Diversity and inclusivity in the hairdressing industry

Diversity and inclusivity in the hairdressing industry

written by Alix Bizet | edited by Stephanie Hodgson

In 2021, The National Occupational Standards for hairdressing updated their legislation asking all hairdressers to learn about Afro Hair as any other hair type. Before this decision, hairdressers could qualify without having to learn how to style and treat Afro Hair texture. This change highlights the fact that until 2021, Afro Hair was not part of the national curriculum of hair schools and students. 

Read the Independent article by Olivia Petter, UK hairdressers must learn to cut and style afro hair, san new beauty regulations

The lack of knowledge or even interest in Afro Hair is a display of systemic racism but also ongoing discrimination against black bodies and afro hair texture, bringing to light the systematic marginalisation that many people of colour feel in western societies. 

Black women and men should be able to walk into any hairdressers with confidence that their hair can be styled without fearing rejection simply due to the hairdresser's lack of knowledge or, worse, having to hear “Afro Hair is so difficult”. These prejudices increase the common myth that Afro Hair texture is labeled as an “other” hair, one that is particularly hard to work with, resulting in understandable microaggressions that many people of colour have to regularly navigate.

This gap between Eurocentric hair standards and Afro Hair defines the dominant dynamic happening in our society. One example is the term “normal hair” which can be read on shampoo bottles, effectively outcasting the other hair. Another is the use of the opposing terms “good” hair and “bad” hair. On top of that, all the other hair types are perpetually outcasted by hairdressers or elsewhere in society like at school or in the workplace.

This inequality still defines the life of many individuals who have a lack of confidence when it comes to their hair. Many recall the humiliation felt when hearing that their hair is “unkempt” or “being difficult”. Insidious or not, these remarks make lasting impressions.

Growing up in Paris in a diverse neighbourhood, I still remember this uneasy feeling about my hair being different, looked at, even laughed at. I cannot forget the comments at my high school that my hair looked untidy or unkempt and that I need "to sort it out" because it looked “messy”.

I also had the common traumatic experience that many mixed kids can relate to when my dad from a European heritage brought me to his hairdresser for a trim. He was told at first ‘We do not do this kind of hair’ and the horrible result after my dad insisted ‘Can you just do a trim?'. It goes without saying that the result was catastrophic but also that my mum ended up correcting the mistake by cutting off a good length of my hair while I was in tears and ashamed of having "horrible hair."

This event shaped a good part of my life. It not only inevitably led to disappointment but it also set a weird relationship with my hair from a young age. As a teenager, I decided to straighten my hair to be like everybody else, despite my mum's disapproval. Later on in my professional life, I received comments that my braids or natural hairstyle were “not professional”, as if I was being disrespectful.

In the UK, as in the rest of Europe, millions of people suffer from discrimination when it comes to their hair. They struggle to fit in against the dominant model of the straight, long, shiny hairstyle that society and media try to convince us every day is the desirable look. For some, the teasing becomes full-blown harassment and in schools or workplaces, the only resolution is through formal legal complaints.

A suitable example is the case of Chikayzea Flanders against the Fulham Boys School where on his first day of school was told that his dreadlocks that he wore tied up did not comply with the school uniform policy. His mother explained that his dreadlocks were the fundamental tenet of his Rastafarian belief and should be exempt from this policy. 

The “solution”? Her son was taught in isolation. This led them to leave the school for another academy and also to file a lawsuit supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to challenge the school decision and allow him to come back in 2018 with his hair chosen hairstyle. 

Read the Guardian article by Caroline Davies, London school that told boy to cut off dreadlocks backs down

Another example is the 2015 social media post of Laura Odoffin whose recruiter revoked her job offer due to her braids. These were deemed against the “uniform and grooming requirements” asked by their client. It is another example of many bringing to light Afro Hair discrimination that many Black men and women suffer in the professional context. They are asked to erase their hair heritage to fit the expectation of the dominant model. 

Read the Independent article by Aftab Ali, Bournemouth University graduate Lara Odoffin ‘discriminated against’ after recruiter revokes job offer because she has braided hair 

Today, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement but also with the help of social media, discrimination against Afro Hair is finally visible. People are getting vocal about the urgency of addressing the microaggressions black people face daily about their looks. 

A group of campaigners have submitted a formal proposal that the discrimination against Afro Hair texture is recognised as a form of racism. Members of Parliament (MPs) Kim Johnson and Wera Hobhouse signed a letter to protect those with Afro Hair texture against any form of discrimination. Additionally, the EHRC has made Afro Hair a protected characteristic by adding it to the Equality act.

Research groups like the Halo Collective, campaign to raise this matter with schools, workplaces and hair schools making sure Afro Hair discrimination is part of the curriculum. They also work with institutions by offering a pledge which allows all their employees to wear all Afro Hairstyles without restriction. 

Halo Collective aims to educate about the Afro Hair texture and change the pejorative perspective that many who have Afro Hair can feel, and the difficult stigma that this texture carries in western societies. They are aiming to change the law and, “through research, education, and positive representation we’re going to change the way Black hair is perceived and understood”.

To learn more about Halo Collective CLICK HERE 

The hair business is still yet to take this pledge and to treat Afro Hair as any other kind of hair. Charlotte Mensah, British hairdresser and author of Good Hair, says it is clear that Afro Hair is not treated as equal in terms of business. She recalls in her book the many rejections she faced by many landlords when trying to open her salon in central London. She felt compelled to ask a white friend to pretend to be her because she was afraid when meeting the landlord. She only let the owner know once the lease was signed of her famous salon, The Hair lounge.

Mensah was the first Black woman added to the The British Hairdressing Awards Hall Of Fame. She advocates for Afro Hair texture through education and training of the next generation. She helps to break down the cycle of marginalisation of Afro Hair. She empowers people of colour to love and take good care of their hair. 

