I don’t have a clear memory of the first time I went to a ‘hair shop’, but I’ll wager that I was very young. The importance of hair for Black women starts early, so there’s no reason for me not to believe that I was in one while still in utero. Black beauty supply shops are a wonderland: all those lights! The wigs! The rainbow coloured creams, lotions and potions! The tongs and straighteners hanging from the ceiling – the equivalent of the ducks hanging in the windows of the restaurants in Chinatown… I love those places.
I grew up in east London, so I was well placed to indulge my love for these grottos of beauty. How could I not love them? First off, there’s the staff. More often than not, they’re a bunch of middle-aged South Asian men, advising you on the best leave-in conditioner/Yaki hair/no lye relaxer for your hair. I have never spoken to an Asian man about my hair outside of a beauty supply shop. Then there’s the images – there’s enough to inspire a day’s rotation of music videos on MTV Base – short, long, wavy, poker straight, glued, sewn, wigged – it’s all here.
What I love best of all though, are the products themselves, all promising heaven and earth – shine to outdo diamonds, volume to rival a circus tent and softness that puts a baby’s bottom to shame. Of course, very few actually deliver on their claims, but testing’s half the fun! Journalist Hannah Pool captured this perfectly back in June 2003, in her beauty column, The New Black in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine. The sheer range of products is staggering to someone in the know, let alone a White boy from Chingford. Below is an excerpt from the column written shortly after David Beckham got himself some cornrows (remember that?):
“I’m desperate to know how far [Beckham] went… Did he have a can of the wonderfully kitsch Luster’s Pink Plus 2-N-1 Scalp Soother and oil sheen in his bathroom cabinet (complete with pictures of smiling black women)? Did anyone tell him he could have avoided burning his head if he’d used Luster’s Pink Sheen, which contains sunscreen. If the plaits were too tight, did anyone mention that filling a plant sprayer with water and spraying in between the plaits would relieve the tension?”
I really want to go ‘hair shopping’ now. Don’t you?