Catherine Kwon

The beauty supply is a long-standing bastion of support, community and joy for Black  Women. An extension of the salon, beauty supply is the holy grail of hair care. Aisles and aisles of products formulated (almost always) exclusively for the styling and protection of Black hair line the store. At any time of day, women of all ages can be seen solemnly walking through the aisles like disciples on pilgrimage. My earliest memories with my mother are of walking through the fluorescent aisles of ‘Super Cosmetics’—a Kenyan beauty supply chain—picking out alice bands, hair ties and matching earrings for my next hairstyle. In the beauty supply, every item is holy. Discovering a product that finally works is a miracle, especially when you are confined to the products within the store’s walls. 

When the internet exploded, so did these safe havens; suddenly there were ways to share online what worked for each and every hair type. I could log on at any moment and find someone who looked exactly like me, doing hair in ways that I thought were impossible on my hair type. With the onset of the internet, everything was possible in the world of Black hair. That world, however, is losing its magic touch. 

Before the internet, finding hair products that worked for Black women was a miracle, a reason to celebrate. Now, the democratization of information means that the best products for Black women’s hair are becoming more and more accessible. Instead of serving the communities that they are created for, the now-publicly-advertised products formulated exclusively for Black hair types are taken up and popularized by white audiences. Cosmetic companies, dazzled by this new, lucrative audience, have begun to change their formulas. A famous example of this phenomenon is the Black-founded Shea Moisture line of hair products, which, after almost a decade of providing products for Black hair, reformulated their products to cater to white audiences as soon as they became popular with that audience. As a religious user of Shea Moisture, I was shocked and disappointed to find that the new product had a lighter consistency and was, frankly, unusable on my dense, textured hairtype. In 2017, Shea Moisture sold to Unilever, a British goods company which owns a range of brands from Dove to Ben and Jerry’s, and is no longer Black-owned.

The Shea moisture acquisition marked the beginning of the disintegration of intimate spaces for Black hair care.  Last month, Tiktok influencer Alix Earle posted a video advertising her favorite Amazon purchases of 2022. Among them was the Mielle Organics Rosemary Mint Scalp and Hair Strengthening Oil, a product that is formulated to strengthen Black hair types. Despite only having used the product for about a month, Earle claimed to have seen “tremendous hair growth” and linked the product through her Amazon affiliate page.  After Earle’s TikTok went viral,  Mielle Organics hair oil began to sell out online and in beauty supply stores all around the country. Suddenly, new customers flooded  the beauty supply to buy the oil, so much so that some had to restock multiple times a day. The frenzy to purchase Mielle hair products out of the fear that the formula would change like Shea moisture caused a trickle-down shortage of other products.  Iremember walking into my beauty supply to find patrons anxiously shuffling between the aisles, looking for substitutions for their favorite products that had sold out faster than ever before. It’s not difficult  to put together what Earle had done. The hair oil sells out, sending the Black community into a panic. Her audience is none the wiser as to what she has done. Thus begins another cycle of the appropriation of Black hair products.

We’ve seen this all before. Culture that is dear to our hearts is wrenched from our hands and commercialized. After a while, it is impossible to recognise. The Mielle drama is more than another iteration of the cutthroat cycle of consumerist culture, which takes and takes, until there is nothing left. Mielle has since issued a statement that they are “forever committed to developing quality, efficacious products that address the needs for our customers’ hair types.” 

From as young as three years old, I remember sitting in between the feet of my hairstylist for hours and hours, getting my hair pulled into various styles: cornrows, twist outs, half lines, half braids, pick and drop, box braids, or tiny, bantu-knot-like braids affectionately referred to as matutas. As I got my hair done, I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of older Black women around me discussing their lives. 2000s R&B played from huge loudspeakers attached to the walls. Even through the heavy din of the drums and bass, gossip permeated as crisp as birdsong. The thick, chemical smell of relaxer, of hair battered and then fried with a blowdryer. The little black stool that went up and down, up and down. Late afternoon sunlight streaming in through the window, punctuated by wisps of blown hair flying everywhere. The hairstylist offered to make “chips” (fries) if you were hungry, but only if you didn’t tell your mum. In this space, hair styling was a ritual: a community endeavor that treasured everyone’s appearance. I learned to respect, cherish, and love my hair, and to treat it with joy. Hair and hairstyling became a symbol of celebration—getting it pressed and curled for a birthday or a milestone—and an everyday source of confidence and self assurance. 

The Black neighborhood hair salon is a sanctuary. Getting one’s hair done is a process that takes care, time and deep personal connection with your hairstylist—who is usually your mother, or someone close enough to be her. As you grow older, the decisions grow greater: when and how often to get your hair done, retouched, styled, pressed. On wash days, you must plan what type of products to use and block out hours in your day to care for your hair. Products reach most heads through recommendation— the best method of which was for your mother to send you to the salon with a little bag of products she had prepared beforehand. The way this information spreads, through grassroots networks, has not only kept us accountable (word travels fast of a bad hair stylist!) but served as the foundation for a community that places mutual wellness at the top of its priority list. Black hair care is informed by a millennium of community work. In a society that rarely prioritizes knowledge and care for Black hair types, hair care has been, for the most part, the Black community’s best kept secret.

It’s difficult to share a product that works online without it being commercialized and eventually lost to the opportunistic cycles of capitalism. The community that so lovingly took care of its own in my childhood is now harder and harder to find. 

The appropriation of Black beauty culture permeates our conceptions of Black beauty spaces  as places of refuge and community. I think back to the hair salons and beauty supplies of my childhood, to places where Black women once felt empowered. Now, the goals and values of users and brands are diverging. For as long as I can remember, the culture of Black hair care has been housed in spaces and communities that protected us and our values.  I imagine my neighborhood salon slowly filling with people that stand over my little black chair, watching and waiting. Now, against the will of the people to whom these practices belong, those walls are being opened up. We can no longer rely on the security of our network, nor can we rely on the brands that have grown with us. Are our bonds still sacred? 

Awuor Onguru edits the Opinion Desk. She is a Sophomore in Berkeley College, majoring in English and History.