Fair treatment starts with understanding. In this case, it is equipping hairdressing students with all the available scientific facts and knowledge about hair textures right from the beginning of their training. 

Read the Vogue article by Funmi Fetto, The Debut Book From Afro Hair Queen Charlotte Mensah Is Essential Reading

Award-winning trichologist and hair stylist, Ebuni Ajiduah, writer and creator of the Snatched Edges Podcast, helps her clients to promote health and solve hair loss issues. She also demystifies Afro haircare and provides solutions for those who experience hair loss based on an analysis of the product used, medication and blood tests. 

Way too often those with Afro Hair are being blamed for losing hair due to their hair practice like weaving or braids, brushing aside any possible underlying health issues or important deficiencies. Ultimately, this leads many men and women to believe their hair loss is a self-inflicted problem.

Afro Hair being less visible in the most wealthy part of the cities is a reality that no one can deny. Afro Salons will often be found in poorer areas or on the fringe of European cities, forcing many clients with Afro Hair to travel far to have their hair cared for. These businesses are often considered unnecessary by city councils who can be all too willing to displace them outside the high streets. To them, Afro Hair is associated with a superfluous business or a “second class citizen”. 

I have seen this example firsthand working on a project in the neighbourhood of Peckham. During the redevelopment of the high street, an Afro Salon lost its lease and moved to a perpendicular hidden street. It lost its key location next to the Peckham Rye Rail Station and, crucially, its visibility on the high street. 

The displaced hairdressers were offered a space in this unit but gathering several afro hairdressers in a single place raised street competition inbetween salons. When looking at the name and visual identity given to this unit, Peckham Palms, here again, we can question the council decision as well as the designers and consultants involved in the redevelopment. “Palms” refers to the notion of exotism, of being foreign, and as such that Afro Hair is foreign.

This delocalisation from the station area was presented by the council as a way to “support” these businesses, as a way to help them to flourish and to “develop a comprehensive, tailor-made programme to help them professionalise and set new standards for the industry.” These businesses were clearly seen differently to those representing a more Eurocentric model of a hair salon. It seems that the Southwark Council felt that these Afro salons did not correspond to the beauty standard they planned for the relooking of the high street, therefore needed to be moved out for more artisan cafes, trendy bars or more European looking hair salons.

To read more about the Peckham Palms project, CLICK HERE.

The constant displacement of Afro Hair salons outside from city centres makes their accessibility harder for those with tight curls. It’s even more challenging for those living in more rural parts of the UK, having to travel miles to find an adequate hairdresser and spending a fortune finding the right salon. What should be a simple and enjoyable experience, is difficult, complicated and frustrating.

The recent app UB Hair, developed by Zina Alfa, helps match clients to a local hairdresser who caters to their specific hair type. This app was born of Alfa’s frustration as a student in Sheffield, forced to spend a small fortune every few weeks because of having to travel all the way to London to find a suitable Afro Hairdresser. Her app aims to make the hair sector more inclusive but also to highlight all hairdressers the same including the mobile hairdressers.

UB Hair not only considers hair textures but also wallets and accessibility–Alfa’s own mother being disabled could not go to London for her haircare. Alfa hopes her app helps to fight the disparity of Afro Hair in rural UK and also changes the narrative around Afro Hair being difficult to take care of or being outside the norm. 

To learn more about UB Hair, CLICK HERE.

According to an article in Harper’s Bazaar, only 302 of more than 35,000 registered hair salons in the UK cater to Afro-Caribbean hair. Consider how underserved this community is with two million black people living in the UK. 

Read Harper’s Bazaar article by Jessica Morgen, The best afro hair salons in London

The Afro Hair industry is worth £88 million and black women spend three times more than white women on hair care, so it is curious why most hairdressers and salons would miss out on this opportunity. Why not train their staff to more fully understand all kinds of hair textures? Why not also challenge current curriculums to help students better understand all their potential customers? Why not hire more diverse staff to match the times we are living in?

Taking the example of the brand Fenty Beauty’s philosophy which embraces the vast diversity of skin tones. They offer a completely inclusive selection of products of absolutely every skin tone. This shows that inclusivity in business can be incredibly beneficial. 

Speaking about her brand, Rihanna says “there needs to be something for a dark-skinned girl; there needs to be something for a really pale girl; there needs to be something in-between." Today Fenty Beauty is worth $2.8 billion and is considered as a business model for the new generation of beauty. 

Read the Indigo 9 Digital’s article by Karen Tang and Tricia McKinnon, Fenty Beauty’s Growth Strategy: What You Need to Know

Fighting hair discrimination by educating and hiring a more diverse workforce is not only a huge business opportunity but also a responsibility of hair salons. These are contemporary businesses and should be up to date and represent the street realities with all its special needs. Hiring people of colour in all salons with different hair cultures and different skills, would enhance the quality of a salon’s service and make them safe spaces for everyone. Staff and clients, regardless of their gender, beliefs, sexuality, hair or hair texture should all feel welcome. 

I will finish with this simple quote from Nina Simone: "An artist’s duty is to reflect the times." We can only hope that more hair salons are willing to challenge their preconceptions of hair and start embracing the diversity of the streets of today.


About the author:

Alix Bizet Studio, based in South East London, focuses on material research, material application and social and educational programs with museums, universities and local schools. Her work centres on a critical and analytical approach to design and material research. She investigates relationships between our bodies and spaces, objects, systems and media narratives.

About the series

This article is part of a series on Holistic Sustainability which looks at less understood aspects of sustainability including water and energy (written by Stephanie Hodgson), money (written by Raechel Kelly) and diversity and inclusivity (written by Alix Bizet).

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