COVID Has Decimated Afro Hair Salons But Black Women Are Adapting

Photographed by Sarah Harry-Isaacs
Thinking back to life before coronavirus, there are countless things I miss, such as weekly catch-ups with friends and after-work drinks. But the one experience I'm pining for the most is a trip to my favourite afro hair salon. My hair would be washed and braided while I leaned into the chatter among hairstylists and clients.
No one could have predicted that almost a year since entering our first lockdown, we'd be well into our third. It has been difficult for everyone and especially hard for beauty businesses, in particular hair salons. The National Hair & Beauty Federation (NHBF) has warned that the government may have placed the final nail in the coffin of an already struggling industry, with countless beauty businesses left without financial support and continuing to pay high taxes despite being closed. The NHBF estimates that of the 40,000 salons in the UK, around 5,000 have closed for good. Hairdressers Journal suggests that number could reach 8,000 by the end of 2021, as salon owners struggle to keep up with rent and fall into debt. And Black British hairdressers may have been hit the hardest.
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Prior to the pandemic, afro hair salons were few and far between on UK high streets, dwarfed by salons catering mostly to Caucasian hair types. Despite L’Oréal estimating that Black women spend six times more on hair than Caucasian women, having no clients through the door has been catastrophic for Black hair salons and freelance stylists. Molecia Seasay from High Wycombe has been a professional hairdresser for four years and tells Refinery29 that it has been a real challenge to keep her business afloat. "Numerous lockdowns have affected me massively," Molecia says. "If I can't work, I can't earn, and I feel as though my industry is falling through the cracks. There's a constant lingering of uncertainty around our business and we're having to figure things out on our own." Naturally, hairdressers are incredibly frustrated, and clients are floundering, too.
Black women in particular have had to adapt to new hair routines without the guidance of trusted hair professionals, and everything from styling to treating hair has become a DIY process. Many have got to grips with their new at-home routines but for some it has proven difficult to keep up with the maintenance. "For the past few years, I've put my hair into the hands of someone who knows exactly what they're doing but that has all changed," says Morgan Smith from Bromley, who finds her new haircare routine an effort. "I've been a regular at Elite Hair Lounge for as long as I can remember and have the same trusty hairstylist each time," she continues.
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Prior to COVID-19, Morgan would relax her hair every eight to 10 weeks but bad past experiences mean she is reluctant to try it herself and this has made her self-conscious. "I feel as though I don't look like myself," she says. "As someone who has struggled with body dysmorphia, I have less control over my physicality. With relaxed hair it's also really important to go for regular touch-ups. Leaving it too long between appointments can potentially cause breakage and make hair much harder to maintain." Marian Kwei from London is in the same boat as Morgan. "I've always seen getting my hair done as a form of self-care," she tells R29. "I like wearing wigs but I always make sure to maintain my natural hair with a weekly deep condition at the salon before getting it plaited into cornrows to sit underneath. I've gone from regular salon visits, where I'd feel really empowered, to feeling overwhelmed by not being able to maintain my hair properly myself."

Prior to the pandemic, afro hair salons were few and far between on UK high streets, dwarfed by salons catering mostly to Caucasian hair types. Having no clients through the door has been catastrophic.

Marian says that while it has been difficult to adapt to a DIY hair routine, the pandemic has forced others to be self-sufficient. Black women are learning more about their hair in regard to styling and maintenance. In fact, lockdown has encouraged many women to see their natural hair in a different light. Kirah from Birmingham has turned her hand to braiding at home and welcomes the DIY approach as saving her money during this difficult time. "I've been trying lots of different cornrows and I'm currently doing the LOC method (treating hair to leave-in conditioner, oil and styling cream)," she tells R29. Pre-COVID, Kirah says she frequented the salon numerous times a year but is now making do without. "I'm using the hair products that I already own," she says, pinpointing TikTok favourite Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay as a transformative homemade cleanser.
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Kirah isn't alone. More Black women are using this time to practise protective styles and hairstylists are harnessing their expertise to set up savvy digital hair ventures. Molecia recently launched Zoom classes to meet demand from clients who want to braid and style their hair in the comfort of their own homes. TikTok has also been something of a saviour for at-home haircare and inspiration. Alicia from London says she would always get her hair professionally styled but that the popular video-sharing app is now her font of knowledge. Alicia has learned to install crochet twists thanks to TikTok's numerous Black hair tutorials. "I've found their hair techniques to be really easy to follow at home," she says, "and I've been able to order supplies online quickly, too. I'm no expert but practice makes perfect."

