Split Ends: Black Women, Money, and the Cost of Hair Care

Last week, I watched a rerun of Martin. Its underlying premise is that Martin, a radio/television personality and his girlfriend Gina, and their friends, Tommy, Cole, and Pam navigate life's blessings and challenges with love, humor, and kinship. While positive in its overall message of the necessity of black community building, Martin also has been a window into black America's unresolved ambivalence, shame, and discomfort with one of its most salient phenotypic racial markers--hair.

In the series, black hair is treated as both a topic of ridicule and point of black female insecurity. Martin repeatedly launches vicious, hurtful remarks about the repulsion of Pam's hair; her response is often silence. In the episode that I watched, Pam's obsession for long and straight hair culminates in the shirking of civic responsibility and mismanagement of money. In fact, Pam risks imprisonment due to her failure to pay back-taxes because she wanted to have enough disposable income to "keep her edges tight.”

Pam 's poor decision-making and psychological discomfort with her hair forced me to think about black women, money, and the cost of our hair care. Watching the show made me ask, " Are we that bad? How much money do we really spend on our hair?”

Art Imitating Life There is no shortage of beauty salons in black neighborhoods. Walk by any beauty salon on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. You'll see it packed. Brimming with black women waiting to have their hair permed, braided, twisted, locked, cut, conditioned, and extended. Buying. Comparing--the miracle products, best ointments, and sworn-by treatments. Talking. Scrutinizing. Stressing--its "goodness", "badness", length, texture, strength, and beauty. Hair. Nappy-headed. Hair. Picky-headed. Hair. Bald-headed. Hair.

Hair, a biological component of the human body, as are nail beds, gum tissue, and earlobes, is nonetheless considered an indicator of identity, beauty, and femininity in the African-American community. This socio-cultural phenomenon also has a financial bottom line. Black Hair Care is a multi-billion dollar industry with annual estimated profit levels over $4 billion.

As a community, however, we chiefly contribute to it as consumers and customers, not owners and investors.

Beauty Ain't Cheap

Some of our favorite styles are some of our costliest. —hundreds, if not thousands of dollars annually. Take a minute to crunch the numbers and when you do, consider the following:

For Weaves and Braids
  • the number of packs of hair you will need for your head
  • the type hair you want ( synthetic vs. human)
  • how often you want the weave or braids redone
  • the labor that your stylist charges you
For Perms
  • the cost and frequency of a retouch (for perms)
  • the cost and frequency of a wash & set (for perms) 

For Locs
  • the cost of one-time fee for beginning locs
  • the cost and frequency of streaming, deep conditioning, and styling 

Don’t forget to tack on the cost of hair products, accessories, tip, food, transportation and childcare!

I Am Not My Hair There is constant pressure placed on us to conform to white societal norms and visual expectations. When we do not, we are targeted. Remember when Don Imus made that "nappy-headed hoes" reference when describing the appearance of young, female, black scholars and athletes at Rutgers University? Remember when Glamour Magazine staff member publicly expressed a deep disdain for the presence of afros in the professional setting? Yes. These are among the innumerable reminders of institutional terrorism we confront daily.

But if this, and any comments from the peanut galleries in our families and our social circles, are keeping us from harnessing our personal agency to either shift to a more cost effective style or downsize a current hair care regimen, I want to remind you (and myself) that we, like India Arie says, are not our hair. And if the cost of your hair is causing you to pull a Pam move--- keeping you in a salon and in debt--- and unable to live your juiciest life, unable to be your juiciest self, give yourself permission to make that change, no matter how uncomfortable and frightening it may be. Give yourself permission to be courageous. Give yourself permission to invest your money and time into things that may matter to you more like travelling with friends, pursuing a passion, starting a business, slashing debt, returning to school, or crossing off an item on your ‘bucket’ list.

Kara Stevens blogs at FabulousNFrugal.com. This blog is an online home for all things girl power, wealth management, and juicy living for women-of-color.

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