part my hair.

Riana: Ask dad.

Mikaela: He’d be like, “You want me to do what?”

Olivia: [Impersonating a deep male voice] “No, no, no, no, I’m not doing that.”

Leshe: [Laughs] Don’t do Uncle Mark like that.

Riana: He really likes our hair, so he might actually do it.

Mikaela: He’d be mad that I was changing it. He says I look like Angela Davis when my hair is normal. The second I change it, he goes, “Was something wrong with your hair?”

Riana: Anytime our dad compliments our hair, it’s, like, that’s how it has to stay forever.

Mikaela: He gets mad we change it.

Leshe: Really?

Olivia: It’s not that kind of mad. He just jokes. He’s like, “Why are you changing your hair so much?”

Mikaela: Do you guys feel like all these restrictions—not being able to go to the salon or the beauty supply—will end up making us feel less like ourselves? I know there are girls out there who get a sense of confidence, a sense of themselves, from being able to change their hair frequently. Or do you feel like it’s going to be a healthy thing for us? I don’t know if that question makes sense because I don’t know that it’s unhealthy that black women change their hair a lot.

Leshe: I feel like it’s a little bit of both. I think it will be healthy to have to do your hair because you’re going to have to really learn it and know it and nurture it. But at the same time, it’s kind of burdensome. It’s time consuming. And I’m not just at home not doing anything—since [law school] classes are online now, we are five times busier.

Mikaela: Maybe it will be good for us. We are just going to be seeing ourselves—how we came out the womb.

Riana: I think we will see people get more creative. Trying new styles that maybe you liked on someone else that you didn’t think would work in your professional environment.

Mikaela: I like that, Ri.

The last time my hair saw a salon, after five years of going without a visit. Riana sits in the background.

Riana: If you wanted to have your whole head in Bantu knots, you can try that in the comfort of your own home. And you don’t have to turn that Zoom camera on if you don’t want to!

Mikaela: I agree. I never would’ve worn mini twists before quarantine, because, listen, I have my father’s head. It’s big. Every time I say that, people are like “No, no, no!” I’m just speaking facts. Britney Spears has a big head too, it’s fine. But I didn’t have the confidence to try them until quarantine, and when I did it, I felt like Lauryn Hill. I found a new aspect of myself, which was comfortable being more directly opposite to European standards of beauty—not needing to be even slightly adjacent to it. It’s the first time I’ve experienced that. I hope that for us black ladies, what you said, Ri, a lot of creativity.

Olivia: Yeah. This is a good time for YouTubers to…

Mikaela: Hop on it!

Olivia: Capitalize.

Mikaela: Yeah. Okay, I have a silly question. What do you think is the black woman equivalent of cutting bangs while in quarantine? You know, like—

Olivia: The big chop!

Mikaela: You know what made me think of it? Because as I have been sitting here at home, I’ve been, like, “Should I cut my hair off”?

Riana: Really? As someone who has done that twice, don’t ask my opinion because it’s always “Hair grows back.”

Leshe: I’ve big-chopped. It definitely grows back.

Mikaela: Anything else? Are there any YouTubers that you guys watch like?

Olivia: Don’t touch my hair!

Mikaela: Is that what the Youtube is called?

Olivia: No—you said, “Anything else?” Just don’t touch my hair. Social distance from my hair.

Mikaela: Yeah. Don’t touch people’s hair. It’s just not necessary [laughs]. Do you guys have any quarantine hair-care tips for girls who have never really spent a lot of time in their own hair?

Riana: I would say to give your hair grace and freedom to kind of do what it’s going to do.

Leshe: And learn to love your hair. I know so many black women who either keep braids or sew-ins or whatever because they don’t like their natural hair. Saying, “Well, it just won’t grow.” Right now is the perfect time to actually learn to love it.

Left to right: Riana; me; my mom, Marla; and Olivia.

Mikaela: Also, you need as many visuals as you can get [to see] that your hair is beautiful—your hair, the way it grew out of you the day you were born. If you’re not getting that, change the way your feed looks. I didn’t really appreciate my 4C hair until I started following beauty gurus with the same hair type. They inspired me.

Olivia: There’s somebody I want to shout out. It’s the lady who does Issa Rae‘s hair—Felicia Leatherwood. I feel like she’s the first celebrity we’ve seen always having natural hair styles, and I really appreciate it.

Leshe: One YouTuber is Faye In The City. She’s always making videos reviewing products. Another one is NappyFU TV. She has 4C hair—I watch her stuff a lot because we have the same type of hair.

Mikaela: So—use YouTube to learn your hair. And if you don’t have a lot of hair products at home, what are a few basic drugstore products that will go a long way? I think: a rat tail comb, deep conditioner, a spray bottle

Olivia: An oil to seal.

Leshe: If you don’t have a satin bonnet, a satin pillowcase. Because cotton dries out your hair.

Mikaela: Right. And we don’t have our salons and our hairstylists to fix the damage we’re doing on our hair.

Mikaela: Which means you have to take care of it.

Riana: Yep.

Mikaela: This is your time to shine girl, you can do it.

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