More Black women are using this time to practise protective styles and hairstylists are harnessing their expertise to set up savvy digital hair ventures, such as virtual hairstyling classes.

Aside from protective styles, lots of Black women are attempting the big chop and documenting the results online. Refinery29's staff writer Jessica Morgan recently did so, with no regrets. "It wasn't meant to happen this way," said Jessica. "Pre-coronavirus, I had booked an appointment to have my hair cut at the Aveda salon in London. I had specifically asked for a hairstylist who had experience with afro curly hair and I was excited to have the professional salon treatment, taking with me my list of Instagram baddies (Zoë Kravitz and Solange) as inspiration." Then lockdown took hold.
"At 8am one morning, before starting work, I picked up my scissors, walked into my bathroom and, with India Arie's 'I Am Not My Hair' playing through my AirPods, chopped it all off," said Jessica. "I watched in slow motion as each strand of hair fell to my feet. It felt like taking off tight shoes. It wasn't the big emotional moment I had prepared myself for. I didn't cry and I didn't panic. I felt a sudden sense of relief. It's over, I thought, I'm free. It was empowering. I had finally let myself break free from the bondage of whiteness."
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Embracing natural hair is big on TikTok, too, with hundreds of natural, at-home hair tutorials uploaded to the app daily. The comments show that these tutorials provide a sense of solidarity among women who are forgoing relaxer and letting their natural hair bloom. For journalist Fedora Abu, lockdown meant facing the hair she had spent years hiding. "When it comes to hair, I'm anti-DIY; I believe that most things are best left to experts," Fedora recently wrote. "But in the age of social distancing, this approach has left me ill-prepared." Fedora continued: "When my scalp started crying for attention, I finally took out my braids and the process I'd been putting off began. Six weeks into lockdown, I thought about how little time I'd spent running my fingers through my hair and how finally sitting down to style it myself began to feel like an act of self-care."
Beyond TikTok, the online hair space has facilitated the launch of new websites and apps which have helped Black women become their own hair experts during the pandemic. Founded by hair pro Winnie Awa, Carra is a digital natural hair concept aimed at providing everything from professional one-to-one advice via video to product recommendations and hair routines for people with textured hair. The platform has proven so popular, it already has big fans in influencers and beauty journalists.
Hair website Blaqbase is also making waves. It gives visibility to Black-owned beauty brands and was dreamed up in response to limited local access to Black hair salons on the high street. On site you'll find much-loved hair brands such as Flora & Curl and Equi Botanics. YUTYBAZAR, a Black-owned online beauty destination, has also surged in popularity over lockdown and boasts brands like AIRFRO and The Afro Hair & Skin Co, which can be delivered to your door. Apps and websites like these have been something of a lifeline for Black women struggling with interruptions to their normal hair routines.
While Black women have adapted, the burning issue of dwindling salons can't be ignored. With the industry in crisis, campaigns such as Save Our Salons and #BeautyOnTheBrink on social media are calling on the government for urgent financial support for hairdressers, beauty salons and mobile traders until salons reopen on 12th April. There are a number of ways in which you can support afro hair businesses right now, too, from leaving Google reviews to purchasing gift cards. Beautystack, for instance, allows users to buy a voucher, valid for up to 12 months, for beauty treatments with a range of professionals. It's also worth checking in with your local salons and favourite hairstylists, as plenty are selling hair products online (delivered directly to your door, contact-free) or via a click and collect service.
The pandemic will never erase the love and appreciation that Black women have for afro hair salons but, for many, at-home haircare has been empowering. Time will tell what the future holds for Black hair businesses but we'll no doubt book appointments in our droves when they reopen in the spring. For now, though, haircare is in our hands and like Jessica and Kirah prove, making do might not be so bad.

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