Hair is such an important part of a Black woman’s identity. For many Black women, hair is not just hair, rather it is symbolic – a fruit of our heritage you could say, and an ode to our creativity. So everywhere we look, we see other Black women celebrating the diversity of their hair.
After all, it’s an integral feature of Black history. In early African civilisations, hairstyles could map a person’s family background, tribe and social status. The Black Panthers also used their natural hair to make a symbolic political statement that defied Eurocentric beauty standards during the Civil Rights movement.
It’s no wonder Black women spend so much time and money on their hair. In fact, there are two places you will find Black women thriving: the hair salon and in hair shops. Taking all that into consideration, why are hair shops not safe spaces for women?
You may be familiar with the incident that happened at a Peckham hair shop on 11 September, 2023. Video footage has surfaced of a woman hitting a shop owner with a shopping basket as he appeared to choke her. It is claimed that the row broke out after the woman was denied a refund for some hair items and attempted to take replacement items from the shop. She did not leave the establishment with said items, yet she appears to have been violently attacked for it.
The CCTV video footage, along with video footage from a different angle from a witness in the shop, has now been reposted and shared thousands of times. It has provoked anger among people in southeast London who objected to the way the shop owner reacted and have since been protesting outside the shop to demand it be closed down. It has also generated some serious discourse on social media around whether Black women should choose to spend their money in spaces that protect them wholeheartedly.
According to market and consumer data giant Statista, the UK’s hair care market was measured at £1.5 billion in 2022, with Black British women spending six times more than their white counterparts despite only making up around 4% of the female population. So, it could be argued that Black women have become a demographic that could easily be exploited in this arena.
Lockdown also brought with it a wave of women wanting to take ownership of their hair, which meant they needed to know how to access the right product for their specific texture and curl type.
Dominique Lescott, founder of online afro hair care marketplace Hair Popp, which boasts an array of UK Black owned brands, tell GLAMOUR: “The cheaper products that are easily available, such as £2.99 shampoos you would find at the supermarket, are not necessarily suitable for all types of hair including afro/textured hair.
“Lack of accessibility essentially means that a lot of Black women shop for repair after years of experimenting with low quality products, as opposed to just shopping for maintenance or prevention,” she continues.
That leaves Black women with one option: Afro-Caribbean hair shops that are not in fact African or Caribbean owned; neither are the hair, the products, tools and accessories African sourced.
The issue with this is that the experience of shopping at these stores is, at best, confusing as the shop keepers are often not qualified to really understand what they’re selling or the needs of their primary consumer.
At worst, this deficiency in knowledge about Black hair and an absence of duty of care or general customer service can lead to a deeply unpleasant, misogynistic, and even dangerous, shopping experience for Black women.
“The shop owner and his workers will often follow me round the store, staring as if I’m going to steal any second,” Diko Blackings, a Diversity Manager from Oxford, tells GLAMOUR. “They will peer into my bag to see if there’s anything in there. After they’ve done this they almost always come up to me and ask if they can help. I hate it. I want to browse without question and suspicion.”
This experience is one that many Black women can relate to. In fact it’s perfectly depicted on the Channel 4 TV Show Riches. In the first episode, there is a scene where a little girl is walking through a hair shop in London with her mother while being followed by the shopkeeper. “Mummy, why is he following us?” she says. The mother questions this saying: “Why are you following us? Explain to my daughter why you are following all the Black people in here?” While the shopkeeper threatens to call the police without a reasonable excuse.
The lack of expertise often forces Black women to embark on a journey of trial and error when selecting hair care products. Without proper guidance, they may purchase products that are ill-suited for their hair type, leading to disappointing results and a dissatisfied customer. This is what appears to have happened in the Peckham hair shop incident.
There have also been countless reports by the BBC, The Guardian, Sky News and The Royal Borough of Greenwich that many of these shops have been found to sell hair and skin products containing harmful ingredients (some with links to cancer) without proper labelling or warning illegally.
These are some of the many reasons why these shops, which are supposed to be a safe haven for Black beauty are actually very unsafe for Black women.
Of course you could say that Black women should stop going to these shops, and perhaps opt for their local supermarket instead. Although major retailers like Boots and Superdrug are increasingly seeing the value in stocking brands catering to Black hair, Black women often still struggle to find the specific products to meet the needs of their textured hair and in many cases, they come with a higher price tag.
There is a lot at stake for Black women to feel good about their hair, but it should never be at the cost of their safety. Which leads me to think that Black hair shops need to be safer spaces for their customers. A good place to start making this change is perhaps by shopping in places for us, by us. After all, if people are not protecting Black women, maybe it’s time we focus on protecting ourselves…
Here are a few black owned beauty retailers to shop from.
For more from Glamour UK Beauty Writer Shei Mamona, follow her on Instagram @sheimamona
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