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I watched a commentary panel show last night on TV and groaned at how completely un-done the lone black woman’s hair looked, and I thought about the set of circumstances that might have led to this woman not looking as great as I know she can, and on national television.
It appeared as though someone had tried to blow-dry straighten her naturally-textured hair, and either messed it up completely, or stopped halfway through the process, leaving a tangled series of poofs. If she had done it herself or that’s how her hair ordinarily looks, a stylist on-set could’ve done their job and, y’know, styled. Or maybe they did do their job and these were the results. Either way, this woman was making great points about politics that fought for attention with the disheveled hair on her head that did not look intentional.
I KNOW--to put so much emphasis on our looks, and especially on the already politically and societally fraught topic of black women’s hair, seems completely counterintuitive to our goals in the fight for equality. However, I am not talking about a need to look overly feminized or fit into narrow confines of what looks “beautiful.”
I want us all to continue to expand the notion of what is beautiful, and yet as an actor, model, spokesperson, television commentator, etc, how we look is part of our job. In many entertainment scenarios, black women are impeded in doing that job because the professional stylists hired to do hair don’t know how to do ours.
People often get upset when I say that, because they think I’m implying that I get to dictate the specifics of the “how you look” part. Absolutely not. In scripted television work, the hairstyle has to serve the character, but also be realistic for the grueling demands of a shooting schedule. In non-scripted entertainment and correspondent scenarios, it has to serve the purpose of assisting you in coming across the way you want to come across.
There is no gender norm or respectability politicking at play for me; I’m not saying she didn’t look “ladylike” or any such nonsense. I’m saying that looking at this television show and seeing highly groomed and styled people with the lone black woman looking like she had just gotten noogies from her big brother showed a clear disparity, and one l’m sick of seeing.
Thankfully, black women’s beauty is being celebrated more off of our television screens, but it is literally impossible for the gorgeous variety of natural hairstyles on black women to be reflected on television and on fashion runways, because of the way professional sets are used to operating.
Many black women who appear on TV get criticized by our own for not going natural, but when that criticism comes from people who’ve never appeared on TV, I wish they could know more of the details before declaring that any sister is less than for relaxing her hair.
I have a relaxer, but this is definitely not a defense of relaxers. It’s my effort to let you in on the fact that in the television industry, black women are often given the short shrift when it comes to on-set styling. When the majority of people appearing on television are still white, the majority of on-set stylists tend to be white, and it can be a challenge to find someone who can “do black hair.”
Wigs, weaves, and braids can be protective of our own hair (we have lives off set too), and can guarantee continuity of shots that become more challenging when dealing with natural hair. Wigs still need proper selection, placement, and styling, though, and not just sub-par plopping on one’s head.
Many natural black hair styles either take longer than styling fine and straight non-black textures, or even look best when set overnight. I guess in a perfect world we would do the perfect twist-set every night just in case CNN or HLN calls to book us the next day, but we’re not in that world, and many commentator bookings do come at short notice.
Also, pointing out the differences in hair texture and associated different styling techniques is not automatically an insult. When people add value judgments, that’s insulting.
Of course, #AllHairMatters, and as a product of biology, the texture of the hair growing out of someone’s head is not automatically able to be easily classified according to race/ethnicity. There are plenty of non-black women who are too happy to tell me about their curly or coarse hair, and Dove even has a lovely campaign about loving your curls that could benefit from the inclusion of a few darker ladies loving their kinks and maybe a black woman declining the relaxer instead of the white one.
The reason I say that is our good ol’ buddy, systemic racism. If you haven’t been told by society in ways both subtle and outright that you are ugly, it is less powerful to be told by a national advertising campaign that you are beautiful. It is no less valuable to individuals, and it is no less lovely, but it is not as impactful on a societal level. But I digress.
Being a hair stylist behind the scenes in entertainment is incredibly challenging; you don’t always know who’ll be sitting in your chair each day. I recognize that challenge, but I have also personally witnessed far too many on-set stylists look at black hair with utter cluelessness.
