After experiencing a luxury white hair salon, a black women’s hair salon and a Jamaican barbershop, I know which one I like best
As a black woman, ‘white’ hair salons were one of those places I saw every day but had never stepped foot inside — kind of like the gents’ toilets or a betting shop. Last summer, however, I finally checked one out when I accompanied my friend to her high-end hair salon near Oxford Street. And what an experience it turned out to be.
While my friend got highlights and a trim, the staff plied me with pink prosecco and invited me to kill time on the wash basin massage chair. A back rub while getting rinsed? What divine service was this? I fell asleep in the throes of ecstasy. Two hours later I tottered out of that salon feeling relaxed and thoroughly shit-faced.
But I’d still only rate it 5/10 because without the alcohol and massage, that salon would have been the dullest experience ever. Compared to a black hairdressers, the atmosphere and conversation (“Going anywhere nice on holidee?”) were woefully tepid, even if the service was top notch.
Now dissolve and cut to my former Afro-Caribbean salon in south London. Nobody offers you alcohol or a back rub, but you do get first-rate entertainment: cute kids run around the place while some West Indian guy tries to sell you knock-off DVDs and African-American romance novels. Over in the corner, a customer wearing white knee-length leather boots is getting her hair lacquered to her skull, making her look like an extra from the Merry Ol’ Land of Oz.
So much visual stimulation and frank conversations. Yet I always needed to take a deep breath before entering the place. Why? Well, let me describe a typical session:
You settle on a particular salon because it’s the only one within range of your house. The staff know this. Consequently, appointments are overbooked, meaning you are forced to wait a full hour after arrival before anyone attends to you.
Because getting one’s hair straightened is a dangerous procedure, it makes for a very tense occasion. Your stylist (who doesn’t give two shits about your hairline) will slap on the relaxer cream and then abandon you to attend to another customer, leaving life-threatening chemicals cooking in your hair. Your scalp starts tingling.
WHERE is that hairdresser? You’re clutching your phone, wondering whether you should call an ambulance instead. This is a place where ‘relaxed’ is a state of hair, not a state of mind.
At rinse o’clock they will sit you down at washbasins so wobbly they endanger your third vertebra. The water temperature fluctuates wildly. Then you settle beneath a dryer that is slightly too hot. And as you sweat in a steamy, ammonium-tinged haze, you stare and stare and stare at that wall poster of the model with the feather cut. Your head hurts, but you’re not sure what’s causing it. The tight rollers? Or the B-side hip-hop pounding out of the speakers?
After the dryer there’s a half-hour wait before someone finally takes your rollers out. But just as you get really pissed off, your chubby stylist entertains you with stories about his extra-marital affair. Mid-way, he pauses to scold his junior colleague for spending too long on her lunch break.
“I haven’t even had lunch,” he tells her.
“Coz you don’t need to when you’re so fat,” she retorts.
Now I’m not fattist, but I find insolence — when directed at anyone other than myself — hilarious. Trying not to laugh when you’re sat in front of a mirror staring at your stylist’s outraged reflection is hard. You can’t fake a cough and walk away. You can’t even shake.
Finally, your hair is finished. A session that should have lasted two hours ends up taking six and… well… you don’t share your stylist’s ‘vision’, to put it politely. You avoid looking at the mirrors.
With excess hair oil trickling down your temples, you head for the till to pay your bill, wondering where your precious Saturday has gone, while counting the six hours, £80 and several hair follicles you’re never getting back. This is why I chopped off my hair some years ago. I needed to regain control of my weekend schedule, not to mention my finances and my sanity. I’ve never looked back.
Now I get my grade one at a barbershop in Stockwell. It’s filled with Jamaican men bellowing to each other in Patois about the latest Chelsea FC game. There’s no massage chair or prosecco, but they play reggae and decent hip-hop and — praise Jeezus — there’s Sky Sports on the telly. My barber, who thinks I need a husband, has been sulking ever since I rejected his offer. Things are awkward between us but at least I’m out of there within 20 minutes. And I pay just £8.
Now that’s what I call a perfect hair care experience.