This week, the Cut explores women’s complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.
There are thousands of salons in Washington, D.C. Of those salons, a small number specialize in natural, or “black” hair care. In the five years that I lived there, I visited 12, and eventually selected one that charged a minimum of $20 extra to style my hair. (The added fee, I later learned, was pervasive among D.C.-area salons.) The salon didn’t call it this, but it was effectively a black-hair fee — and, though I resented it, I needed to pay the piper each time.
I became loyal to that salon: It was the fruit of three years of research, trial, and error. It’s open Mondays and accepts appointments until 7 at night, which makes it a unicorn in the salon industry. Most of the stylists and customers are white, save for my stylist, Amanda, and me. Amanda is D.C.’s black-hair darling. If there is a top list for hairstylists, Amanda is on it. She was always prompt and could wash, cut, blow-dry, and flatiron my hair in under an hour.
My hair is curly and chin length. Each strand is thin and fragile, but I have many strands, so it doesn’t bother me that much. Protein conditioners help. It took me years to master the ambidextrous juggle of blow-drying, but when I finally did, it became obvious that my hair straightens fast: in less time than an entire episode of Modern Family. Despite its penchant to gravitate toward even the faintest trace of humidity and ‘shroom twice its size, I love my hair.
When I first looked at the website for Amanda’s salon, the cost of a haircut was listed at $49 — palatable for a cash-strapped millennial. The bottom line of the price list has an asterisk and a vague reference to an additional “relaxed/natural hair” charge, but because my hair isn’t relaxed, I didn’t think that was speaking to me. And because I’m a little defiant, I neglected to call the salon for the “relaxed/natural hair” pricing ahead of my first appointment. I reasoned that all hair is natural, unless it isn’t.
So when I paid $82, not including tip — a $33 premium from the advertised price — on my initial visit, I was shocked. What do you say when an acclaimed business tells you that the hair that you were born with is too difficult? That the curly and coil-y legacy, gifted to you by your parents, is a burden to the professionals trained to treat it? That you ought to be financially penalized for this?
Hair care for women is a big deal. But hair care for black women is everything. What sits on top of our head is intrinsically linked to a mood, a personality, and worse yet, an identity. Some of our oldest memories rest on the nostalgia of sitting between our mother’s thighs as she styled our hair. The innocence of hair fades as we grow older and then frustrated when it fails to obey the will of a comb and conditioner. Sometimes, in the comfort of our homes, we complain about the heavy burden society places on our shoulders to conform to a certain look — the blown-straight, flat-ironed-to-oblivion-look. Sometimes we don’t realize when we perpetuate that burden ourselves. A petition to comb Blue Ivy’s hair is a perfect example of this.
Because hair — the styling of it, the protecting of it, and the maintenance of it — is so mind-bogglingly important, we sometimes mute the timid voice inside that says pricing based on one’s race is inherently wrong; that implores you to look for another salon that won’t charge an extra fee for black hair.
In 2004, Paulette Harris was charged $21 for a haircut at a Baltimore-area salon. The listed price was $13. She was told her hair was too “ethnic” and that the additional fee was required. She responded with a lawsuit against the chain, Hair Cuttery, citing an intentional infliction of emotional distress. She lost her case. Harris didn’t fare much better than Brenda McElmore, who was told her local JCPenny salon didn’t style black hair at all.
It’s difficult to understand how racial price discrimination can persist with such gusto in the 21st century. Gender price discrimination for goods and services, after all, is illegal in most municipalities and states (although not federally), and enforced with rigor. A 2012 raid on 103 salons in New York is but one example of how gender price disparities are actively monitored by authorities.
I called my former salon, asking why black women were charged more. A cheerful receptionist explained that styling natural hair was “harder” and required a special skill set. She said that the fee included a deep-conditioning treatment (a claim she later recanted when I told her I never received such a treatment), and that natural hair typically required the aid of a flatiron, which was linked to a $13 fee.
Last year the market research firm Mintel announced that the U.S. black-hair-care market had ballooned to a $684 million industry. As it turns out, more than half of black women are willing to pay higher prices for quality hair care. Which brings me back to my former salon in D.C. Each visit was an amalgam of satisfaction and regret. After a year and some change, I could no longer stand to bear the insulting burden of the extra fee. The black-hair tax, it turns out, was a receipt I couldn’t pay in full.
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified the black hair-care market as a $684 billion industry. Mintel put the size of the industry at $684 million.