You’re reading Gen:Blxck, a series exploring Black culture, history, family and identity through the generations.
My earliest memories of having my hair done are all at home. My mother would braid mine and my sister’s hair before it got too thick for her to manage. Then I met my first hairdresser, a family friend of a friend, called Akosi. I’d travel to her house with my mum and spend the next few hours sitting in between her legs, getting curly box braids (my absolute go-to back then).
But in recent years, there’s been a surge of young Black women getting into the hair industry and using Instagram as a way to find clients. They’re labelled IG hairdressers by the community, and fewer women my age are now going to traditional Black hair salons where ‘Aunties’ typically styled your hair.
Aunties once ruled the Black hair landscape here – we grew up with them and we didn’t have anyone else to compare them to. But now there is a growing ‘Aunties versus IG hairdressers’ debate in the community. And of course there are pros and cons to each.
If you’re looking for a cheap price point, you’d probably want to get your hair done by an auntie. The trouble is, you’re more likely to be waiting a few hours to get your hair finished in the salon as they switch – and chat – between clients.
IG hairdressers, on the other hand, are easier to find and book online and more likely to be able to do a hairstyle they haven’t done before, but they also tend to charge more and often get called out for unprofessional behaviour like cancelling last minute.
Whoever we trust with our hair, the styles Black women are favouring are changing – and fast. For centuries our hair has been policed by whiteness, but now, Black women are finding a new sense of pride. We’re finding our unique styles, whether that’s braving the big chop or saying ‘no’ to wigs altogether.
It’s been a long journey to get here and even the biggest fans of IG hairdressers will acknowledge we’ve got decades of salon owners to thank for it.
“In the 1960s, Black hair was often either stylishly styled in a natural African look or chemically treated to give it a washed-out colour,” co-founder and CEO of Curl Centric, Akirashanti Byrd tells HuffPost UK,
Byrd is 45 and she’s been styling Black hair for 15 years. Her customers are mainly Black women who want to keep their hair in its natural state.
“Often, these women are not familiar with the various styling techniques and products available to them, so I spend a lot of time educating them on the available options,” Byrd says. She has seen many trends in her time as a hairdresser. “By the 1980s, Black women were experimenting with naturally kinky curls and Afros, greatly expanding their style options,” she says.
“In the 1990s, we saw celebrities like Viola Davis rocking bold Black hairstyles that stood out from all other styles. This decade also saw the introduction of blonde hair dye, which helped make light-skinned people’s dark locks more visible. Since then, many variations of Black hairstyles have continued to be popular today, including relaxed curls, cornrows, dreadlocks and afro.”
The ways you can treat and style Black hair have also expanded in this time – especially with the help of the natural hair movement.
The natural hair movement really kicked off in the 60s alongside the civil rights movement, and was spearheaded by political activist Angela Davis. Afros were worn to protest against white supremacy and champion Black liberation.
However, the early to mid 2000s saw a resurgence of this movement. More and more women in our community started to question why we relied so much on straight hair to make us feel worthy. So we put relaxers and the hot combs on pause and brought back the blue magic, afro combs and blow dryers.
Social media has played a big part in this. I learnt how to style my natural hair by watching YouTube. I watched to see how I could maintain a wash and go, slick down my 4C hair, and even attempted to learn how to cane roll (I’m still learning).
“The rise in popularity of natural hairstyles has led to an increase in demand for products and services that cater to this market and has resulted in more Black-owned businesses entering the industry,” Byrd says.
“The natural hair movement has positively influenced the Black hair industry. It has helped increase awareness of the need for products specifically designed for Black hair and has created a demand for these products. This has resulted in more companies developing Black hair care lines, helping to grow the industry.”
Brands like Ruka Hair, Cantu, Shea Moisture, KeraCare are Black girls’ go to for hair products. And women are investing their money into these brands. Black Women in the UK account for 10% of haircare spending, although they make up only 2% of the UK adult population, a survey by TreasureTress found.
