I arrived on set at 10 am to do a shoot for the new video channel of a popular women's magazine. I had learned about the opportunity from a colleague and thought it sounded like fun -- plus who wouldn't want a free makeover?
I was greeted by the Rock Star Stylist who was going to remove my extensions and bless me with a new do using my own natural hair. We did a few on-camera interviews and I shared my experience of learning to care for my own delicate hair by trial and error. I also expressed my concern about having a new person touch my hair.
I once had a bountiful, bleached blonde afro that all broke off due to harsh coloring. During my on-camera consultation with the Stylist, I shared that I have been wearing wigs and extensions until my hair grew back out and looked healthy again. I did not want to come off as a black chick who was ashamed of her natural kinky hair. They tried to guide me to a “coming out” story line as an angle in which to sell my hair journey. But it simply was not true in my case. I've been natural and proud for a while.
I was led to believe that the stylist had experience with ethnic women and natural hair. He even dropped a few client names like Tyra, Naomi and Michelle (Obama). None of whom have hair like mine.
When I realized they did not even have a proper comb for my thick, tightly curled kinky textured hair, I decided not to let the stylist make any drastic cuts or color changes. For those, I'd go to someone who specializes in natural hair. But even without cutting or bleaching, there ARE SO MANY options for my hair. All he (or one of his assistants) had to do was Google African-American natural hairstyles. As style experts, I expected them to at least research my hair type and come up with beautiful natural styles to compliment me.
After a 14 hours of patiently waiting and watching the other ladies get totally transformed, I began to feel overlooked. The other fine-haired ladies were dyed, bleached and clipped for a minimum of 3 hours each. They came out looking like super stars. I was just sitting there. I was the last lady to be called to the stylist's chair. When the stylist finally got to my head, he looked at if it was a foreign piece of unmanageable tumbleweed. He began trying to maneuver, stretch and mush my hair.
There was a bit of tension because I politely yet firmly refused to let him cut off the length of my hair in the back where it had been layered. He called them "neck pubes," and referred to afros as "wild" and "non-directional." My discomfort was growing, but in an effort to be a team player, I allowed him to remove my wig ON CAMERA. He even plopped it on his own head as a joke and we filmed that, too.
After the cameras stopped rolling, the Stylist made the comment, "Of course I'd have a fight with the only black girl on set." Since I am very aware of the negative stigma us African-American women are already faced with, I was VERY nice. Too nice, in fact. I was committed to staying positive and cheerful.
I knew for sure that there was no plan for my hair when the Assistant Stylist was about to use a fine tooth comb to detangle my tightly coiled hair. I had to stop her because she would have yanked all of my hair out! There was no conditioner or moisturizer for my hair type. Natural Hair is like a sponge. It soaks up moisture. Without moisturizing agents, my hair becomes one huge cotton ball. Luckily, I brought my own product and the Master Stylist dabbed a little on my untamed hair.
By hour 15, my final look was revealed to me. It was obvious to everyone there, even the Master Stylist, that the outcome of my hair was just...bad. The other girls’ results were SO much more beautiful than mine. They got amazing drastic haircuts and dye jobs! I was exhausted and my hair was ugly AND I still had to do my final on-camera interview.
The other hair makeover ladies and the crew were all anxiously watching for what would come out of my mouth during the wrap-up interview. The spotlight was on me and the director asked, "So Naja, how do you feel about your final look?"
I tried my best to be upbeat, because who wants to sound like an ungrateful sourpuss when they get a make-over from a high profile Stylist? But once I started speaking, that sweet lil Southern polite lady was overtaken by my inner Kanye. The thoughts were coming faster than the words. I stumbled over a few niceties and before I knew it, I could hear myself expressing my utter disappointment.
So, on camera, I told this room full of genuinely nice White people how I really felt.
"I feel like an outcast. I feel very ugly. The Stylist is clearly famous, so he's good at what he does, but my hair was not treated with the same respect as the other ladies. The other women took pictures of their final looks and posted them to their social networks and sent them to their friends. I only want to get home so that I can actually DO my hair. I feel small, unimportant and ostracized. I feel like the fat kid that has to wear a potato sack because there were just no clothes to fit him. The tender loving care that was needed for my hair was completely overlooked. Now I’m going to go home and actually DO MY HAIR.”
My tone was not abrasive, because I was tired and defeated. My tone was apologetic. The director quietly said, "It's a wrap folks." There was a long pause and I just stood there with all eyes on me. I felt empathy from almost everyone. I walked in at 10 am looking like a camera-ready superstar and after my "makeover," I looked horrible.
What did I learn? I learned that it is OK to speak my mind, even on camera, even on big budget productions. I learned not be afraid to ask questions and voice my concern when I am uncomfortable. I also learned that, just because someone says they can do a sista's hair....to do my own research.
I got a harsh reminder that I still live in a world in which I am the minority. I was different from the other makeover models and because I do not fit the European standard of beauty, I was overlooked and not considered. This is such a common occurrence for people that look like me in so many areas of our lives. And most of us are numb to it. I can only hope that when the people from that popular women’s magazine read this, they become aware, more sensitive and better researched.