This is why, over many television appearances, fashion shows, music videos, and events, I’ve had the hair stylist(s) on-set do my hair only a handful of times, and never without a conversation or even a test run beforehand. In the scripted world, unless you’re a series regular carrying a show, you generally have wardrobe fittings but not a hair and makeup consultation. And in other television lanes, there’s usually an equipped hair department/room/trailer stocked to the brim with products and staffed with stylists who may be very knowledgeable in many areas, but black hair just may not be one of them.
In my experience, both as the head of hair in question and as an observer of the way other heads were being treated, the first thing the hair department will want to do with black hair is leave it alone. Even if it is relaxed, they still don’t want to touch it, and rest assured that I nodded in vigorous agreement at Brandee Brown, one of few black models with natural hair working in high fashion who told Refinery 29, “I’ll show up on-set, and the stylist will get nervous and say, ‘Perfect, your curls are great. Leave them.’ Meanwhile, I had just taken my hat off and hadn’t washed my hair in days. It’s like, they don’t even know the potential of this hair — of how it can look good and be styled.”
Television shows may shoot one scene for multiple days, or need to do re-shoots, requiring hair and makeup to match from shot to shot even though they were filmed days apart. If someone does not know exactly what they’re doing in styling black hair and just rolls the dice and sees what happens, what are the chances they’ll be able to re-create that look, even if they produce something usable?
This is one of the biggest reasons why they want to just leave us alone, or wait trepidatiously for us to offer to do our own hair in the hair trailer, doing their job for them. Could you imagine going to an accountant’s office, knowing that they’re getting paid to do your taxes, and then sitting at a desk in their office and doing your own taxes?
Not to mention that no one who is an expert at political commentary, like the woman I watched last night, should also be expected to have styling skills. I’m not licensed, but I can do hair. That’s an extra skill I have, not a job requirement as an actor. We’re there to do our own jobs, and time that could be spent going over lines or preparing for the scene we’re about to do while the person whose job it is to do our hair does so is taken away from us when we do our own.
Since none of this is being done at gunpoint, it’s more accurate to say that we relinquish it, rather than have it “taken away.” But if the choice is between being a stickler about whose job is whose and what training they “should” have and looking like shit on TV, or doing it myself, I’ll do it myself.
I don’t even wait to do it on-set, unless there’s a time constraint or I’m already familiar with the set and the hair department layout. If it’s an unknown situation, I generally arrive very close to camera-ready and do planned finishing touches there. You should see how stylists get out of my way, and I’ve never encountered a white stylist in this situation who was anything less than kind and gracious about it.
Even worse than the usual hands-off approach was the one older white woman I met doing hair at an event in Beverly Hills. She oozed confidence as she sat me down in her chair and whispered that she used to do Dionne Warwick’s hair. True or not, that didn’t prevent me from anxiously walking her through the styling each time she picked up a tool that I just knew would do damage and came at my head with it.
There are producers on certain shows with black leads who’ve had to go out of their way to hire at least someone who can “do black hair,” and I honestly don’t think it’s realistic to expect on-set stylists to be experts at every texture. However, if part of their job is to be ready for anyone, are black women to be forever labeled with an asterisk?
It would be nice to be able to show up at our place of business with the same set of expectations as our peers, and that is just not true for many black women in entertainment when it comes to our hair. For white women and women of other ethnicities whose hair naturally grows in a fine texture, they can leave it to the professionals, which is as it should be.
I recently spent an hour-ish on my hair before arriving on a set, only to watch my white female co-panelist on the same show breeze in literally fresh out of the shower, declare, “I’m a mess, fix me!” to the stylists, and get a full styling job, soup to nuts, while she drank coffee and scrolled through messages on her phone.
On a different recent TV appearance, I showed up with an up-do lacquered into place that almost brought a tear of relief to the stylist’s eye. To have this white woman circling my head and treating me like an oddity -- How did you do that??? -- is frustrating and human zoo-ish enough when it happens in day-to-day life. For a professional hair stylist? At least pretend to not be amazed and Google it when you get home, ma’am.
At that studio, a major media outlet, by the way, I was double-checking my ‘do and wanted to put in a few more bobby pins. I needed the smallest size, and I watched as two well-meaning white stylists searched the many boxes, buckets, and cups of pins in the room. In the smallest size, they only had the light tan bobby pins made for blonde hair.
Good thing I had brought my own.