She began learning when she was a teenager. “I had always done my own hair, as my mum was terrible at doing mine and my sister’s hair – she had dreadlocks for most of our childhood,” she shared. “In secondary school, I would braid friends’ hair and I learned to do braided weaves around the same time.”
Soares tells HuffPost that in her time as a hairdresser, she’s seen a surge in demand for experimental methods such as tape-ins and keratin fusion. These options weren’t accessible in the UK in the same way they were in the US due to a lack of hair suppliers offering extensions for women with Black hair.
“These have been around for many years, but have not been seen at this level in the afro/Black hair space,” she adds.
Soares agrees that social media has played its part in changing the landscape of Black hair styling. “It has also has allowed us to showcase our work globally,” she says.
She is big on educating women about how to care for their hair, running training programmes that highlight how to clean and prolong your hair extensions, for example.
“Content creators also help sell the message for us business owners, in terms of education, so we tend to work with influencers often,” she adds.
The pandemic also affected the way Black women do their hair – 64.7% said the way the did their hair changed as a result of lockdowns, according to the TreasureTress research.
More of us made the decision to transition “back to natural”, where women grow out their chemically treated hair. Additionally, they actively sought out resources to educate themselves on how to take care of their hair because they were no longer able to visit professionals due to lockdowns.
And with a younger demographic booking clients, the hair styles Black women are choosing is shifting.
The most popular hairstyles today tend to be the more natural ones, like knotless braids, free-style feed in cane rolls or locs, Marlene Gatrude Twinomugisha, a 20-year-old hairdresser from London tells me.
She started doing hair by “accident”. Similar to Soares, she didn’t like the way her mum did her hair, so took it upon herself to learn how to style it. “I then moved on to to doing hair for my cousins, then my friends and more people were asking me to do their hair at school, so I just kind of fell into it,” she says.
“My experiences getting my hair done by aunties when I was younger was me showing them a hairstyle, them saying they can do it but whenever the style was done, it didn’t look the same at all,” says Twinomugisha, who posts her styles on Instagram under the name Crowned By Her UK.
She believes younger girls have moved to sourcing stylists from Instagram because IG hairdressers are able to jump on hair trends quicker. “Aunties can’t really keep up,” she adds.
However, IG hairdressers also have their issues. Writing for Refinery29 earlier this summer, Yolanthe Fawehinmi detailed how the convoluted booking process and poor customer service is causing young women to return to their roots.
“As more and more horror stories pile in about the last-minute cancellations, excessive fees, where you’ll need to pay a deposit via a booking system to secure an appointment and can be charged for being late, wanting extra length or colour, and of recent, even parting your hair — sometimes bad customer service, young people on social media are boycotting Instagram hairstylists, particularly those on TikTok, who are going back to Britain’s African braiders,” she reported.
Sade Idem, a 25-year-old hairstylist from Kent, says younger black stylists have more of a business mindset.
“With many of us growing up in the UK, we’ve seen how much Caucasian stylists would charge for less challenging hair services, and we realise £60 for seven hours of braiding with no breaks is criminal!” she says.
Idem has a lot of respect for older stylists as they’ve paved the way for the younger ones. “However, many older stylists are focused on the final look, rather than the health of the client’s hair long term,” she comments. “Their customer service can also be affected as they’re trying to fit in as many clients as possible to make up for the low prices they charge.”
So what does the future of Black hair and hairdressing look like from here? To me, it looks like versatility, growth and experimentation. As we move towards more protective and natural styles, I see us breaking away from the idea that we have to play it safe with our hair. Let’s enjoy it, and have fun.
I hope to see more young Black girls growing in the profession, but I do believe there’s a place for aunties in the Black hairdressing arena. They worked hard to build Black spaces for women to do hair in this country and paved the way for younger Black women to learn and grow as hairdressers.
As Byrd puts it: “There’s no doubt that Black hairdressing is a growing industry with immense potential. The future looks bright for those willing to put in the hard work and dedication required to succeed.”