Dr. Judith Anderson used to have a low-maintenance hair care regimen. The New York-based professor of ethnic studies would get her hair done around every three months while visiting family in Philadelphia, because it was cheaper there. Her signature style, kinky twists, cost on average $160. When lockdown went into effect in New York, Anderson couldn’t travel out of the city to have her hair braided professionally anymore. So, she decided to embrace quarantine as a way to begin wearing her own hair in different styles that did not require braided extensions. “I’m going to take out my braids and see how long I can go without getting my hair done,” she said of her thinking at the time. “I want to do at least a year [and] see what happens.”
Many Black women have had similar experiences this year—with salons closed and outside trips discouraged, they decided lockdown was the perfect time to try something new for their hair, and largely started with a mix of their own aspirations and YouTube tutorials. “I think I spent the full week watching videos non-stop, just to see what was out there,” said Anderson, before adding that “the internet is full of lies—that was one of the things I figured out really quickly.” Ni-Asia McMurty, a New Jersey-based graduate student echoed the allure of internet hair lessons. “I would be on YouTube all day watching any and every hair review, any and every hair tutorial, and I started doing what works for me.”
Naptural85, a well-known natural hair YouTube guru, received her highest number of views for the year in May 2020 (1,542,825) and her largest jump in subscribers in April 2020 (an additional 20,000 subscribers), which coincided with the start of shutdowns across the United States. Both numbers have declined overall since then, which may be because there’s also some disillusionment with YouTube videos, especially from women who have a kinkier hair type (4C hair). The women I spoke to said that it was a good jumping off point for finding inspiration, but that they eventually learned what did and did not work for them through their own trial and error.
For Anderson, quarantine gave her time to learn how to take care of her hair: “I researched the different essential oils, and I also started to read the products I liked,” she said. “I started to read the ingredients lists online and see what they all had in common, what was working well, what I liked… I really figured out, from the ground up, the ingredients.” Both Anderson and McMurty were able to mix the store-bought products they already owned with DIY-ingredients to tailor concoctions to their own hair and to exercise their creativity. Aloe vera, which can be found cheaply in supermarkets, became a mainstay for both women. And while videos on YouTube often gave the impression that in order to take care of coily or kinky hair, women had to purchase expensive shampoos, McMurty and Anderson realized that wasn’t the case. They found that cheaper shampoos worked well in their hair once they added custom ingredients.
Aaricka Washington, an Indianapolis-based journalist, last had her hair done by someone else in December 2019. She estimates that she spent $250-$300 every 3-5 months on her usual style, crochet braids. She plans to return to getting her hair done occasionally once it is safe to do so, because she finds it relaxing (“somebody else is doing it.”) Still, she may return less frequently. “If I get really good at doing my hair, would I want to [return to hair salons]?” she asked. “Right now, I am not getting my hair done nor am I braiding it. I am in the process of allowing it to grow. I’ve been putting it in twists, oiling it.”
While lockdown was a chance for Anderson to become more comfortable manipulating her own hair long-term, she worried over the effect her and others’ lack of business signalled for hair braiders at large. Anderson looked for other ways to support her own personal braider, and found that she had transitioned to making clothes and masks, so she bought some. Maimouna Dieye, the Program manager of a New York-based community organization called African Communities Together, spoke to me about the difficulties hair braiders have faced as a result of both a lack of business during quarantine and the increase in Black women learning to take care of their own hair at home long-term. “They are struggling right now,” she said. Although hair braiding salons across the country have now opened back up and are enacting safe practices, many customers are still too worried to come back in.
The expertise possessed by hair braiders was something the women I interviewed found difficult to imitate in quarantine. “[In the beginning] doing my [own] hair was such a hard task because I simply didn’t have the time,” McMurty said. “It takes time to do natural hair and I have a lot of it. While doing my hair, I had to be OK with starting over and spending a lot of money” to figure out what does and does not not work best for her.
McMurty and Washington viewed the time spent doing their hair in quarantine as self care, while Anderson pushed back on that view. Because hair styling is “very basic maintenance,” calling it self-care is “an extremely low bar,” Anderson said. “I absolutely refuse to believe that a Black woman doing basic things to maintain her health, doing the absolute least to maintain your body and and take care of your appearance to look kempt and clean [should be considered self-care].” McMurty felt that caring for her hair in quarantine counted as self care because that time made it easier for her depression to flourish, and caring for herself, even in this basic way, helped her push back against her depressive thoughts by reminding herself she was making a deliberate choice to put herself first. “Anything that’s an extension of me…I felt like I had to put time and work into to make sure it was great,” she said. While Washington felt that it was a lot of work, she said that “taking care of your hair is definitely a huge part of [self-care] because our hair is so fragile. It’s beautiful.”
Anderson’s natural challenge was supposed to last at least a year, but she has since decided to extend it for another year. She’s hoping to learn how to maintain her own hair in ways that aren’t as time-consuming. She says, “in my head, I’m always thinking, OK, what am I going to have to do when we return to going on campus? How am I going to adjust this?’ because I won’t have the same amount of time.” She’s practicing styles and practices that take less time, in hopes of eventually having less time to spend on her hair.
Although Dieye is confident that the hair braiding industry will recover eventually, she also thinks there’s been a shift, and that going forward, hair braiding salon visits may be reserved more for special events rather than for regular maintenance. Anderson believes that “the learning curve is ongoing,” but for these Black women, the benefits that come from learning to flex one’s creative muscles make it worth it to continue learning to take care of their own hair at home.